COLOMBO: The on-going propaganda that the Abdulla Yameen regime in the Maldives is actively fostering Islamic extremism, and that the Indian Ocean archipelago is turning out to be a hotbed of Islamic terrorism is Symbolise both unfounded and motivated, its diplomats in Colombo say.

Sri Lankans who have worked in the Maldives (mostly in the tourism sector and these are dime a dozen) admit that there are grounds to the charge that the Yameen government has been intolerant towards dissidents and the opposition. But they strongly refute the allegation by the West that it is promoting Islamic radicalism or that the Maldives is fast becoming a recruiting ground of Islamic terrorists.

Speaking to this correspondent, the Ambassador-designate of the Maldives in Sri Lanka, Mohamed Hussain Shareef, said that Western countries and the Western media, “irresponsibly” egged on by the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) headed by former President Mohamed Nasheed, are portraying some changes in the culture of his 100% Muslim country as “Islamic radicalization” with a potential to breed Jehadi terrorism.

“The Muslim veil and beard are portrayed as signs of growing extremism. It is regrettable that fear mongering on the issue is often led by irresponsible opposition politicians,” Shareef said.

He alleged that this pernicious and false interpretation of cultural changes is conveyed across the globe by “funded” overseas media.

Adding weight to these allegations is the recent Congressional testimony of the Acting US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Alice G.Wells.

“ The United States has real concerns about the status of rule of law and democracy in the Maldives. Lack of higher educational opportunities, high youth unemployment, rise of social media, and weak institutions all contribute to an environment in which Islamist violent extremism is on the rise,” Wells said.

“Our work with the government to combat violent extremism remains critically important, in a country with a grim distinction: per capita, it has produced more terrorists who have fought in Iraq and Syria than any other country in the world.”

“The State Department’s request for US$440,000 in foreign assistance for the Maldives is to continue “limited support for maritime security cooperation,” she added, noting “threats posed by narcotics trafficking, piracy in the Indian Ocean, and seaborne trade in illicit materials of potential use for terrorist activity.”

The Maldives abuts sea lanes through which pass two-thirds of the world’s oil and half of its container shipments, Wells underlined.

Imjad Jaleel, Chief Communications Strategist in the Maldivian President’

zs Office said that in the Maldives, wearing a hijab or a beard, is neither compulsory nor is it necessarily a sign of religiosity.

“There are many women who do not wear the head scarf and some of those who do, do it as a fashion statement rather than to convey religiosity,” Jaleel said.

Resident diplomat Mazin Hussain said that Islam has not blocked women’s advancement in any way.

“In the Maldives it is not a rare sight to see a top official in a government office or in a business establishment being a women.”

Islam has not stopped secular education or women’s education, added Jaleel. Maldives has the highest literacy rate in South Asia- 99%. Education is free and universal for the first 15 years.

“If a Maldivian with high marks in the senior school exam secures admission in any of the top universities in the world, the government will fully fund his education there, Ambassador Shareef said.

Madrasas are not encouraged the diplomats stated categorically.

“Youth aspiring for a religious education are encouraged to seek seats in reputed, moderate, Islamic universities rather than the madrasas and other institutions where they may be brainwashed into taking up arms,” the envoy said.

The Maldives has seen political turmoil ever since democracy was introduced in 2008. One of its former Presidents, Mohamed Nasheed, is in exile in the UK, remote controlling a movement to oust Yameen with Western support. And there have been serious charges of undemocratic actions against the incumbent President.

But there has been no terrorist act after the 2007 Sultan Park IED blast in Male in which 12 foreigners were injured, Ambassador Shareef pointed out. “President Yameen’s government zero tolerance of terrorism.”

The fact that tourism is flourishing, growing at 6% per annum and continuing to account for 28% of the Maldives’ GDP and 60% of its foreign exchange receipts, is testimony to the falsehood in the hostile propaganda, Imjad Jaleel pointed out.

Significantly, there has been an increase in arrivals even from the Western world which is very sensitive to political disturbances and terrorism.

“Prevention of terrorism is particularly important in the Maldives because any terrorist incident in the country would be catastrophic for tourism, its largest industry. Maldives welcomes 1.5 million tourists every year and the safety and security of visitors is among the highest priorities of the government,” Ambassador Shareef said.

Detailing the steps taken by the Yameen government to ensure terrorism-free tourist growth, Shareef said that in 2015, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was enacted.

“The PTA largely mirrors legal steps in the UK in the fight against extremism, including advanced monitoring and extended detention of suspects,” he added.

A multi-agency coordinating body, the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC), was set up.

“Through screening and licensing it is ensured that all religious clerics, preachers and lecturers are educated in moderate (true) Islam. It is seen that religious education does not incite the youth to violence. The national curriculum places a high emphasis on moderate Islamic values and tolerance,” Shareef said.

The threat of religious extremist attacks is continuously monitored, and has been found to be relatively low. But the issue of Maldivian participation in foreign armed conflicts has been identified as a “major concern”, Shareef admitted.

“But the numbers of Maldivians going abroad to fight for Islamic groups have been small in comparison with other countries,” he pointed out.

In fact, the Maldives does not figure in the tables prepared by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) for the year 2015.

Out of the 20,730 foreign nationals fighting for the ISIS in various parts of the world, 1200 were from France, 1200 from Russia, 600 from the UK and another from Germany. By 2017, the number of fighters from UK had swelled to 850.

But Maldives was not even worthy of mention in the list. The figure varies from 10 to 200 as on date.

“Often encouraged by irresponsible opposition politicians, the figure at any given time is largely inflated,” Shareef contended.

Answering US Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells’ charge that the Maldives tops in terms of per capita involvement in the ISIS, Shareef said: “Given the fact that the Maldives is an entirely Muslim society of just 400,000 people, the practice in the Western press of simplifying the issue by stating Maldivians’ involvement on a per capita basis, is not meaningful.”

Mentioning a per capita figure vis-à-vis a small population gives the public an inflated picture of involvement, and a very wrong impression, he said.

Be that as it may, the government has not lowered its guard.

“The NCTC is working very closely with law enforcement and anti-terror agencies across the world including the US, India, UK, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Turkey and Sri Lanka. It has successfully pinpointed suspects and intercepted many of them at transit points,” the envoy said.

The PTA is designed to contain the threat of returning fighters by monitoring their education, rehabilitation and integration into society, he added.

Referring to the 2007 Sultan Park incident in Male in which 12 foreigners were injured, the Ambassador said that the incident had jolted the government into action on the issue of violent extremism.

“The suspects were found and handed lengthy jail sentences,” Shareef said. There has been no terror attack since then.

The Yameen government is vigilant about the possible misuse of the social media.

“Since the Maldives has one of the highest penetrations of social media anywhere in the world, vigilance against their misuse by religious extremists has been stepped up,” Shareef said.