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.