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Does Islam have a problem with democracy? The case of the Maldives

The political crisis surrounding the 2012 ousting of Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed led to a return to authoritarian rule. Dying Regime/flickr, CC BY

Does Islam have a problem with democracy? The case of the Maldives

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


Five years on, confusion and despair have all but replaced the hope of the Arab Spring (with the possible exception of Tunisia). Many have cited the democratic failures and the rise of uglier forms of violence in these states to bolster a “clash of civilisations” worldview.

Yet the tiny Indian Ocean Muslim nation of the Maldives suggests otherwise. Soon after its democratic transition in 2009, the “modest model in the Arabian Sea” experienced a pattern of de-democratisation attributable to non-religious factors also evident in other Muslim majority states.

Islam has been the only religion in the Maldives for more than 800 years. But democracy did not fail there because it clashed with Islam (at least the Islam of most ordinary Maldivians).

The structural reforms attempted by the new government challenged elite power and privilege in a political culture of corruption, patronage and clientelism. The resulting anti-democratic resistance and the government’s authoritarian reactions soon put democracy in peril.

A new despotism is now in place in the Maldives. World powers have arguably played important roles in this deterioration.

Islam and ordinary Maldivians

Calling for Islamic sharia in the Maldives, protesters use their democratic right to rally against democracy in 2014. Dying Regime/flickr, CC BY

Like most Muslims in many other Muslim majority states, Maldivians are solidly in favour of democracy.

In a 2015 survey, 62% thought democracy was the best governance system. 77% believed it was good for the Maldives. Crucially, most Maldivians associate democracy with rights such as freedom of speech and assembly.

If political Islam does have grassroots support, this has not translated into electoral votes. The main Islamist party, Adalat, has never succeeded in elections. Even so, it is in alliance with the main opposition party, the Maldivian Democratic Party, which calls for democracy.

How the Maldives de-democratised

Western audiences paid a lot of attention to the non-religious character of the Arab Spring protests. For many commentators, the calls for justice, liberty and democracy transcended religious affiliations. Similarly, Islam played at most a peripheral role in the Maldives’ democratisation, which predated the Arab Spring by several years.

Non-religious elites led the democracy movement. They called for human rights, anti-authoritarianism, multiparty democracy and good governance. In 2008, their activism, supported by transnational human rights advocacy networks, pressured the 30-year dictatorship into holding the country’s first multiparty democratic elections.

The elected government came to power on a platform of complete transformation to “The Other Maldives”. Instructed by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation, the government launched an ambitious privatisation program, opening up a hitherto state-manipulated economy to competition. Having inherited an enormous budget deficit and external debt, the government subscribed to an IMF structural adjustment program that included austerity measures.

The government attempted to restructure the public sector. It slashed civil service jobs and streamlined salaries and perks. It also introduced new taxes, including a GST and a tourism tax.

All this took place against the backdrop of the world food price crisis of 2007-08 and global financial crisis. The government had to contend with rising inflation, depleting foreign exchange and high unemployment.

Crucially, the reform program challenged the distribution of power, perks, resources and wealth accumulated over three decades of authoritarianism. In an already stressful economic situation, the short-term negatives of some of the reform measures fuelled public discontent.

Wealthy resort owners, businesses, cadres of the former dictatorship, the judiciary, members of parliament, elements of the security services and other beneficiaries of the old regime responded with anti-government actions. MPs were bought, the judiciary failed to uphold the rule of law and the police were often implicated in crimes. This culture of corruption and opportunism further enabled elite challenges to the new government.

Jailed after his ousting in 2012, Mohamed Nasheed was allowed in 2016 to seek medical treatment in the UK, which granted him asylum in May. EPA/Andy Rain

The government, in turn, failed to cultivate a politics of real dialogue, compromise and coalition-building. The resistance, along with the real or perceived fear of anti-democratic plotting, prompted the government to react in an authoritarian manner, much like in Morsi’s Egypt. This culminated in the arbitrary detention of a criminal court judge.

In the ensuing political conflict, elements of the security forces in collaboration with the former dictator’s supporters deposed the president, Mohamed Nasheed, halfway through his term in February 2012.

While the rhetoric of protecting “Islam and Nation” by largely non-religious actors did play a legitimising role in ousting Nasheed, the elites leading the revolt did not derive power or support from the Islam of ordinary Maldivians.

The role of other powers

India and the US were among the first countries to help legitimise the succeeding government at its weakest.

India’s priority was “stability” for its investments in the Maldives. Incoming Maldivian president Mohamed Waheed (then vice-president and a Stanford University graduate) was seen as a “friend” of America. The US sought a Status of Forces Agreement to establish a military base in the Maldives, but no agreement was ever signed.

The Commonwealth, which is supposed to “promote democracy”, helped legitimise the new government by overseeing a Commission of National Inquiry that “found” Nasheed’s own actions were to blame for his ousting. The commission argued that Nasheed lost his legitimacy when political parties that had endorsed him for the presidential elections withdrew their support.

However, in liberal institutional terms, the Maldives has a presidential system where people vote for individual candidates. Elections in liberal democracies also do not require a majority for democratic legitimacy.

The rise of a new despotism

Amid the political turmoil, Yameen Abdul Gayoom - half-brother of former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – came to power in 2013 following “competitive” elections. Although the Supreme Court manipulated the poll, election observers like the Commonwealth quickly stamped them genuine.

The government has rapidly turned into an example of what John Keane calls “new despotism” in the 21st century. It employs the discourses, formal institutions and other trappings of democracy for undemocratic endeavours.

Yameen’s government has put three or four future presidential hopefuls behind bars. This includes a 13-year sentence for Nasheed on terrorism charges for arbitrarily detaining the judge. More recently, the vice president, Ahmed Adeeb, who purportedly conspired to assassinate the president in 2015, has been detained and impeached.

The jailing of Mohamed Nasheed for 13 years did not stop public shows of support for the Maldives’ first democratically elected president. Dying Regime/flickr, CC BY

Before imprisoning opposition leaders through an “independent” judiciary, the president used his legislative majority to remove the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Similarly, the parliament endorsed the state of emergency imposed (and then revoked under pressure) in November 2015.

To help maintain “monitory legitimacy”, the government hired consultancy firm Omnia Strategy, run by Cherie Blair, wife of the former British prime minister, and US lobbyist Podesta Group.

Over the past few years, China has been carving a bigger space for itself in the Maldives, where it has been financing major projects. In 2014, the Maldives signed up to China’s New Silk Road agenda.

This has prompted more vocal US criticisms of the government, while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled a 2015 visit to the Maldives.

The limitations of democracy promotion

Whether or not Carl Schmitt is right in arguing that ideals like human rights are a mask for powerful states to pursue their interests, the Maldivian government sees the calls in support of such ideals as hypocritical and self-serving.

And, with the Maldives’ increasing reliance on China and Middle Eastern states like Saudi Arabia, it is hard to see how the so-called democracies can support meaningful democratisation if they do not adopt foreign policies consistent with those principles.

The answer for further democratisation lies in new local movements and vocabularies bolstered by a more credible and consistent global network of actors. As the explanation for de-democratisation did not lie with Islam, neither does the fate of democratisation depend on Islam, be it reformist or any other version.

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