Hassan Shifazee woke up one morning in 2008, and decided to throw away all his music CDs. He went on to quit playing football and hanging around Male’s streets with friends from the Majeedia school. Instead, he started devoting himself to religious studies, spending time with local preachers.
“Every night for three nights, he’d had a dream in which he’d seen himself in battle alongside the Prophet. That morning, he woke up crying. He took all his music CDs to the garbage dump, and began learning to recite the Quran,” recalled Saaba, Shifazee’s mother.
Last autumn, the al-Nusra Front-affiliated Bilad al-Shaam media reported that Shifazee — now bearing the alias Abu Nuh — had died fighting with Islamic State forces near Areeha, also known as Jericho. He left behind his wife Mariam and two sons, four-year-old Nuh bin Hassan and two-year-old Umar bin Hassan.
It is an increasingly common story in Maldives. And behind it lies a society torn between conflicting values, and fuelled by a toxic cocktail of drugs and gangs.
Large numbers of the estimated 200 Maldivians who have left to join IS had records of drug abuse before they turned to hardline Islamism.
The last known Maldivian to die in combat in Syria — Fuvahmulak island resident Ahmad Munsif — had multiple drug-related run-ins with police, and in 2012 spent time in prison for attempting to assault a police officer. His time with Islamic clerics, though, led him to clean up. In October 2014, he headed to the Islamic State with his wife, Suma Ali.
“He told me he felt ashamed of his life,” a friend of Munsif, who did not wish to be identified, said. “For him, Maldives was a land of sin.” Ahmad died on March 12, a day that saw multiple Islamic State suicide bombings.
From the account of Shifazee’s family, his decision to join the jihad was ideologically driven. “Hassan did not approve of his life in the Maldives. He thought this was a godless land. He wanted to die fighting for Islam. I am proud of him,” said his father Husain.
But Shifazee’s journey was also an act of penitence. Shifazee’s friends recall a youth on the margins of Male’s street gang culture, who loved playing music and whose hero was local football hero Ali Ashfaq. He dated Mariam for years, marrying only after his religious “awakening” — and on condition that she adopt his new religious beliefs. For years after his dream, Shifazee sought to live what he believed to be a truly Islamic life — at odds with Maldives’ everyday culture.
“A brother informed me that in the Maldives, Abu Nuh (father of Nuh) was not able to stay in one job for long because if anything from that job turns out to be an obstacle in front of him and his religion, he would prefer the love of Allah and leave the job even if that job offered him satisfying pay,” his al-Nusra obituary recorded.
In early 2012, his al-Nusra obituary continued, Shifazee participated in an Islamist mob which attacked Male’s national museum. Emerging from the Dharamavanthu mosque, the mob destroyed a priceless ancient head of Buddha. The head, perhaps ironically, the only surviving part of the statue to survive terrified villagers on the island of Thodoo, who attacked it soon after it was discovered by archaeologists in 1959, believing it to be a demonic totem.
‘Live without sin’
Former heroin addict-turned-gangster-turned-sea cucumber poacher-turned professional diver ‘Sana’ — he insisted that his real name not be used in print — saw the journey close-up.
Born into a family which leads one of Male’s powerful street gangs, Sana had become a full-blown heroin addict by the time he turned 16. Late on New Year’s Eve in 2003, Sana said, he walked into a mosque, contemplating suicide and the afterlife. Instead, he met a fellow addict who’d stayed clean for three months after a religious experience.
Even though the addict who introduced him to god soon relapsed, Sana’s religious journey proved durable. “I learned to live without sin to stay away from alcohol, drugs, foreigners, even stores that stocked jeans or tights. I felt that my past was slowly being washed away,” he said.
Later that year, he moved to Himandhoo, a small island where the cleric Ibrahim Fareed had set up an Islamic mini-state modelled on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In 2004, then just 15, Sana was married to a girl chosen by the community.
His mentor on the island was Ali Jaleel, who carried out the lethal suicide-bombing at the Inter-Services Intelligence HQ in Lahore on May 27, 2009. He also knew Mohammed Faseehu, from the Laam atoll island of Dhanbidhoo, and Shifahu Abdul Wahid of the Dhiffushi island in the Kaaf atoll, who died fighting Indian troops in Kashmir in 2007.
“There were more than 50 from the island who went to Pakistan. I wanted to go too, but they told me I was too young,” he recalled.
Gangs, jail, IS
Put together, Male street gangs — Masodi, Kudahemveiru, Bosnia, Buru and Petrel — are thought to have contributed over 100 fighters to jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria. The main contact point for recruitment, police sources say, is prison, where preaching groups like Adam Shameem’s Odyssey of Dawa, Ibrahim Fareed’s Islamic Foundation, the Jamaat-ul-Bayan, and Jamaat-ul-Salaf are active.
Though Islamist preaching groups deny contact with violent jihadists, photographs show Shameem in the company of Ismail Khilath Rasheed, a jihadist now in Syria, who was earlier named for his alleged role in the attempted murder of human rights activist Ismail Abdul Rahim.
Riding the tsunami
Long a crossroads for trade across the Indian ocean, Maldives’ traditional culture had relatively relaxed attitudes to personal freedoms. In the 14th century, the great traveller and cleric Muhammad Ibn Battutah recorded his frustration at the disinclination shown by local women to cover up. “I strove to put an end to this practice and commanded the women to wear clothes, but I could not get it done,” Ibn Battutah wrote.
Islamism began to gather force in the Maldives after 2004, after the Indian ocean tsunami claimed hundreds of lives on the islands, and destroyed entire communities.
“Preachers began touring the islands, armed with cash from Islamic charities who had arrived from Pakistan and the Middle East,” said writer and analyst Yameen Rasheed. “Their message was simple: Maldivians were paying for their sins, and must atone to avoid Allah’s wrath.”
As the scholar Aishath Velezinee has recorded: “Men grew beards and hair, took to wearing loose robes and pyjamas, and crowned their heads with Arab-style cloth. Women were wrapped in black robes. Goats were imported, and fishermen gave up their vocation to become shepherds.”
The political fallout
The new Islamist campaign became a magnet for political dissent. Having risen to power three decades ago on his religious credentials from the famous al-Azhar University in Cairo, former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had used Islam as a tool of social control to marginalise his increasingly vocal democratic opponents.
His crackdown on the Islamists was ruthless: Islamists like Sheikh Fareed were banished to remote islands; some had their long beards shaved off with chilly sauce.
Ibrahim Jaleel, the coach of Maldives’ national volleyball team and Ali Jaleel’s brother, was also drawn to the Islamist message. “Everyone started laughing at me when I started growing a beard,” he recalled. “But it was the only way I could think of to express my anger with the way things were.”
Jaleel still follows an Islamist preacher — but one who practices quietism, the belief that followers should focus on inner improvement, not political praxis.
“Had my brother spoken to me, I would have asked him, how is blowing yourself up in some corner of the world going to solve anyone’s problems?” he said.
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