Flooding, Sharia and democracy

TITLE_sourceOne and a half year ago, just days before I was to go to the Maldives for the first time, I had a big fight with my husband. He was worried of me being dangerously excited about what I am going to find there and too careless about the risks and threats of the state, known only from books. This serious talk we had that night sow doubt in my mind if traveling alone as a Western women to the Muslim country, somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean was a smart thing to do. Finally, I decided to give it a shot, but to have eyes in the back of my head during the trip.

Happily, the moment I arrived I found the Maldives to be safe and friendly place, and the Maldivians most kind people on Earth. It was November 2011. After thirty years of the regime, the Maldives has been just enjoying benefits of the newly acquired democracy. The streets were finally safe, people focused on the new business opportunities and foreigners welcomed.

However, just days after I left everything had changed and the peace was over. The country was hit by violent clashes. Apparently peaceful place, in fact has been torn by some sort of social unrest for months. The problem was, the conservative opposition was annoyed with the liberalization of recent democratic reforms and afraid of Islam loosing its significance in the country.

Supported by the former ruler and the police, they stood against those more liberal, those for the new democratic president. Brutal fights led to coupe d’etat and back of the old order only 4 years after it was defeated.
What is the moral of this story? My husband is always right? Yes, but also: Democracy is not given once forever. It’s like with love. People imagine that, when they find the love of their lives, they can stop making efforts. In fact, this is, when the real effort has to be made to keep the fire burn. It’s the same with acquiring democracy.

Let’s get back to the example of the Maldives. In the beginning some quick facts:

FACT 1. 1200 islands in the Indian Ocean

FACT 2. Territory: 300 sq km

FACT 3. Population: 400 000

FACT 4. Only 200 islands are inhabited

FACT 5. The Maldives became independent from the United Kingdom in 1965

FACT 6. Language: Maldivian (dhivehi) and English

FACT 7. Religion: 100% Sunni Islam

FACT 8. Tourism and fishery are two main branches of industry

FACT 9. Guinness records in high divorce rate and land flatness

FACT 10. If sea level will rise up as predicted the Maldives will completely disappear under water by the end of this century.


You can imagine, that living there may be a little crazy sometimes. But back in 2011 you could still see people relishing the infant democracy. Prior to the reforms implemented after first democratic presidential elections in 2008, the Maldives has been authoritarian regime for thirty years. Under the rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom the liberties were restricted and human rights violated.

New president, Mohamed Nasheed started with introducing fundamental civic and political rights, prohibition of torture, freedom of opinion and association, right to strike. However, the flashtag postulate of the Nasheed’s presidency was fight against effects of climate change. He would travel around the world trying to convince heads of the most powerful countries to reduce carbon-dioxide emission in order to slow down the process of flooding of his country.

Focusing on this long-distance issue he might have missed what was crucial for Maldivians themselves: saving religion from liberalization. Even though, the freedom introduced by Nasheed remained limited to Sharia, he was accused of being anti-Islamic. Among his biggest ‘crimes’ were recognizing Israel as state, and ma  king Islam classes optional in high schools.
Finally, weeks of the violent clashes between the president’s supporters and conservative opposition drove Nasheed to resign. The Maldives made a step back in their way towards democracy, in the same time, when the countries of the Arab Spring were making their big steps ahead in other part of the world. Why did it happen? The answer is probably very complex. However, one of the reasons may be that democratic president knew, what was good for his country, but have missed what what best for the citizens.

As we can see on the example of the Maldives, it is very easy sometimes to miss the crawling crisis, the undersurface tensions in the society. In some cases, it may lead to catastrophe. Let’s look at our own backyard: Has anyone suspected that Independence Day celebrations in Warsaw turn into violent clash of police and crowds of right-wing extremists? Has anyone suspected the range of extremism? Is our, Polish democracy mature enough to fight it peacefully?

Winston Churchill once said, that “democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others”. I believe, that we have to accept that social discontent is normal and healthy for democracy. But we are all responsible for recognizing it soon enough. And it is igoing to be much easier, if we don’t take peace for granted.

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