If you are old enough to have spent a couple of weeks in one of the marvellous Maldivian resorts in the 90's, eating tropical fruits and grilled lobsters, you might have had the chance to meet Ali Rameez. You, in your beach shirt, might have even danced to the tune of the cover numbers he used to sing.
This is what Ali Rameez did to earn a living in those days. He sang at the island nation's numerous resorts.
He then became famous, a true pop-star and "the pin-up boy of all Maldivian erotic dreams", as a Malidivan friend puts it. His songs nourished the romantic fairy tale like dreams of young Maldivians. Girls would swoon over him.
Have a look at the video below to get a better idea.
This was Ali Rameez. I use "was" because now things have changed. His voice does not render any romantic songs any more. Instead, he has embraced the strict Salafi version of Islam, becoming one of its messengers in the Maldives.
It is nearly impossible not to draw a parallel with Cat Stevens, the British-born rock singer who played his last concert in 1979 before changing his name to Yusuf Islam and embracing radical Islam. Rameez is the Maldivian Cat Stevens.
Ali Rameez does not sing American and British chartbusters anymore. He chants only religious ayats. He is still much appreciated though; His Facebook profile has more than 70,000 followers, a significant number in a country of 350,000. He is also pretty active on Twitter where he has more than 9,000 followers and tweets regularly.
One singular example of his online activity is the post below, a curious way to explain why a woman must wear a Hijab.
A post published by Ali Rameez on his timeline. (Facebook)
Azra Naseem, radicalisation expert and postdoctoral research fellow at Dublin City University, thinks Ali Rameez is a perfect example of how the Salafist movement in the Maldives is persuading musicians to subscribe to their ideology. The Maldivian scholar's report on "Online Radicalisation of Religious Beliefs" says: "Rameez carried his celebrity status into his new persona with tremendous success, and can be 'credited' with making the Salafist call 'fashionable' among thousands of young men and women."
Here is a sample of the kind of music he plays nowadays.
Here's another one.
The change is pretty evident.
Ali Rameez is more than a cultural phenomenon, he is an actual voice of the increasing Saudi-inspired Salafi influence in the island nation. He takes part in religious events, discusses how to lead your life and hosts web shows along with members of the NGO, Jamiyyath Salaf, one of the most recognised Maldivian Salafi groups on Facebook. He sings mainly in Dhivehi, to reach the widest audience possible.
There is nothing wrong in playing devotional music nor in embracing a religious path in life but the significance of Ali Rameez's choice transcends the realm of the personal. The transition of a mass pop idol into a strict Salafi messenger is representative of what is happening in the Maldives.
Rameez exemplifies a more general process of radicalisation which is changing the traditionally tolerant form of Islam practised in the archipelago. This is not a natural change; It is directly fuelled and supported by Saudi Arabia. This impact on the youth can be gauged by the fact that quite a few of them have joined Jabat al-Nusra ranks in the Syrian civil war.