On June 21, 2022 rioters stormed an event, organised by the Indian Cultural Center of High Commission of India in the Maldives in association with Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment, held to mark International Yoga Day. In attendance, at the event at National Football Stadium, were foreign diplomats, senior government officials, including children and elders (foreign and local). The confrontation where rioters attacked attendees and vandalised property was intense by Maldivian standards with pepper spray and tear gas used by the Police in addition to bodily altercations.
As its origins are from Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, Yoga a contested subject in the Maldives, especially amongst Maldivian Islamic scholars and clerics who have great influence over the country’s population. It is associated mainly with Hinduism and seen by many as un/anti-islamic by some groups.
Prior to the event religious influencers (individuals and groups) called to stop the event from being held as well as stating that yoga is a sin and an act of shirk. The “ilmuveringe gulhun” (Maldives Scholars Union) had also lodged a complaint to stop the Yoga Day celebration. The Malé City Council claimed that they denied the request to hold the event at Rasfannu Beach (which is under its purview) due to public complaints. Additionally the media published articles that inflamed the situation such as publishing the new location of the event.
According to police the materials for the protest such as the white flags with Arabic inscriptions, in black, from Islamic Shahada (a ‘testimony’ that “there is no deity but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God’) and the sound system were provided by the opposition party Progrssive Party of Maldives (PPM) which has since stated that there was no wrong done in simply supplying the flags. The rioters were also armed with sticks and had placards with messages such as that yoga is against the tenants of islam.
The incident has also been connected to the ‘India Out’ Campaign which began as opposition to indian military presence in the Maldives and also claims that the government is selling the country to India, of which the opposition PPM-PNC Coalition and former President Yaameen Abdhul Gayyoom is a major proponent. The ‘India Out’ campaign has been deemed a threat to national security by the current government of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, with the president issuing a decree on April 21, 2022 banning the campaign. The National Security Council stated that the ‘India Out’ campaign “to incite hatred against India” is a national security threat. The Yoga incident made headlines internationally and locally and the government has condemned the attack.
The primary actors are anonymous social media accounts, religious influencers and political actors. In the Maldivian context political actors and religious actors overlap in some cases as prominent religious influencers are in key positions of government. Secondary actors include Media and individual actors that support and/or are associated with the primary actors who are political and religious influencers.
- Anonymous social media accounts: Most of these accounts have religious imagery and statements and/or statements against values and ideas considered western and/or unislamic in their bios. The main topic of their social media content is religion and politics.
- Adhaalath Party is a islamic religious party in the Maldives and they currently hold key positions in government including two cabinet portfolios, the President’s Chief of Staff, Controller General of Immigration, two positions in foreign diplomatic missions and four State Minister positions.
- Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the People’s National Congress (PNC) make up the main opposition coalition.
- Former President Yaameen Abdul Gayyoom – leader of main opposition and PPM
- Ilmuveringe Gulhun (Maldives Scholars Union) made up of islamic religious influencers in Maldives formed during the ‘Ban MDN’ campaign.
- Religious clerics and influencers
Foreign state actors:
- Although involvement of foreign state actors cannot be confirmed,
- The ‘India Out’ campaign and the opposition coalition of PPM-PNC are associated with China.
- The previous government of President Yameen Abdul Gayyoom of PPM was heavily aligned with China while the current government of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and MDP are aligned with Indian interests.
Twitter bio of anonymous actor @solitudeloving:
Banner text: Be with those who make the road to Jannah easier.
Twitter bio of anonymous actor @abu_alyasaa:
- The behaviour of religious and political actors are transparent as they are not hiding their identities.
- Individual actors such as anonymous accounts on social media that began the initial social media posts against the yoga event and heavily boost the narratives hide their identities and as such are not transparent.
- Their behaviour suggest aspersive intent:
- The anonymous social media accounts which first quote tweeted the Yoga day call for participants in social media incited violence and hate using religion as justification. (Eg: that yoga is a form of Hindhu worship, that it is a form of shirk, that it is haram and it should be stopped from taking place)
- Religious actor Ilmuveringe Gulhun sent a letter to the Ministry of Islamic affairs raising concern that Yoga is associated with Hinduism and that it is dangerous to the Maldivian Constitution. They also called on the Ministry to stop the yoga event. Calls to halt the event as it was anti/un-islamic by religious actors (such calls have a high possibility of resulting in violence in the Maldives where religion permeates all facets of life.
- Individual clerics and religious influencers also made statements stating that yoga was a sin, an act of shirk, anti/un-islamic etc and demanded that the event be cancelled.
- An example is Sheik Hassan Moosa Fikry who stated that Yoga is a religious practice by Hindhus of which they are very proud. And advised people to take up other forms of exercise as yoga is based on principles of shirk.
Translation of text in image:
Top corner: Who said what
Pink box: Muslims using yoga as a treatment is an act of Shirk, and that is rejecting the oneness of Allah!
Sheik Adam Nishan
- Continent poses harm and contain threats:
- Claims that the government and leaders are apostates allowing haram practices in the Maldives
- Calls to stop the yoga event with violence
- Inciting violence
- Defence of Religion used as justification for the violence
- Media (mainly those aligned with the opposition or anti-government) published articles leading up to the event about the calls by religious actors as well as the location of the new venue etc.
- Media (eg: Dhiyares) also published articles with statements such as ‘all religious scholars are saying yoga is not to be practised by muslims. Because it is an exercise that has been developed by including elements used by Hindhus to symbolise and worship their god”
- The main language used is Dhivehi (written in Thaana or latin alphabets), sometimes with a mix of English words and content.
- The content also contains Arabic verses, quotes etc with translations in English or Dhivehi.
- Content is deceptive and is not truthful. Example:
- That yoga is a form of Hindhu worship
- That yoga is performed in the nude, in the sun
- That the current government was spreading unislamic beliefs and acts
- The content is not synthetic.
- Content is aligned with the disinformation narratives:
- That yoga is haram and dangerous to the muslim country and
- that the government is anti-islamic (which is used by those who hold extreme religious beliefs as grounds to justify violence against the state and authorities.)
- The incident is also related to the wider ‘India Out’ campaign indicating the larger purposes of actors involved.
Tweet by @f_nisryne:
“The government is up to the max in spreading shirk. This shows that the leaders are murtads who think Islam is extremism”
Tweet by @solitudeloving:
“O Allah, save us from such fitan, and raise upon our ummah, leaders who will uphold Your deen, leaders who are not afraid to implement the shariah. O Allah, humiliate those in power who are spreading such filth. Ameen”
Tweet by anonymous account @Foskalo1:“Any Muslim who participates in this shirk ridden event is disobeyed Allah. Also anyone who justify this is not shirk has disobeyed Allah and taken mushrikeen as awliya. #YogaShirk #NoShirkNoYoga”
Post by anonymous account @abu_Alyasa:
“Are we going to sit idly and let this happen, if we do they will be organizing more and more kuffar practices here in Maldives”
Tweet by public account @MuhammadRilwan
“We should stop this”
Tweet by anonymous account @doubleye69:
“Must be stopped”
Tweet by public account @zaidhmaaldheefi:
“Let (us) youth come out and stop this!!”
Tweet by public account @AhmedNasheed001:
“If I had a fake ID I would have supported anyone on twitter calling to go there and throw eggs and motor oil. I would have really encouraged people to go do this wearing masks. But since I am hesitant to say it on a public account which is why I haven’t said anything.”
Tweet by anonymous account @kureesarukaaru (meaning: Past government): “Malé city council has decided not to release the Rasfannu Area for the Yoga day event announced for tomorrow organised by the ruling Hindhu BJP of India in association with the Maldivian government. kureesarukaaru.com”
- The general Maldivian public.
- Particularly those that are more religious and also
- Those groups that are likely to carry out the violence incited by the narratives
- Content is tailored towards those who are more religious (which makes up a majority of the Maldivian population).
- Social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
- Messaging apps: Viber, Whatsapp, Telegram (mainly through groups on these apps).
- News Media.
- Websites of religious actors: individuals, groups, organisations, political parties (eg: Jamiyath Salaf website: jamiyyathsalaf.com)
- Although evidence of inauthentic boost to engagement was not found, it cannot be ruled out.
- Fake accounts are used by actors in the Maldives to boost engagements for their continent to promote their narratives.
- It is an ongoing campaign still being used by actors today for achieving their agendas, garnering support and scoring political points.
Screenshot from website of Jamiyath Salaf:
Title of post states: “Salaf has brought to the attention of the Youth Ministry the issue of yoga, an unislamic form of worship, being spread as an exercise in the Maldives.”
- The incident has been described by some as a “diplomatic incident” and has made the news locally and internationally as it was an attack by religious extremists on an event where high officials from India (with whom Maldives has had a decades old relationship) and other international delegates were present, as well as due to its connection to the larger ‘India Out’ campaign.
- The same day six people were arrested were arrested in connection to the incident and the Maldivian Democratic Party and the President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih condemned the attack and announced that an investigation has been launched.
- Tweet by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih: “An investigation has been launched by @PoliceMv into the incident that happened this morning at Galolhu stadium. This is being treated as a matter of serious concern and those responsible will be swiftly brought before the law.”
- By the end of July 23 people had been arrested but some were later released. A religious influencer Sheikh Fazloon Mohamed was also arrested causing controversy as he was with his young son when the arrest took place. There has also been support from a significant groups in the public for the attack at the yoga event as they see it as an act in defence of Islam. There have also been calls to release all those arrested in relation to the attack.
- More than two months later, the attack on the yoga event and the government action that followed such as the arrests are being used by political and religious actors to further their agendas.
Article on thepress.mv by religious influencer Dr. Mohamed Iyaz Abdulah. Translation of article title: “From the pen of Dr. Iyaz: What is the ruling on muslims doing yoga?”
This case has been identified as Disinformation
- Actors: individuals, political actors and religious influencers.
- Behaviour: some are deceptive while others are not. Primary actors such as religious influencers and political actors are transparent while many social media actors involved hide their identity. The means of communication are not unlawful.
- Content: includes deceptive and untrue elements while also carrying elements of threat and is harmful.
- Degree: The case has been linked to the larger ‘India Out’ campaign and anti-government elements as well as religious extremism.
- Effect: the case has contributed to inflaming the already turbulent political environment in the Maldives as well as affecting relations with India.
As with most cases like this, the initial issue is raised by anonymous and/or religious accounts on social media which is then picked up by religious influencers such as prominent clerics, religions organisations (Eg: Jamiyyat Salaf, Ilmuveringe Gulhun, Adhaalath Party), political parties who’s statements and actions are then amplified by media articles, groups on messaging apps and social media.
The support for the attack and the calls to release those arrested point to a worrying trend of increasing acceptance of extremist religious beliefs and support for violence such as murder and terror attacks targeting Human Rights Defenders, politicians, tourists, public property and infrastructure.