In times of lockdowns and home office, people yearn for beautiful holiday destinations. Not only in Europe, the Maldives with hundreds of white-beached islands and bright-blue waters are the materialisation of paradise imaginations and as such prominent target of lockdown-induced desire.
But like many other tourism-depended countries, the Maldives are faced with a severe crisis due to the spread of COVID-19 and its detrimental impact on international mobility. Many of the hundreds of resorts are confronted with an existential threat and with them the livelihood of most Maldivians. Sixteen years ago, the islands state faced the destruction of its economy by another natural disaster, when the tsunami hit the region in 2004. While the economy, resorts and infrastructure could be rebuilt, the tsunami has led to more permanent destructions in the society. Despite the ethnically, linguistically and religiously – all citizens are Muslims by law – homogenous society, the developments after the tsunami have allowed for the worsening of the society’s social cohesion. Narratives and the framing of the natural disaster as Allah’s punishment for lacking religiosity and un-Islamic behaviour have motivated the change of life-style of entire island-communities. Radical and intolerant interpretations of Islam had accompanied the influx of transnational Islamic aid organisations, spread into the hit society and accelerated a global trend of Muslim radicalisation, which had gained momentum in the Maldives already in the 1990s. The rifts within the Maldivian society deepened, pitting adherents of a Maldivian, locally and culturally bound Islam against adherents of fundamentalist, mostly Wahhabi, interpretations of Islam. A third faction, the secularists, also became part of the increasingly violent contentious politics in the Maldives.
These inner-societal tensions were influenced by transnational and international agents. Certain Maldivians were linked to terrorist organisations in Pakistan, later to al Qaeda, some were arrested for plotted attacks in India and elsewhere, and a comparatively high number of Maldivians – men and women alike – joined the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Lately, Saudi Arabia and China have invested heavily in the Maldives and furthermore supported factions of the society who are politically conducive for their vying for influence in the militarily and economic strategically placed country.
Since then, the societal and political faultlines run along inner-Muslim and religious-secular discrepancies. Moderates and seculars frequently confront fundamentalists in arguments about hudud punishments in the country, like stoning to death for adultery, and increasingly became target of violent attacks by Islamist groups.
Throughout subsequent rather authoritarian and repressive regimes, the radical Islamic forces have gained in influence and support, often political dissent was expressed through religious arguments and the challenging of the opponent’s religious credentials. The tables, however, were turned with the 2018 presidential election which unexpectedly brought the democratic and religiously moderate forces to power. The new government went after violent Islamist groups and sought to counter the spread of fundamentalist, intolerant and violence-promoting preaching. Despite increased attacks by Islamists as response to these efforts since then, the government appeared to be on a good way to provide the needed framework for bringing together the opposing realms of the society.
And then came COVID-19.
The virus is claimed to have reached the Maldives in March 2020. After an initial confinement of the spread to a tourist island, the virus has reached the capital Male – one of the most densely populated cities in the world. The opportunity for societal solidarity, which a crisis of this kind may bears, is actively hampered by Islamist forces in the country. Like in other countries, Islamists in the Maldives have begun to translate and spread COVID-related IS propaganda, but also have adapted their narratives to local conditions. Through different social media channels, it is claimed that the virus is a punishment by Allah for un-Islamic behaviour – just like it was done with the tsunami.
The narratives target members of the society, who do not share the same fundamentalist believes of Islam or who consider themselves as seculars. As in other cases all over the world, the apocalyptic narrative of Islamist organisations allows for further mobilisation by presenting the virus as part of the world’s demise and now as the last opportunity to join. But they also target the tourist industry, which, together with those sectors linked to it, makes up about two thirds of the GDP. The country’s Islamists reject tourism to the Maldives, particularly from Western countries, and claim its promotion of un-Islamic behaviour. Since the enormous Chinese investments and the treaties signed following the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Chinese tourists also have become target of rejection. Physical attacks on tourists have increased with the expansion of radical Islam in the country and shall impact international tourists’ decisions to go to the Maldives for holiday.
The tourism-linked resentments of the local population, particularly those who do not benefit from tourism directly, point to another rift within the society. While some Maldivians remain unemployed and poor, others benefit significantly from the expensive holidays. And while these differences play into the mobilisation capacity of radical and criminal fringes of the society, they are largely glossed-over by religious rhetoric. The Islamists’ channelling of grievances about the economic situation through religion can furthermore turn them into powerful political agents.
At the same time, the government’s focus on the pandemic and its concentration of capacities on the fight against COVID-19 provides favourable conditions for inner-societal violence, at least for hit-and-run attacks.
The interplay of societal conflict, transnational links, narratives and propaganda and the state’s attention elsewhere has recently enabled an attack on several government-owned boats, among them an ambulance. While this has not been the first attack on boats in the Maldives, this one has been the first for which the IS has claimed responsibility. The societal relations in the Maldives for long have been influence from outside, but with IS establishing on the archipelago state, the hopes for overcoming societal conflict have been diminished. As such, COVID-19, just like the tsunami 2004, might harm more than Maldivians’ health.