The Maldives: Why does this exotic spot produce a disproportionate number of jihadi fighters?

“Discover the sunny side of Life: Sunny all year long, Waves like nowhere else, Underwater beauty like paradise! Visit Maldives for a perfect holiday.”

Ah, the Maldives -- the ultimate exotic tropical beach vacation, or so the above pitch for tourist dollars promises. Public relations is what it is, but judging by the photos I've seen (I've never visited), the Maldives may live up to all that’s promised.

Unfortunately, the Indian Ocean island nation may now have to add a discreet asterisk to its pitch.

Because once again, there’s trouble in paradise. And once again, the problem is growing Islamic radicalism and the threat of terrorism.

This recent piece from The New York Times lays it out.

MALÉ, Maldives -- This island paradise made news recently for a reason other than its pristine beaches and high-end resorts: the gruesome killing of a liberal blogger, stabbed to death by multiple assailants.
The killing in April of Yameen Rasheed, 29, a strong voice against growing Islamic radicalization, has amplified safety concerns -- particularly for foreign tourists, a highly vulnerable group and one that the islands’ economy depends on. It is no idle threat, in a country that by some accounts supplies the world’s highest per-capita number of foreign fighters to extremist outfits in Syria and Iraq.
Last summer, the government introduced the country’s first state policy on terrorism, calling for increased safety awareness at resorts and security assessments at seaports and in airports. In January, the Republic of Maldives’ Islamic Ministry released policy recommendations that included a provision instructing tourism companies to provide visitors with written rules on how to conduct themselves in a Muslim country
But critics say these initiatives are cosmetic, doing little to standardize safety policies, and have come only after international stakeholders pressured the Maldivian authorities to acknowledge the threat extremism poses to visitors.

I'm guessing relatively few Americans can find the Maldives on a map, and that even fewer have visited. (Most tourists are visitors from China and Europe.)

So why care about the woes of a small nation of less than 400,000 people scattered across some 1,200 atoll islands -- one that may, it seems, as well be a universe away from Main Street, USA?

Well, did you notice the last sentence in the second paragraph of the Times excerpt above?

Let me repeat the pertinent part. The Maldives "… by some accounts supplies the world’s highest per-capita number of foreign fighters to extremist outfits in Syria and Iraq."

I find it curious that this small Sunni Muslim nation (the Maldives has evolved from being Hindu and then Buddhist prior to Islam becoming the dominate faith) -- while undoubtedly poor by Western standards and wholly dependent upon the tourist trade -- should produce so many radicalized young (in the main) men.

Scribes, what can we take away from this that might contribute to our understanding of the larger, global rise in Islamic radicalism and its end point, violent terrorism?

I’d start the parsing process by considering local government corruption and authoritarian policies. Then I’d look at whether Saudi Arabia, via lavish spending, has managed to spread its ultra-conservative brand of Islam, as it has across the Muslim world, plays a large role.

Sure enough, both factors are at play in our island paradise.

Here’s a piece from The Guardian on the Maldives government’s decision to quit the British Commonwealth rather than clean up its act after it was criticized by the Commonwealth for corruption and human rights abused.

And these two pieces from The New York Times -- click here and then here -- attest to the Saudis’ desire to spread their influence.

It seems to me that we as journalists and, speaking for myself, as non-Muslim Westerners, would do well to consider the degree to which government corruption and political repression fuel Islamic radicalism, in the Maldives and elsewhere. That seems more helpful than simply subscribing to the belief that the very nature of Islam itself, its core beliefs, accounts for the entirety of the problem.

So might things improve in the Maldives?

Well, not likely, if climate change turns out to be as challenging as many predict.

That’s because the Maldives is the world’s worst positioned nation in terms of its height above sea level. It's average ground level is just a shade under five-feet above sea level; the highest point on the islands is less than eight feet above sea level.

Maldivian officials have warned for the better part of a decade that if the sea surrounding the nation rises unabated, its entire population may have to evacuate.

Way ahead of this sort of mass displacement, climate change-caused sea level increases are already impacting the Maldives’ tourist business.

This all means that the archipelago known as the Maldives could become better known to American journalists and news consumers in the years ahead -- not for the beauty of its beaches but for how its young men (and probably some women) act out their growing frustrations.

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