Volume 21 Issue 4 April 2017


Whoever chooses a person, whoever it may be, and constantly and steadfastly agrees with him in speech and action, then he is of: “those who have divided their religion and become sects.”

— [Al-Quran 30:32]

“Attaching yourself obsessively to a single group/school/scholar shackles your mind, causes your heart to develop hatred for other Muslims, forbids you from benefitting from the various scholars of this Ummah, and does away with your impartiality in discussing issues. Stick to the rope of Allah and do not be divided.”

— Shaykh Omar Suleiman

Followers of the Islamic faith, one of the world’s major religions, who introduce themselves by the sect’s name despite clear injunctions of the Holy Quran and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to maintain unity and refrain from creating sub-groups, are all referred to as the Muslim Ummah by other nations. All these sub-groups emerge from three principal divisions: Sunni, Shia and Kharijite with Sunni and Shia comprising the main groups. Unfortunately, with the exception of very basic tenets, none of these sects are in harmony or see eye to eye with each other on issues pertaining to Islamic principles and jurisprudence.

Politically too, Saudi Arabia, considered as one of the richest countries on earth, is a predominantly Wahabi Sunni proponent. Its arch rivals and again, an economically stable country, is Iran which represents the Shia division. Since both have money, they play an influential role in the lives of those living in other countries that have sympathies with their beliefs. However, it would be an understatement if Saudi Arabia’s power is imagined as anything but second to none. Undoubtedly, many countries in the Muslim bloc would be very glad to welcome Saudi support in whatever form, in return for acquiescence to its subtle demands of adopting the Wahabi way.

The Maldives has traversed in history from being Buddhist country to converting to Islam in the 12th century AD. Islam is now the country’s state religion but the country also boasts of a mixed population comprising Buddhists, Christians and Hindus. Until recently, religion was neither a significant dominating force in state politics nor were the people very orthodox in practice, but with the growing Saudi influence, the seeds of Wahabism along with fundamentalist inclinations have begun to be sown in the social environment of the Maldives. These have gradually sprouted, watered by preachers enjoying monetary backing from the Saudis, especially in the aftermath of the devastating tsunami of 2004. Consequently, the Maldivians have moved from liberalism to a more conservative, traditional and ritualistic Islamic way within a short span of ten years. The Saudi influence emerged, according to both The Guardian and the Financial Times, in the form of at least 200 stalwarts joining either Al-Qaida or the Islamic State of Iraq & Syria (ISIS), and have probably set examples for future aspirants.

President Abdullah Yameen took over the government in November 2013 and since then he has not refrained from increasing ties with Saudi Arabia. These were already set in place by his Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Yameen’s key targets for foreign policy include “protecting the Islamic unity of the country and promoting Islamic characteristics internationally.” Generous funds, both personal and official for building mosques and health projects, are being doled out to the Maldives in return for strengthening religious unity in the country. The government initiated its pledge to introduce Arabic lessons in schools as part of a drive to “increase Islamic learning in the country.” In other words, the Maldivian government appears totally overwhelmed by Saudi overtures even if this means boosting religious extremism, lack of tolerance for other religions and, above all, unconsciously pushing the country towards a unique form of subjugation where dictation by the superior is tacitly accepted without compromising one’s political sovereignty. Consequently, there is a tendency to adopt all those tenets which are the hallmarks of the superior force.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia professes an extremely conservative and orthodox version of Islam which, among other things, has no scope for active participation of women alongside men and does not provide healthy entertainment in the form of recreation for all as done by its neighbours like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, Qatar and Kuwait. Members of the public who can afford it, travel to either these countries or to distant lands to derive some pleasurable moments without the fear of the Mutawi, the Islamic religious police.

The Maldives, with its moderate climate, deep blue ocean, beautiful sandy beaches and a highly hospitable population that greets tourists with open arms, has tremendous attraction for those who want to just lose themselves to fun and frolic. The fact that Islam is the state religion is all the more agreeable to Muslim visitors for whom availability of halal food is an important consideration to select a tourist destination. No wonder, the Saudi Arabian crown prince booked three islands for a whole month in early 2014, much to the annoyance of foreign holidaymakers whose bookings were cancelled because of this. With the petro dollars that the Saudis are blessed with and a destination which is so easily accessible, it is hardly surprising that they are showing such keen interest in making their presence felt in the Maldives.

While the Maldives may boast of overwhelming tourist traffic, the fact remains that it is faced with a fiscal deficit averaging 14% of its gross domestic product (GDP) which, by itself, is quite alarming. With minimal resources for generation of revenue, the government is left with hardly any choice to manage their finances other than looking towards countries like Saudi Arabia for the much-needed support. Grant of soft loans by the Saudi government, building of 10 mosques by the Saudi crown prince and a 100 million dollars holiday resort by Best Choice property company, are some of the moves that have helped to create very cordial relations between the Maldives and Saudi Arabia. But what if this closeness is at the expense of creating a Sunni-Shia divide that could be instrumental in leading to sectarian clashes and disrupting the peace of this otherwise serene country?

There is no denying the fact that both Sunnis and Shias, wherever they may be located around the world, have very strong religious differences and at the same time are immensely protective with respect to their beliefs. As long as they allow one another to silently observe their respective faiths, there is calm but the moment anyone or any sect tries to exert in a way that results in interference, hell can break loose. In its fervour to appease Saudi Arabia, the Maldivian government could be putting its people on the brink of disaster with its continued tilt towards Wahabism.

In the event of radicalisation and gradual drift of some youthful elements towards ISIS, the government of the Maldives needs to realize that it cannot ignore the repercussions of its violent extremism, playing politics with the aid of such groups and political parties that are overtly prone to radical Islamization. It should also be remembered that the Maldivian population of 373,992 with a density of 1253 per square kilometre spread over a total land area of 300 square kilometres, cannot be subjected to either being torn apart or subjected to the potential risk of sectarian clashes.

The writers, lawyers and partners in HUZAIMA & IKRAM, are Adjunct Faculty at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).


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