Mind the gap: is lack of education the main reason for extremism in the Maldives?

“Extremism spreads because extremism is being taught, not because of inadequacies in the education system,” Minister of Education Dr Musthafa Luthfy told Minivan News.

“Extremism is a form of teaching in itself, and it is being taught by some people,” Dr Luthfy said. “It is not in the schools that it is taught, but outside of them.”

He said Islamic Affairs Minister Dr Abdul Majyd Abdul Bari was right in saying yesterday that extremism might be spreading because proper religious education is missing from the curriculum.

“Proper religious education,” Dr Luthfy said, “is very difficult to define. It means different things to different people.”

The subject of Islam is taught, he noted, according to an approved formal national curriculum in Maldivian schools from primary right through secondary school.

The education system is not the reason for extremism but extremism does affect the education system, Dr Luthfy said.

“Some people don’t want students to play; some don’t want them to do art; some don’t want them to do music – some say those are activities are haraam (forbidden) in Islam.”

He also added that there have been instances where some people advocated making it a regulation for male students to wear their trousers folded up a few inches above the ankle or to make beards compulsory.

Minister of Islamic Affairs Dr Bari told Minivan in an interview yesterday that a large share of the blame for the religious extremism in the Maldives lies with the education system.

Many Maldivians who turned to extremism were those seeking religious enlightenment that the education system could not provide. They sought such knowledge abroad, and ended up in unregulated institutions such as the madhrasaas in Pakistan, Dr Bari said.

Dr Luthfy agreed that there were inadequacies in the education system that contributed to contemporary social problems.

Between leaving school and reaching adulthood most Maldivian youth spend two years without a job, a sense of direction or purpose. A large number of contemporary social problems take root during these two ‘gap years’.

Latest Education Ministry figures show that an overwhelming majority – close to seventy percent of students who sit O’level exams – fail them. Of all the students who take the exams, only a small minority go on to take A’levels.

The rest, still legally children, fall outside of the school system and remain unemployed. Minister of Education Dr Luthfy said these two years were crucial.

Keeping the children within a formal education system until they are legally adults, at the age of 18, he said, is necessary for changing the current status quo. A polytechnic will soon open in Male’ that will address the problem, Dr Luthfy said.

Plans are also underway to setup vocational training centres on several islands using resources that already exist or by establishing new ones. The training centres would be subsidised by the government, and run by private organisations, Dr Luthfy said.

While the government’s plans remain in the pipeline, Salaam School, a social project launched under her own initiative by Aminath Arif, is attempting to plug the holes. It offers the children in an educational limbo an opportunity for personal development and trains them for the job market.

“There is very little help, direction or guidance given to such children,” Arif said. “They arrive at Salaam with very little language skills, and with almost no prior career guidance. For many, it is the last hope finding a way into gainful employment.”

“It is very easy to point fingers,” she said. “We can blame the internet, or we can blame something else.”

The problem, she said, is the very ethos of the education system: “It rarely encourages children to develop their creativity, to grow into their own individuality.”

Education Ministry figures show that compared to the ‘Enlightenment disciplines’ of the West such as the social and natural sciences, almost all school leavers sat the exam in Islam. In comparison, only a quarter of the students sat exams in any of the natural science subjects.

Humanities received even less attention from students with most subjects in its disciplines getting less than one percent of the total student population of the country. And, there were more students taking the Arabic language exam than the O’Level English language.

A 2004 survey of members of extremist Islamist groups found that over 60 percent had some higher or further-level education. The survey, by Marc Sageman, also found that about three quarters of extremists came from upper- or middle-class backgrounds.

Many extremists, research has also shown, were in professional occupations such as teaching, medicine or in skilled or semi-skilled employment such as the police or the civil service when they became radicalised or joined a group with extremist ideologies.

Such recent research, as was discussed in the European Journal of Criminology, undermines the previously accepted view that “Islamic extremism can be attributed to ignorance or lack of education.”

Social identity, group loyalties, social marginalisation, discrimination against particular groups, status and personal rewards as well as perceived injustices, research has found, contribute to the radicalisation and the creation of extremists in a society.

The substantial number of Maldivian youth on their enforced ‘gap years’ are broadly perceived as a negative force within society, Aminath Arif said.

“The marginalisation of youth on most islands is endemic throughout the country,” Arif told Minivan.

She travels to islands and identifies the most needy of such youth and provide them with the opportunity to enrol at Salaam.

Such initiatives, however, are few and far between, if not non-existent. Disaffected, marginalised and with no institutional support, a vast majority of Maldivian school leavers stray in a variety of directions.

Attending the ‘schools’ of extremism, or listening to the extremism being ‘taught’, as Dr Luthfy said, might be one of them.


MP pushes no-confidence motion against Education Minister

MP for Fares-Maathodaa Ibrahim Muttalib has announced that he will file a no-confidence motion against Education Minister Dr Musthafa Luthfy over the ministry’s steering committee’s recommendation to make Islam and Dhivehi optional subjects for grades 11 and 12.

Appearing on Television Maldives’ ‘Q&A with Miqdad’ programme last night, the independent MP argued that the decision would undermine respect for religion and language among youth.

Muttalib claimed that Luthfy told him that students of Arabbiya School, which was shut down after a wall collapsed, would be transferred to other schools.

“We now believe that national education matters will not go well because of the attitude and thinking of the Education Ministry, especially Mustafa Luthfy,” he said. “So [Luthfy] should either make amends or resign.”

Muttalib, former treasurer of the religious conservative Adhaalath party, said he had drafted the motion and hoped to secure 10 signatures from MPs needed to submit a motion of no-confidence.

The decision

“Now the education minister is saying it was not his decision to change the two subjects to optional,” Muthalib said today. ”I want the minister to tell us whose idea was it then.”

Muthalib claimed that Luthfy told him last week that there was “no way” the decision could be reversed.

”If the education system implements a curriculum like this, students would be moved away from religion and mother tongue,” he said. ”I would not support such a curriculum that discourages the use of our own culture and language.”

While he could not predict how MPs would vote on the motion, Muttalib said “there are many MPs who respect religion.”


Education Ministry team
Education Ministry team

Luthfy told Minivan News today that while he had watched the TVM programme, he did not think Muttalib “was serious.”

He added that he did not want to comment on the no-confidence motion.

“It’s not true that I said in a meeting last week that there was no way the decision could be changed,” he said.”It’s not my decision. It’s only a suggestion by the ministry’s steering committee.”

Luthfy has stressed that the decision of making Dhivehi and Islam subjects elective has not been finalised.

A Curriculum Team at the Education Development Centre is currently at work on revising the national curriculum for the first time since 1984.

“Political coffin”

The Adhaalath party yesterday condemned the Education Ministry’s decision, characterising it as Luthfy putting “the final nails in his political coffin.

An angry crowd protested outside the minister’s house on Tuesday night following the Adhaalath press release.

Sheikh Hussein Rasheed Ahmed, president of Adhaalath party, said today that did not wish to comment on the no-confidence motion.

”It is not our concern,” he said. “Our problem is that Education Minister is misbehaving.”

The State Minister for Home Affairs said the party had discussed the issue with Luthfy on several occasions.

“This is a national issue.” he said. “He cannot solve a national issue on his own. He has to discuss with the cabinet, parliamentarians and senior government officials.”

Senior officials at the Education Ministry has stressed that the steering committee’s recommendation would only be implemented following cabinet deliberations.

Main parties

Opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) MP Abdulla Mausoom told Minivan News today that it was imperative that Maldivians “try to save their identity.”

“The school curriculum should also be designed in a way that would help save the country’s identity, which is religion and language,” Mausoom said. ”Dhivehi and Islam are both very important subjects.”

He added that the state had a responsibility to preserve and protect national identity and culture.

“The main reason why I do not like this government is that they never prefer to discuss any issue -and even if they did [want to] they rarely they do it- but they never would accept the recommendations and suggestions,” he said.

The MP for Kelaa said that the DRP parliamentary group will discuss the issue and decide its stance.

Meanwhile, ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Alhan Fahmy said the time had not yet come to take up the issue at parliament.

”It would be a very big issue if they were removing the two subjects from the school curriculum,” Alhan said. “But if it is optional that means any student who wishes to study it can study it. Students have the opportunity. I don’t see what all the fuss is about.”

Alhan said the issue was being blown out of proportion to serve political purposes, adding that the MDP parliamentary group had not officially discussed the matter yet.

Statistics of the Education Ministry show that of the 7,137 students who sat for the GCE O’Level examinations last year, only 32 per cent passed in five subjects, while 2,284 students qualified for higher secondary education.