Award 2017 Nominee
Destination Paradise: Among the jihadists of the Maldives
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Many Western tourists don’t even notice that this is a Muslim country. But in fact, the Maldives are the non-Arab country with the highest number of foreign fighters per capita: 200, more or less, out of 400,000 inhabitants. The government denies it. But each and every one has a brother or cousin in Syria. While the rest of the world watched the Olympics in August, everyone here was watching the battle of Aleppo. And rooting for al-Qaeda.
In theory, the Maldives are an archipelago of 1192 islands. But for the Maldivians it is just one island: Male. The islands contain only a couple of shops and one school. Plus a tiny football pitch. Sometimes they don’t even have electricity. For whatever you need, you come to Male. It may look like a town like a thousand others, but it covers 5.8 square kilometers, has 130,000 inhabitants and a real population which is double that: in Male every nook and cranny is inhabited.
Walking along one of the main avenues, the Buruzu Magu, I sneak into a gap, every bit a post-card view – a blue house, a green and a yellow one. At the end there’s a spiral staircase. There are five living behind the first door to the right, nine behind the first on the left, behind the second one they are all immigrants from Bangladesh – just one room with 18 living in it, sleeping in shifts. In the next house, behind a door made out of a plank of rotten plywood, mother and daughter are chatting in the dark, and next to them, on some worn-out matting there’s a old woman, also worn-out, wheezing and groaning, her wispy grey hair looking like the filaments of a burnt-out light-bulb. There are 16 of them living here in a heap of rags and worn-out shoes, the walls patched up with jute and sheets of corrugated iron and the stench of bodies hangs in the air. The kitchen is a camping-stove. There are no tables, chairs, nothing in the rooms, not even windows and everything is just thrown together in a jumble, the washing hanging from the ceiling to dry. On the wall there’s a plasma television acquired at the last elections in return for a vote. The average monthly wage here is 8,000 rufiyah, 470 euros. The rent, for three rooms, is 20,000 rufiyah.
Kinaan grew up in a house like this. With six people in one room, with their parents constantly fighting. The sea was their shower. He’s 31 now and he is the most notorious, and feared criminal in Male. Hang out with him and everybody will stand aside. Male is divided by about thirty gangs, each one with 50 to 500 members. We are talking one tenth of the inhabitants at most: a fifth of all young people. In the first and most recent study on street violence, in 2009, 43% of the interviewees said that they didn’t feel safe, not even in their own houses.
Kinaan ended up in prison, for the first time when he was 15. For getting into a fight. Ever since he was 17 he’s been a heroin-addict and an alcoholic. Even now, to make ends meet, he still sells drugs. “Because here no-one gives you a second chance”, he says. “I’m prepared to do any kind of work, but nobody ever wanted to take me on. Not even as an unloader down at the port. Sooner or later we all get arrested, and all of us for drugs, because when you live ten to a room, the truth is you are living in the street. Male is a hell-hole, you have no future, nothing: and alcohol is forbidden. Heroin costs a lot less than a vodka. And the crazy thing is that sentences are really harsh. Steal a mango and you risk is getting a year in jail and being branded for life. But at the same time, there’s zero tolerance: because we’re in the service of politicians. With a price-list too. 1200 dollars for breaking a shop-window, 1600 for mugging a journalist. You get hired for anything, from distributing leaflets to knifing someone. So if they want it, if you can be of use to them, they’ll get you out of prison”. Kinaan has been convicted twice, but has never served time. Like his friend Naaif. And so what do you do for a living? I ask him. “I’m doing 25 years of prison”, he laughs.
Kinaan has been trying to change his life for ten years now. So now he’s taken things into his own hands and decided to give himself a second chance: he has decided to go to Syria. “It’s not difficult. Nobody stops you. They have every interest in getting rid of us, we have committed all their crimes for them, we know all their secrets. And we all want to leave. Anything is better than Male”.
“In Syria, if I’m killed, at least it’ll be for a good reason”.
For many here Syria is an economic and moral opportunity: a sort of deliverance. The only thing stopping Kinaan is that he’s trying to save his brother Humam. After a sixty-year moratorium, the death penalty has been reinstated. And Humam is top of the list, accused of having knifed a member of parliament. He retracted his confession, maintaining that it was given under police pressure, and above all, according to Amnesty International, that he has shown frequent signs of mental disturbance. But the fact remains that he is the mere executor of what is clearly a political homicide. Afrasheem Ali was a presidential candidate and Maumoon Aboul Gayoom, who had been president of the Maldives for thirty years, from 1978 to 2008, and is to this day still considered to be the father of the country, had declared that his party would support the candidate with the best credentials in terms of Islam. Afreesh Ali then, rather than Abdulla Yameen, the current president.
But one evening, on his way home, Afrasheem Ali was killed.
Apart from reintroducing the death-penalty, the new criminal code, for the first time, a year ago, officialised the sharia. But here in the Maldives Islam has always been political, not just a religion. When Gayoom came to power, the Maldives were an archipelago of fishermen in the wild. Because in actual fact, they are not at all a paradise; they don’t even have a freshwater spring. Gayoom had done his studies at al-Azhar university in Cairo: at the time, his word for the Maldives was less that of a president than the word of God. It was Gayoom who had the idea of creating resorts, tourism at $5,000 a night. It was a way of modernizing the country: but also of controlling it. By concentrating the population in Male – and, above all, preventing any contact with other cultures. Only 199 of the 1192 islands are inhabited and 111 are resorts: but there’s no interaction between them. Not even within the resorts themselves. Once finished their shift, employees are forbidden from hanging around. Moreover, the resorts have been built by foreign entrepreneurs. The law stipulates that they must be in partnership with a Maldivian; a Maldivian who is obviously – in general – a friend of a politician. Or a politician himself. In the Maldives 5% of the population owns 95% of the wealth.
Moreover, every opponent is no mere opponent: he is an infidel. As the 38 year-old Shahindha Ismail, head of Democracy Network, the main human rights organization, says: ‘They have politicized religion and sacralised politics’.
Even the tsunami in 2004 was interpreted as God’s punishment. Many videos are shown in which the water washes away everything in its path on an island – except for the mosque.
The result is that today many young lads, very many of them, are like Iyaas. On their way to Syria. Iyaas is a thin 22 year-old, humble-looking, almost ascetic, in flip-flops, jeans and a mandarin-collar shirt that looks a bit like a tunic. And with a beard three or four centimeters long. A quiet, shy lad. But prepared: he has saved up almost $3,000 for the journey – by selling hashish. He’s never been outside the Maldives. Now though he has a portable with all the maps of Turkey and knows everything about the front. Less about Syria: its complexity, the clashes between rebels, the looting and smuggling – even if it’s not really Syria he’s going to: as he tells you: “I am going to paradise”. What do you expect to find there? I ask him. He has no doubt about that: “Brotherhood”. A new life. A different life. “A society in which we are all men and not vultures and carrion like here, where everyone takes advantage of each other. Why do you think you don’t believe in anything” he tells me, “in fact you do believe, you believe in the world as it is. You believe as much as I do”.
When it comes to the Islamic state in which he would like to live, more than anything he knows what it should not be. But Aiham laughs when I tell him that back home it’s said that foreign fighters do not know what Islam really is. When I tell him about the English boy who bought himself an ABC of the sharia at the airport: “No Muslim, unless he is an imam, would ever define himself as an expert on Islam”, he says. “But the Koran begins with the words: ‘Study…’. Then he looks at me and says: “Like Kant, no? Sapere aude.” He is 20 years old and looks what he is: a student, a brilliant one too: jeans, a T-shirt and a shoulder-bag. Sharia faculty. “Islam is justice. We could be like Switzerland, but instead here everything is a question of favours. If you fall ill, you knock on the president’s door and they’ll pay for you to get treatment abroad. Which is the reason for nobody rebelling. That’s how everybody settles their problems here. “We are not citizens, but beggars”. So why not, I ask him, start with the Maldives? “We are Muslims. We are a single community. And Syria is simply the top priority. It would be strange if it were otherwise – that with 500,000 dead we should start thinking more about ourselves than Syria”. His role-model, after Mohammed, is Malcolm X.
That said, in the Maldives he would have his work cut out for him. Only Muslims here can be citizens, at school Islam is the main subject, and five times a day the shops close for prayers: even if the employees stay inside drinking coffee. They don’t go to the mosque. Ditto with alcohol: it’s forbidden, but sold at the Island Hotel bar, next to the airport. All you need is the money to pay for it. Even a judge of the Supreme Court was filmed inside with two prostitutes.
However, if you’re a woman, any woman for that matter, and have extra-marital sex, you will be whipped in public before the court.
None of this, however, happens to tourists. Not even those who choose the guesthouse option, a recent idea of Mohamed Nasheed, who in 2008 succeeded Gayoom in the first democratic elections in the history of the Maldives. Unlike the resorts, the guesthouses are located on the inhabited islands. So they not only bring in a bit of income, but break with cultural isolation: the guesthouse option means that in theory you are living alongside the Maldivians. The first one opened on Maafushi, a two-hour ferry ride from Male. Four lost-looking Neapolitans are wandering around what the signs call “bikini beach”, the beach for foreigners. They’ve been here since yesterday, two separated businessmen, one with his two twenty-year old sons. They had no idea that the Maldives were a Muslim country. And a den for ISIS, I tell them. ‘Jesus!’ Andrea exclaims, opening his eyes wide. Then he says to his friend: “Guagliò, did you hear that? ISIS is here. Not a single woman to be had”.
In point of fact there is nothing on Maafushi, nothing at all. In 2012 Nasheed was ruined by a coup d’état, and this is the way the present government tries to make life difficult for the guesthouses: they levy the same taxes as in the resorts in which a double room costs not $100, but $1000 a night, with zero investment in the islands. Apart from the beach, Maafushi has only a couple of cafés. “The evening’s only entertainment is the crab-race”, says a disconsolate Andrea. You pay for the brand and that’s it. Just to say you’ve been to the Maldives”. At sundown, one of the two boys, wanders bare-chested around the minimarket checking out every bottle of fruit-juice in a desperate search for beer. He hasn’t discovered yet that in fact there is beer: there’s a boat moored off the coast which sells alcohol. But on Maafushi no-one sells it: there the Koran is respected. We are in front of the mosque. The men glower at him. He understands what I’m thinking, “It’s hot”, he says. “And I’ve got salt all over my skin. My T-shirt sticks to me”. A woman in a niqab comes past, embarrassed. “Blimey, you’re as ugly as sin”, he says. “Who would want you?”. Her husband looks on. “Tinatill”.
Very many women wear the niqab. Completely covered and completely in black. “You know”, Mariyath Mohamed, a thirty year-old journalist tells me, “this type of Islam, so extreme, is not traditional, it’s an innovation”. Same as in Gaza and Baghdad. Thirty years ago nobody was veiled”. Here in the Maldives, Islam was grafted onto Buddhism. Even though there was an assault on the national museum in 2012 and its statues were demolished by hammer-blows, all you have to do is go into one of the older mosques. They used to be temples: the position of Mecca was put there on the floor afterwards, installed diagonally. But then Gayoom came along. And not only him. “A couple of years after that, all those who, after 1967, after the Six Day War and the defeat of Nasser – the secular Arabs who had gone to study in Saudi Arabia – came along too. They were a danger to Gayoom and his ideological monopoly. So they ended up in prison. They were tortured and killed – and turned into heroes. To many they represented not Islam, but opposition to the regime.” Then, he continued, came the tsunami. And now, “this other tsunami – which is Syria”.
But for the government, fundamentalism does not exist. At the news of the first two Maldivians killed in Syria in 2014, President Yameen rejected any responsibility. “We have always urged our compatriots abroad to behave themselves”, he declared.
“The government tries to avoid clashes, but actually shares certain ideas. Like everyone else”, says a young lawyer I’ll call Anaan. He is one of the most renown human rights activists of the Maldives. But he is also Iyaas’ best friend.
And they are very close. Even so, he’s not trying to stop him. “I can’t judge his choice. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just a lost battle”, he says. It is not, that is, a wrong war in itself: for Aneen it is wrong only because it is doomed to defeat. He is looking to do a PhD in Europe. “You can’t study here in the Maldives. Quite literally, the tourists have a whole island to themselves and yet we don’t have a single quiet corner to concentrate on a book. Then, every so often, they turn up in front of your house and photograph your poverty, calling it folklore. Just look where we are”, he says. We are standing on Male beach, which is artificial, and poisoned, moreover, by hospital waste. “We don’t even have the sea left. What alternatives do we have? If you come from a rich family, you go and study abroad. Otherwise you go to Syria.”
Kinaan is still ready to leave. To assist the oppressed, he clarifies. Not to exterminate the infidel. “One of the gangs is called Bosnia. I wonder how many, one day, will be called Aleppo”.