Political chaos in the Maldives, security services across the region fear, could open the way for a resurgent Islamist movement.

The young man in the striped brown t-shirt had patiently waited his turn to put a question at a giant gathering the Mumbai-based neo-fundamentalist preacher Zakir Naik addressed in Malé on May 28, 2010. “I'm a Maldivian”, Mohamed Nazim said, “[but] I am not a Muslim”. He demanded to know what Dr. Naik believed ought be his punishment under shari'a law.

Little in his long career as a televangelist appeared to have prepared Dr. Naik for the young atheist's surprise attack. The Maldives, Dr. Naik said, seeking to avoid the question, was not an Islamic state. Faced with persistent questioning, the preacher finally said that the punishment for apostates who advocated their new faith was death. “Being smart is good”, the exasperated preacher said, “being extra-smart is not good”.

In the next few weeks, Mr. Nazim would learn the hard way that the televangelist was right. Like many other young people who backed President Mohammad Nasheed in 2008, hoping he would open the way for a secular-democratic order in the Maldives, he found himself instead drowning in a rising tide of religious neo-fundamentalism. Now, with Mr. Nasheed himself swept out of office, there are mounting fears that the entire region could feel the power of the waves.

The jihad in paradise

Ever since September 2007, when a bomb targeting Chinese, Japanese and British tourists went off in Malé's Sultan Park, security experts have feared a paradise for jihadists instead of tourists. Its 1,200-plus islands are near-impossible to police, which means terrorists could use them as bases to target India's western seaboard and even Europe.

In the early 1990s, growing numbers of young Maldivians began to train at seminaries in Pakistan — and once there, found in Salafist neo-fundamentalism a language of protest against President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's authoritarianism. Men like Pakistan-trained seminarian Ali Jaleel were at the vanguard of this movement, recruiting students through networks of underground mosques and study circles. The Maldives' New Islamist movement came to be known as the “Dot Coms”, a reference to the online sources of theological resources. Mr Jaleel's faction studied the works of Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin-Laden's mentor and the Lashkar-e-Taiba co-founder.

From 2004, these networks acquired greater legitimacy — and a presence in the far-flung atolls. The Lashkar-e-Taiba's charitable wing, along with British-based Islamists like Muhammad al-Rifaee, funnelled hundreds of thousands of dollars into tsunami-hit communities — in return for their souls.

The journalist and activist Aishath Velazinee recorded that islanders were encouraged “to emulate the Arabian dress and lifestyles of the time of Prophet Muhammad”. “Men grew their beards and hair, took to wearing loose robes and pyjamas, and crowned their heads with Arab-style head-cloths. Women were wrapped up in black robes. Goats were imported, and fishermen gave up their vocation to become shepherds.”

Ali Rameez, the country's leading pop-star, embraced Salafism, renounced his music — and, in a surreal gesture, dumped surviving copies of his compact discs into the Indian Ocean.

Following the Sultan Park bombing, the Maldives security services finally acted: the Dar-ul-Khair mosque on Himandhoo atoll, from where Salafist preacher Ibrahim Fareed ran a shari'a-governed mini-state, was shut down. Illegal mosques run by Islamists in Malé were closed.

Mr. Nasheed reversed course and sought conciliation with the Salafists. Mr Fareed was released from prison after an appeal from Mr. Nasheed, and resumed preaching. Even two of the three men sentenced to 15-year prison terms for their role in the Sultan Park bombing were pardoned.

It wasn't long before this wages of that policy became evident. In 2006, Mr. Jaleel had been imprisoned on terrorism-training charges, after being arrested while boarding a Colombo-Doha flight. He was released from prison — and, in 2009, went on to participate in al-Qaeda's suicide-attack on the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate's headquarters in Lahore.

Earlier, nine Maldivians were arrested on their way to jihad training camps in Pakistan's troubled North Waziristan region — one of them a man alleged to have participated in the 2007 bombing.

Faith and conflict

Mr. Nasheed problem was this: his coalition partners, the religious-conservative Adalath Party, had played a key role in delegitimising his predecessor's long-ruling authoritarian dispensation. In the build-up to the 2008 elections, for example, Adaalath leaders had petitioned the Supreme Court, arguing Mr. Gayoom's endorsement of music meant he was “without doubt an infidel”.

Educated in Egypt's famous al-Azhar seminary, Mr. Gayoom had sustained his decades-long regime by using religion to beat down his opponents. The Maldives Constitution he authored decreed that citizens had to be Muslim; dissidents were punished as apostates. Now, it was payback time.

In return for their support, Mr. Nasheed handed the Adaalath party an Islamic affairs ministry, and downgraded the status of state-run programmes to emancipate women.

From 2008, a steady flow of Salafist preachers began landing in the Maldives. Bilal Philips, a prominent televangelist who appears on Dr. Naik's Peace TV station, provoked a furore in 2010 by saying “where heads are cut off, and hands are chopped and people are lashed, such societies enjoy peace and stability”.

In a wry 2010 commentary, the feminist Aishath Aniya responded by noting that the Maldives' “even now on islands such as Kendu in Baa Atoll, most people still leave their front doors unlocked night and day”!

How might things now go, with Mr. Nasheed's erstwhile friends on the religious right ascendant?

Key to the Maldives' problem is this: while the country's successful tourism and tuna-fishing industries had pushed annual per-capita above $5,000, and growth above 20 per cent per annum, it brought a host of social problems.

In 2002, a study estimated that 11 of every 1,000 Maldives citizens was divorced — against four in 1,000 in the United States, and 0.5 in 1,000 in Turkey, making it the worst country for marriages of 92 surveyed.

Even though tourism and fishing generated wealth, few young people were willing to work in these sectors — and there simply weren't enough blue-collar government or private-sector jobs to go around. Heroin use, UNICEF said in 2009, was booming — and the average age of addicts declining.

Ali Jaleel, who blew himself up in Lahore, represents one response to this crisis of identity. Mr. Nazim, the young atheist who stood up to Dr. Naik, is the other.

Mr. Nazim was threatened with death — and, under pressure, allowed the Islamic affairs ministry to announce to the world his renewed embrace of Islam. Even in the face of threats, though, feminists and secular-democrats have mounted trenchant resistance to the religious right. Their struggle will determine the Maldives' fate.

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