From Decaying Paradise to ISIS

Matthieu Paley/Corbis

The world is scrambling to visit the archipelago of paradise before it sinks. White-sand beaches, turquoise and emerald green water, palm fronds waving in the wind. The Maldives feel like a wonderland stuck in time, where the sun rises and sets over an eternal, tropical idyll day after day. Male, the capital of the Maldives is a 5.8 square kilometer island with a single artificial beach and over 153,000 inhabitants. Visitors usually bypass it altogether on their way to their picture perfect destinations. Most tourists in the Maldives do not see beneath the veneer of the stereotypical holiday island. If they did, they would encounter the power of street gangs, drug addicts, radicalized Islam, and fighters ready to join ISIS in Syria. So how and why has such extremism infiltrated the islands?

Climate change is a largely invisible abstraction, making it difficult to directly link its effects to these social upheavals. Some of those travelling to Syria came from poor fishing communities on outlying islands. With the slow but oncoming crisis of climate change, people are unable to maintain a livelihood on these undeveloped islands and choose to migrate to Male, a city torn between conflicting values and a mix of radical preaching and organized crime. It is these factors that are blamed for social depravation rather than the most serious threat to survival on the islands—rising sea levels.

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 World Bank has blamed the ease with which criminal gangs have recruited young Maldivians on “inactivity and apathy, unemployment, drug use [and] the need for young men to prove their masculinity.” These are the same Maldivians who become prime recruits for ISIS. Maldivians who are picking up the Quran and putting down the needles are welcomed into the ranks of the widespread terrorist network. ISIS recently released a video with three masked men threatening to assassinate the Maldivian president, Abdulla Yameen, and to unleash a terrorist campaign on the islands. The threat of terrorism would devastate tourism, which accounts for 28% of the economy and more than 60% of foreign exchange.

The growing threat of terrorism is paralleled by increasing desperation over climate change. In 2009, former President Mohamed Nasheed held an underwater cabinet meeting where 3 documents were signed calling for countries to cut carbon emissions. The small country’s voice however is quickly drowned out in the debates over climate change in large, carbon-emitting countries like the United States. Climate change may go disputed in many places, but in the Maldives the reality of rising sea levels, salinized aquifers, less land area, and storm surges is a critical threat to life. The land sits an average 1.5 meters above sea level and 80 percent of it is less than one meter above the ocean surface. A rise in the level of the oceans, even by less than a meter threatens the existence of the entire country. The majority of the population lives in the most vulnerable areas within 100 meters of the coast. Even without storm surges, which are becoming increasingly common, the ocean is generating waves which threaten land above sea level. If common predictions of a 0.8 – 2.0 meter sea level rise by 2100 become reality, most of the islands will be underwater.

If the Maldives become fully inundated as predicted, the country will cease to exist. Citizens will become climate refugees, migrating to wherever will take them, and the national and cultural identity of the Maldives will slowly vanish. Many of the ISIS fighters already lived on the fringes of society in the Maldives. In joining the terrorist network their identity is remade. One fighter took his wife, mother, and sister with him and texted to his father, “they were now under the care of IS [Islamic State], and that he wouldn’t return to this land of sin.”

Inaction on climate change by the international community conceals its role as a push factor for social upheaval, whether it materializes in the formation of powerful street gangs in Male or contributing to a Maldivian’s decision to leave their home for promises of a different life with ISIS. These things can be written off as results of other social or political problems. The same argument applies for the increasing frequency of natural disasters: http://contactvisits.org/the-hotspot-open-mic/ browse this site Typhoon Haiyan would have happened anyways. It’s not climate change; it’s bad luck.

The link between Maldivians leaving for ISIS and climate change is tenuous precisely because the effects of climate change are not neatly identifiable or quantifiable and therefore are easy to ignore and deny. This denial perpetuates inaction on climate change and all the while, sea levels are steadily climbing, exacerbating existing social conditions. In the case of the Maldives, this happens to be the recruitment of ISIS fighters and the growth of street gangs. Climate change is an implicit push factor causing marginalized Maldivians to look away from their dazzling seascape towards a network which can assure an identity, a community, a home, and a certainty in life.