It is hard to overstate the impact Osama bin Laden has had on the world. Almost all major actions in international relations and warfare in the last decade were implemented either to further or to counter his ideology.
Al Qaeda’s attack on the United Stated on 11 September 2001 was driven by Osama’s belief that imperialist American foreign policies had created a world of injustice and equality for Muslims. He believed it was the duty of every Muslim to wage a holy war to correct those wrongs. His aim was to establish an Islamic Caliphate where Shari’a was the only system of law and Wahhabism or other purist forms of Islam the only forms of belief practised. In such a war, waged across the world to protect Islam and its believers, and to further its cause, Osama believed there were no innocents.
This thinking of Osama’s was what came to inform most Western definitions, policies and actions in the last decade about terrorism, Islam, and what it means to be a Muslim in the twenty first century.
Analysts have in recent years found Al Qaeda to have been virtually destroyed by the War on Terror, its network of secret cells across the world dismantled in ten years of aggressive counter-terrorism policies. It may also be the case that Osama’s death will reduce further the number of violent acts committed in the name of the Islam. It does not, however, mean that the large numbers of his followers across the world have stopped subscribing to his ideology or that they will stop doing so. Osama’s ultimate goal, the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate comprising of Islamic states that practise Shari’a and practise the form of Islam that he followed, remains alive and well. The Maldives is a case in point.
Osama in the Maldives
The Maldivian society has changed beyond all recognition in the last ten years. Some of the changes, like democracy, would have happened in due course – with or without the War on Terror. But it is difficult to accept that the other most fundamental change – manifest in the faith of the people – would not have been possible without the War on Terror and its validation of Osama as the most powerful representation of Islam.
Followers of Wahhabism, and other types of Islam, had existed in the Maldives years before the War on Terror. They had, however, been severely – sometimes violently – oppressed by former President Gayoom. They stayed on the fringes of society, widely seen as ‘odd’, often mocked. In the early 1990s when four women opted to wear the full buruqa, it was rare enough an occurrence to be newsworthy. Ten years later, it is the woman without some sort of a buruga that has become the oddity. The War on Terror, and its focus on Osama’s ideologies as representing Islam, made it possible for such groups to come out of the shadows. Whether the state recognised their beliefs as legitimate or not mattered no longer; their identities were not limited to the national anymore – there was the Ummah.
Emboldened by the mainstream position in Islam bestowed upon Wahhabism in the War on Terror, Maldivians who followed Osama’s ideologies and other strands of thought in Islam such as Salafism and Neo-Salafism began to come out in the open and loudly espouse their views. There were more tangible benefits such as increased funding and other forms of support from Islamic religious networks abroad – even as the War on Terror attacked the financial networks of Al-Qaeda more and more funds became available for Maldivian ‘fringe’ religious groups to increase their presence in society.
One of the most significant forms of such assistance came as educational scholarships. During the last ten years a large number of Maldivians were sent to various places of Islamic learning abroad from Madhrasaas in Pakistan to old bastions of Islamic knowledge such as the Azhar University in Egypt. A large number of them returned in the first half of the War on Terror to found religious organisations and parties. During the chaotic period of Maldivian transition to democracy in 2008, when the ruling government entered into politically opportune alliances with parties formed by such returning graduates, they gained a foothold within the structures of government that had previously been denied them.
This is not to say that every Maldivian who studied in an Islamic institute of learning is a follower of Osama’s ideologies – that would be as incorrect a generalisation as the assumption that every western educated Maldivian is a secularist, a liberal or even a democrat for that matter. What it does mean, however, is that it has put into positions of power a large number of graduates who believe in the superiority of Shari’a above all other systems of law, and are sympathetic to – if not actively engaged in – efforts to establish an Islamic state in the Maldives.
Despite outright denials by Islamic Minister Abdul Bari, evidence suggests that fringe religious movements in the Maldives did receive support from groups abroad – even if they were more organisational than financial. Many of the methods and means by which such movements flourished in the Maldives follow the same rulebook used by Al-Qaeda recruiters across the globe: targeting the most vulnerable, disaffected, and most curious in society. They gathered at mosques, recruiting young people seeking answers to questions of life, existence, and God; opened bookshops filled to the brim with their teachings in strategic locations near large schools; and actively sought out vulnerable young people feeling the most alienated and disaffected.
In the Maldives, some of the richest such pickings were available in prisons where the shambles that is the criminal justice system locks up young drug addicts, homosexuals and apostates along with murderers and rapists. Maldivian religious movements that began and flourished during this period engaged in a policy that was often more organised and more humane than what the state had to offer such prisoners. Unlike government authorities, religious groups did not abandon their recruits once they left prison.
Reliable reports from ‘defectors’ reveal that recovering addicts recruited into the movement and given jobs within the business interests of the various religious groups were allowed to keep their jobs even if they relapsed and were caught with their hand in the till. In contrast to state policies, which force drug addicts to languish in prison without help, and are released into society without any efforts of re-integration or rehabilitation, the religious movements offered a lifeline that the alienated grabbed with both hands.
One of the most unique ‘opportunities’ available only to Maldivian recruiters is the geographic composition of the Maldives. Recruitment into the cause, research has shown, is less successful when the targeted segment of the population is exposed to other forms of thinking, and when individuals within the targeted community have an existing sense of identity, belonging and nationhood. Lack of education, religious or otherwise, and isolation from much of the rest of world and its many strains of thought and ideologies made it easy for recruiters to persuade whole populations that theirs was the only and the ‘right’ belief system.
From the fringes to the centre of society
The success of Osama’s ideologies in the Maldives and its impact cannot, however, be measured by the number of Maldivians who committed acts of violence in the name of a Holy War. With a population of 300,000, Maldivians are statistically incapable of making a significant contribution to the furthering of Osama’s violent ideals. The success of his ideologies are much clearer when we count the number of Maldivians who have become convinced that minority forms of Islam, like the Wahhabism followed by Osama, are the ‘right’ forms of Islam.
It is also evident from the number of Maldivian Muslims who follow the same thoughts that now occupy positions of power within the newly democratic government. The Adhaalath Party, which distances itself publicly from the violence advocated by Osama, nonetheless, is pursuing many of the same goals – the establishment of a purist Islamic state in the Maldives that believes in gender inequality, practises Sharia, and contributes to Osama’s world vision of an Islamic Caliphate.
On Friday it galvanised thousands of Maldivians to march for the adoption of Shari’a as its only system of law, propagating death for death as the solution to the country’s burgeoning problem of gang violence. It has also advocated the view that any member of parliament that votes against a decision to implement Shari’a and the death penalty would be deemed apostates. Various prominent members of Adhaalath, and other Islamic parties and groups in the Maldives following the agenda, have displayed the same Anti-Semitism that drove Osama, equating Israel and Zionism with Judaism and placing the blame for the Palestinian situation solely and squarely on the shoulders of every follower of the religion.
‘Winning the hearts and minds of Muslims’ was a strategy employed by both sides of the War on Terror. Globally, despite the death of Osama, there is no clear winner. In the Maldives, the struggle appears more or less over: followers of Osama’s goal of an Islamic Caliphate are winning hands down; and are leading Maldivians, like Pied Piper, towards an Islamic state that would have made Osama proud.
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