The Maldives as a model democracy
Only one can save us
How can Muslim countries modernize without loss of tradition and without civil war? The answer is Mohamed Waheed, Vice President of the Maldives. In an interview with Frank Schirrmacher , he explained how his state was the first Islamic country transitions to democracy took the – inspired by Jürgen Habermas.
09. February 2011
Mr Waheed, you have a doctorate of Jürgen Habermas in his thinking and see a significant boost for the democratization of societies.
Yes, I come from a country that was until recently subject to a strict regime. I went through in the sixties and seventies, the Western education system, because I was taught that life as a man is only worth living if you can think freely and can be expressed freely. What distinguishes us from other species is the ability to use our brains and our hearts. And unless we are fully utilizing them, we remain on a lower level of development.
You have during your studies at Stanford been fascinated with Habermas particularly with hermeneutics – how has hermeneutics influenced, your thinking?
With this understanding, we fight for human rights in our country. We have a great responsibility to continue our work for equality and human rights. My family, my friends and I were part of this upheaval, which led in 2008 to free elections and to my Vice-Presidency. It was a long way from being an authoritarian state to democracy.
Your parents come from poor, rural conditions and you are the first citizen of the Maldives with a doctorate. Did all these developments take place within a generation?
Yes, I come from poor backgrounds. My father is from a rural island in the north, my mother in a very poor island south. They came together at the capital in their search for education and opportunity, and I was the result of their quest. I was also one of the first students who were admitted to an English-medium school in the country. They were really happy circumstances. In a certain way I was part of a major upheaval in this country. I went to study abroad and achieved my first degree at the American University in Beirut in Lebanon, which has a long tradition of liberal thought. In the first year, students are required to read literary texts in their historical context. We were exposed to everything from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Samuel Beckett, and other more modern literature. Religious writings were also discussed.
As you began to study?
I started out my studies with a degree in International Development from an educational perspective. Education cannot be viewed in isolation from politics. Education is a very important social arena in which politics is manifested. For instance, with each new government there is an effort to change curriculum because the curriculum relates to the peoples’ vision of the future they want for their country. When I went to Stanford, my mentor was a German scholar, Professor Hans Weiler. At the time, he was director of the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning in Paris. When I wrote to him and told him I wanted to study with him he told me he was returning to his professorship at Stanford. And so, according to the European tradition of studying under a mentor, I followed him there.
Did you have a scholarship?
Yes, I had more than one, because I was there for a long time. First I had one from UNESCO for a short period, followed by the Asian Foundation and, finally, one from Saudi Arabia. Professor Hans Weiler being a German political scientist was familiar with the Frankfurt School and critical theory. Also present at the Stanford School of Educational were many progressive thinkers, such as Martin Carnoy, who was a professor of economics and education. And so I began to read literature. I began to understand politics from the perspective of interpretation and legitimization. To understand how policy is created and maintained it is useful to understand how it is legitimated through the political process. From a political science perspective education is very much creating the discourse in society about social development.
You come from an authoritarian state and have grown up with the Islamic religion. What did you see in the Frankfurt School? During your studies did you see the possibility of delegitimizing the authoritarian state as a system? Did you see then what you ultimately achieved personally, namely the liberating of your country?
Yes, for us to be able to question some of the givens we needed to understand how certain versions of the reality are being created. That they originate from the dominant perspective of the ruling class. To create a more just society, one has to question what is assumed. So it is not fair that an employee works overtime over a long period and is forced in this way to loyalty. Trustworthiness and loyalty should not lead to exploitation of workers. Something must be questioned. From the perspective of human rights every human being must be treated fairly.
How does your understanding of this tradition like the Frankfurt School, which represents only one aspect of hermeneutics, connect to your understanding of the importance and future of religion in modern society?
I am not trained in the subject of religious studies, but for us, Islam is an important part of society. It is, so to speak, the glue that holds society together. First and foremost is our relationship with God – to give our lives meaning, and to recognize a higher power. I have lived five years in the Middle East and three years in Afghanistan. Thus I got a better understanding of the broad spectrum of the interpretation of Islam. I have seen societies such as Syrian, Lebanese and Jordanian society on the one hand and on the other hand societies such as Afghanistan. Every intellectual is subject to the obligation to reflect on the cultural influences to society. And hermeneutics helps us to understand the religion better. Christianity has undergone a transformation, which ultimately developed with the hermeneutics. We went through a process in which the spiritual texts had to be studied, examined and the methodologies for studying the text were refined and improved over the years. There has been a tendency to look at the texts as given as opposed to looking at them from the historical perspective linked to peoples’ lives.
What does this mean for Islam?
Also in our case we believe that Islam is sent to us by Allah as a religion for all times and for all people. So there is the universal nature of Islam and this is why I think there is such a great appeal to Islam all over the world. To get this universality, it is important to benefit from the advances of science and methodology. To build a democratic Islamic society, you must include the historical context. To my understanding, in a democracy, people may find meaning in their lives; they must be able to put their experience into context and be able to participate in dialogue. If one considers everything our spiritual guidance to be correct and not allow questioning, then such a system can only be maintained through repression.
That is what Habermas teaches.
In a society there are always questions, and there must be room for people to as questions, to examine their situation and apply scientific advances to our cultural systems. In order for a democracy succeed, we must allow people to question our cultural values.
They have implemented this concept in the Maldives and proved that it works. But this is a discussion of the state against the individual. Now it comes to religion versus the individual, but the lessons remain the same. In Europe, the debate is becoming more intensified over the question of whether there is a growing number of Muslims who are of the opinion that what you implied is a kind of secularism of thought if you start questioning.
In am of the view that the word “secularism” is not appropriate, because it implies the absence of God. That is not what we are talking about. It is about the modernization of interpretive science or applied cultural studies. A lot of the interpretations we have today are derived from scholarly opinions, confirmed and reconfirmed by successive scholars. So the authenticity is established through this system of derivation. The question now is whether Islam has a sufficient number of intellectuals to continue the process.
You are one of those intellectuals. Are there any others?
There are probably a few. But the more advanced courses in Islamic universities have to borrow some of the progress of applied science.
Maybe it somehow needs kind of Islamic Habermas?
It is for all of us more important than ever to be able to benefit from the scientific progress of the other, because we can no longer distinguish the Islamic world from the Western or the Eastern world.
We have so far also benefit from each other.
Yes, if you talk with Christian-oriented Europeans about Islam, then you realize that they have nothing against Islam but only against the extremists. The debate should be held among the intellectuals. There are people on both sides that politicize and abuse religion for their own populist purposes. The debate must be led by Islamic intellectuals, together with Western scholars.
How do you assess the threat posed by extremism to the Maldives?
Extremism, no matter what the source is a threat to any country. It exists in the West as well as ours. We must strive to understand the background and causes of extremism better.
You lived in Lebanon, Afghanistan, the United States and thus know what you are talking about.
Not only that, I was in the thick of war. I was a young student for two years in the middle of the Lebanese civil war, then three years in the Afghanistan war. The fact that I lived in the midst of these conflicts and got to know the impact they had on the people, I can only say: No war is worth it.
The impression we get from our media is that all Muslims hate the American way of life, so in principle the United States. I’m not talking about propaganda. Is that true?
No, I do not think people in the Middle East or Islamic countries generally hate the people in the West or the Americans in particular. Of course there are exceptions, but it is not the rule. In Islamic countries there is a widespread feeling of injustice, which derives from Palestine. The international community has not been able to solve this issue for far too long.
In Germany there is currently discussion of the possibilities of cooperation and integration in the context of a strong Muslim movement. Do you think that the United States, regardless of current problems with the melting pot concept, is a role model for modern nations in terms of integration?
In the United States, for example, there are Chinese residents, who speak no English. Each country has its limits and boundaries, whether cultural or social. I am not surprised that Germany hopes that all residents can speak German. This is understandable. That does not mean that the people should no longer speak their native language. The United States has been a country of immigrants for centuries, and it has taken time to integrate. The important thing is to create peaceful coexistence and understanding so that people are not afraid of each other, neither the residents nor the recent immigrants. And a lot depends of course on the rate of immigration.
What is the situation in the Maldives?
We recognize the problem. In the past, the migration rate was low, the integration went smoothly. Now, however, we have a high rate of immigration of foreign workers. Currently, one in four residents in the Maldives is a foreigner. This leads to a certain amount of uneasiness in the population. There is a distinction between them and us.
You have completed the political transformation in the Maldives, and you have experienced Afghanistan. As the Iraq war began, the West thought reconstruction would be like after the Second World War, as we rebuild the country there will be democratic governments, and all will go largely without a hitch. Far from it. From your experience what are the chances and possibilities for democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan?
I think it is the yearning of every person to be democratic. Nobody wants to live as a slave. Everyone wants freedom, especially for his children. This is true for every country, even Afghanistan. The people are poor and they lack the bare essentials, yet they continue to send their children to school. They have hope for their children.
The children are the propulsion.
I think democracy will come to every country. But democracy is not a fixed constant, it is contested. Even in the West you have the struggle with the extreme political parties. In a society there are always currents, there is always forces that want to dominate.
This concern also exists in European countries before any new election.
This fear exists everywhere. In every society, structures and legal frameworks must be constructed for a democratic society that guarantee a diversity of views and allows debates and disputes, but also allows a non-violent conflict resolution.
You grew up under a dictatorship, and thus witnessed and was a victim.
It is not only my personal history but also the history of many citizens of the Maldives and other countries such as Iraq, where there was a dictatorship. Our families were persecuted and any one who was like me, interested in politics, experienced the same thing. My family has been tortured, many of whom spent six or eight years in prison – for nothing. My mother was deported and sentenced to six years in exile. All kinds of horrible things happened, and the same is happening to people all over the world today.
Is your mother still alive? Did she see you become vice president?
You have taken on the task of modernizing the education system in your country. How can this happen and is there anything that European or German institutions or governments should do?
Germany was always well disposed towards the Maldives. I met last year at a UN meeting Chancellor Merkel. She is very kind, especially to the smaller countries faced with the problem of climate change. Our president is close to her and they are discussing how Germany can support us, especially in areas of renewable energy.
What are your duties?
One of my duties as Vice-President is to build the first national university. The bill was adopted last December in Parliament, and now we hope for a close cooperation with universities abroad, including Germany. Apart from the study courses leading to bachelor’s degree, we will also set up research on graduate level for some subjects, such as for the areas of climate change and marine science. We have already started collaboration with the University of Milan-Bicocca, which has established a research center on one of our islands. We would like to have similar projects with universities in Germany. Democracy and development are important areas for us, and here we want to cooperate closely with Germany, especially in the social sciences. Maybe we can have exchange programs that could help in the long run to creating more just societies.
If the university built here on the main island and in the capital Male’?
The base of the university already exists in buildings here on Malé. The main campus is expected to be on a neighboring island of Malé, but the site has not been selected yet.
And there will be professors?
Yes, especially in the areas of research and development. We want to invite foreign professors to come to us for a while. We want to attract students in the areas of environment and climate change, democracy and Islam, marine sciences and tourism. Maldives has a special contribution to make in all these areas and it certainly makes sense to focus on them and thus to attract outstanding students. And here we want the support of Germany, at least in building a faculty.
I’m sure that you will get it. What we in Germany have certainly not realized to the full extent, is how thoroughly the change was in the Maldives.
We were able to bring about a peaceful change, unlike in many other countries around the world. The courageous people of Tunisia are bringing about a huge change in their country. Hopefully it will at lead to a peaceful process of change, so that they can succeed in establishing an agenda of democratic transformation. The Egyptians are going through the same process of liberation after years of autocratic leadership. Before the change in the Maldives we were like a microcosm of Egypt. Since we have succeeded in making the transition peacefully, the same can happen in Egypt. It only requires people who are ready and willing to talk and listen to each other. Both countries, Maldives and Egypt were subjected to more than thirty years of dictatorship, both had similar constitutions, and religious and cultural structures. The Maldives is the first Islamic country which has made the transition to a democratic multi-party system entirely. In the past we could learn from the Egyptians, but now it is time for Egyptians to learn from us.
Behind climate change, is in a positive sense, a large industry, it’s almost like the answer to the nineteenth century. Due to the extremely positive reputation of the Maldives due to tourism, you could play a major role in this field.
We firmly believe that now is the time to invest in renewable energies.
You once said in your blog, which was discontinued in August 2010, that people would not understand the change in the Maldives really complete. Now, changes always mean that you have to give up something. How does the population respond?
It gets better. Especially the young people are beginning to realize that the future of the Maldives will look different than the past. We must provide safe, reliable relationships, and sometimes it is also necessary for it to move from one island to another. We experienced a terrible tsunami and had to relocate tens of thousands of people. The international community has helped us a lot, but still we have 1,600 people homeless. These experiences contribute to young people developing a better understanding of the value of a secure and sustainable future. We are becoming very sensitive to changes triggered by climate change. Our government has established a policy of low CO2 emissions. We say we want to achieve carbon neutrality by 2020.
Do you find support for this in the tourism industry?
Yes, the tourism industry in our country is very forward looking, in their own interest. What we can do now as a government is support them to develop guidelines for low CO2 emissions. We are in negotiations with the IFC (International Finance Corporation) to obtain loans for our projects. There are some resorts that run pilot projects such as solar systems. And the tourists coming here demand it.
In this new era a country like the Maldives could be the leader in some areas. The times of industrialization are over, the industrial nations can learn and benefit from an exchange. Now, about fundamentalism, your country is not in a hostile relationship with any other country. Germany also, but we feel as if there is a threat from within is as if one is creating its own enemies.
Yes, we create our own enemies. The Maldives is a microcosm. In this microcosm, ultimately everyone is related to everyone, the people come together as friends. Taken as a collective, we share the same interests. Even the interests of the opposition converge with the government’s interests at some point.
You think very much like a historian. Can you explain, as an intellectual, the Taliban movement? From a Western perspective, it appears as if it were created by society.
This is one of my worries, for the Maldives. Let’s take Afghanistan as an example. In Afghanistan, at the time of the king the society was a very open the leadership tried to bring about change as quickly as possible. And I think that was the emergence of the Taliban was in response to these rapid changes, because the people could not absorb the change so quickly. If an elite imposes its views on the larger population, of course there is a reaction to it. I think that was the breeding ground of the Taliban.
Very interesting. Habermas and others argue that, in terms of our history, Hitler only came to power because of the enormous pressure that was caused by industrialization. The population was overwhelmed in the first half of the twentieth century, then came Hitler and promised to establish a manageable society without pressure.
People felt the threat to their traditional values. For example, Pakistan is a very traditional society; people cannot change their lifestyle overnight. There is also a very rich and valuable tradition in Pakistan. This is where we need to be very careful to bring people on board and to be able to create bridges, not impose change. Even democracy cannot be imposed. We must move forward very cautiously and slowly.
In what mood are you in as a politician in your country: Are you happy with the progress, or is your mood subdued?
I am still very happy about the political changes. But I’m tense, because we are going through a difficult period of democratic determination.
People need to learn after a long period of dictatorship, first, to speak freely and openly. Although the population in the Maldives provides a happy impression, it also seems to be the case here that they feel they cannot speak frankly.
We have come such a long ways. When I was a school child, I was questioned by the Education Minister for talking to tourists. And every time I spoke my mind or wrote something I was punished. Even later as a government member, I was punished.
How can you then become the person you are today?
Constantly for years you are held back, you are held inside. As an individual you lock yourself in, the ideas and the thoughts you have, you cannot express yourself and you reach a point about bringing democracy to your country. You want to be completely free. In fact you don’t achieve complete humanity until you are free. We must understand that our Arab friends in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen also feel the longing, the pursuit of freedom.
Is the change due to the country?
I think the democratic movement in the Maldives is home made and came from within. It is the spirit of the younger population.
As in East Germany.
It was also possible because we had the support from our friends abroad. We were supported by the United Nations, the European Union and other countries.
And you are personally known throughout Europe and at home, probably a national hero.
Oh, there are many heroes. Our president is a hero, many young people who spearheaded the demonstrations and were detained, many of whom were my relatives, my brother-in-law – they are all heroes.
How did you deal with the security police? I only ask because we in East Germany also had these difficulties. We picked out some very serious cases, but on the whole tried not to start a revolution, but an evolution.
We are under constant pressure from all sides. We are under pressure, as regards the past, and there are many people who want revenge. We do not have time for that, and I am also of the opinion that it would not be healthy for us.
This is a topic for the next generation.
We can not go forward and look back at the same time. We cannot carry the past with us if we want to move forward. This is also a problem of the major political parties: to look back too much on their past. The ruling party is still injured from the torture and suffering and as a result, are having difficulty moving forward. Similarly, it is with the opposition, which is still bitter about the loss of the privileges of the past. There were too many injuries on both sides. As President Obama has said: We must speak the language of healing, not hurt. And because of this the politics in this country are still polarized. We cannot have an intellectual dialogue on the shaping of democracy in our country.
Sometimes a look from outside helps to see how much you are admired by other countries for the changes you have achieved. We also experienced this to a different extent, with East Germany and other communist countries. After the Second World War, things were different, there were only a few brought to justice and convicted. The reunion is now back almost 22 years and is still discussed. It just takes a generation, until it is done.
This is why it is important for us to realize that the five-year term we have now is only one link in a longer chain of democracy. We cannot go and try to do everything in five years and then the reaction would be worse that what we had.
How high is the risk that the Maldives falls back into dictatorship?
This danger is always there. That is why, we must focus all the more on strengthening our democratic institutions. We can use a lot of support. We must strengthen our judicial system, improve the education of our judges, and strengthen our laws. Our Parliament is now much larger and stronger, but this should not discourage us to ask ourselves whether this is the ideal state we want to achieve.
When the first students graduate from the new university will they find a job here?
We have not spoken much about the economic challenges in this country. When we came to the government, the economy was in poor condition. For the last two or three years there were big salary jumps and shortly after came the global economic crisis, which affected us too, but we have pretty much recovered as much as possible. We had a large deficit, which undermined our credibility, no one wanted to lend us money. At this time the government has made contact with the International Monetary Fund. Meanwhile, many reforms are in the pipeline, including financial and tax reforms. At the same time it is very important to create jobs. There are many young people who need work. We have a high drug abuse rate, which is largely due to the fact that many young people are unemployed and do not contribute productively.
This is a dangerous situation: young, educated people out of work in a small country.
Precisely why we must invest in projects that create jobs for our people and not investments which create jobs for others who come from abroad.
How do you rule over all the multitude of your islands? Some are so sparsely populated or uninhabited, the highest population rate is in Malé. How does it work? Do you visit the islands by boat on a regular basis?
Yes, we have 186 inhabited islands. Each has its local government structure, and until now these structures have been based essentially on patronage. The President used to appoint the head of these islands and govern through them. Now, in February we will hold our first free local elections. This is new for us all. The whole country is new to local government. Always Maldivians have been seafarers, people have gone with their own boats to Indonesia, Bangladesh, the Middle East or Africa. We are excellent boat builders.
And you have a great Coast Guard.
Our Coast Guard is young and very well trained. But there are too few, and they need better equipment. We need better ships, new technologies and an early warning system. We recently have been threatened by piracy as well. We have taken a few small boats of Somalis, suspect that they are pirates.
The question is when a resort is attacked on one of the islands here.
We are working on our defenses against that. The Coast Guard is on alert and we work closely with the Indian Navy and U.S. Navy.
And you must get a grip on drug smuggling. The drugs come into the country by boat, right?
In this matter we are making progress. We were able to reduce the importation of hard drugs like heroin, to a large extent. But there remains a high marijuana use. We have a treatment facility that can accommodate about 150 people, but we have about 3,000 young people who need care.
But you still impose high penalties for drug use. However, it does not change anything?
Eighty percent of inmates are incarcerated for drug abuse. Those who use drugs are sentenced to twelve to 25 years in prison. But it changes nothing to arrest people. We need an improved approach to prevention and a correctional program that is effective in changing behavior. I’m partly responsible for the new program and have looked at programs in England and the United States. Every time I travel abroad, I visit the local prisons. They way prisoners are treated says a lot about society.
Mohamed Waheed, born in 1953 in the Maldives, studied in Beirut and Stanford, worked for the United Nations and in 1987 graduated as the first of his country to earn the doctor of philosophy – with a work of Jürgen Habermas. Today he is one of the leading political figures of the Maldives. In November 2008 he was sworn in as the first freely elected Vice President.
Interview by Frank Schirrmacher.
Pictures: © Helmut Fricke, AFP, AP, Corbis: Charlie Mahoney, AP, Four Seasons, REUTERS