MANIPAL, India, March 1 (UPI) -- The Maldives is a tiny group of islands nestling in the Indian Ocean that got into the news only because of the Dec. 26 tsunami. For years it has been the focus of concerted NGO action designed to convert the regime into a genuine democracy, with political parties and a Westminster-style parliament where the two sides glower across the aisle at each other.
India has shown that multi-party democracy can work even in conditions of illiteracy and poverty. The country borrowed heavily from British political institutions, even while retaining most of the administrative and judicial infrastructure left behind in 1947.
Another country that could succeed in such a transformation is Iraq, which has a sizeable middle class and a national consciousness based on the centuries of civilization in the region, beginning with Mesopotamia. To interpolate from this that a similar graft would succeed in the very different scale of the Maldives may be a mistake.
A rough rule of thumb would be that it takes a minimum population of 5 million in order to create the diversity that is called for by a multi-party democratic system. A lesser number would not be able to sustain the spread of debate and contain it within bounds that do not result in widening fissures within the society.
To take the example of the Maldives again, it is a fact that the Maymoon Abdul Gayoom regime is paternalistic and lacks a significant machinery to monitor and respond to public opinion. It is equally a fact that the Maldives is a moderate state with an overwhelming Muslim majority, and that President Gayoom has thus far succeeded in keeping in check Islamists funded by Pakistani, Malaysian and Saudi Arabian religious charities. It is this visible secularism that has motivated such intervention, which has succeeded in creating a small but very vocal group of democracy activists that are calling for an Islamist state.This is not the first time that Europe and the United States have fallen prey to democratic demands from religious elites that are as much a Trojan horse as was the Taliban.
The Bush administration has forgotten that it was the Clinton team that helped Pakistan's ISI set up the Taliban and enable them to bribe and bully their way to power in Afghanistan.
In Malaysia, the foul-mouthed but secular Mahathir Mohammed was opposed by an overt Islamist, Anwar Ibrahim who, then and now, wears his Wahabbi ideology on his sleeve. In Indonesia, several politicians with links to the Saudi religious establishment were backed against so-called nationalists such as Megawati Sukarnoputri. As in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the religious extremists were given preference over the nationalists. The unfortunate consequence for the security of the Western democracies are manifest.
All this is being repeated in the Maldives, where so-called democracy activists are weakening a secular regime on behalf of elements adept at using Western liberalism in order to get backing for an extremist polity.
The Maldives needs multi-party democracy about as much as Monaco, Liechtenstein or Andorra. Those countries too are too tiny for the pressure-cooker that such a system entails. What is needed is a chamber of elected representatives standing on a non-party basis that would act as a check on an elected president, roughly on the U.S. model. Before jumping onto bandwagons festooned with Saudi money and Pakistani muscle, supporters of democracy in the United States and Europe need to uncover the core beliefs of those they are backing so aggressively, peeling away the fig leaf that has thus far blinded them.
Rather than seek to change the globe the way the European colonists did during the previous four centuries, modern countries need to separate our problems from the rest, and devote attention to those that have an impact on their futures. Spreading the net wider may cost them that future.
While bringing multi-party democracy to the Maldives through Islamists may not be a priority, ensuring that representative institutions take root in the Middle East and in the rest of the Muslim world is. Muslims, as do all men and women, deserve the freedoms of democracy. It is not accidental that the jehadi infection is lowest among the Muslims of India, the overwhelming majority of whom are moderate. The exception is Kashmir, not coincidentally a state where successive central governments have rigged state elections in order to prevent some groups from dominating the legislature.
Now that Kashmir too is witnessing reasonably free elections, the jehadi temperature there has diminished significantly. Thus, there is little doubt that countries with a Muslim majority need to be nudged into giving their citizens the rights of the free.
However, the United States and its European partners are seeking to go far beyond that and are seeking to impose a new order on the same lines as the Western colonizers did in centuries past. In Afghanistan, for instance, the Pashtun population is being mollycoddled despite it being the pool from which almost all of the Taliban came. Instead of paying a penalty for such a mistake, the United States and the EU have placed the Pashtuns on the top of the population heap in Afghanistan, overlooking in the process the legitimate rights of those groups that fought the Taliban - the Hazaras, the Tajiks and the Uzbeks.
I believe within the next five years more than 200,000 NATO soldiers will be in combat in Afghanistan in order to preserve what is an artificial unity. The reality is that after the genocide indulged in by the Taliban, the other ethnic groups will not accept the domination of the former Taliban elements (backed by Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, and therefore by the EU and the U.S.) that President Hamid Karzai is seeking to make permanent. Were the different regions in Afghanistan to seek effective freedom by forming self-governing units, that is not the problem of the rest of the world so long as those in control are drawn from the moderates. Regional nationalists are far preferable to the religious fanatics that seek to recreate a Wahabbi-dominated state
Indeed, nationalism can be used as a counter to religious extremism. In the case of Iraq, for instance, it is becoming clear that the Wahabbi fanatics in that country have teamed up with the Tikriti thugs disenfranchised after 2003 in order to create chaos. Iraq needs to evolve for itself a federal structure that permits local authorities to defend their communities against such elements.
The best solution is the partitioning of the country into four regions: the north, the
east, the southwest and the center. It is for the people of Iraq to determine the extent of autonomy of these regions, and not for any outside power to inflict solutions on them that would serve the purpose of the Saudi Wahabbis and their Khameinist allies in Tehran by keeping the sores running in the name of an impossible unity.
Nearly nine decades after Sykes-Picot, it is time for the people of the region to draw their own lines, not simply in Iraq but in Saudi Arabia as well, where it is criminal to keep the Shia east in bondage to their Wahabbi oppressors in Riyadh.
Shia and Sunni Islam need to compete with each other in order to determine which creed will emerge as the accepted faith. As long as this contest does not spill over in any significant way into the lives and countries inhabited by non-believers, it is again not our problem that Shia and Sunni Islam compete rather than meekly co-exist the way well-intentioned but hallucinating analysts would like them to.
The Muslim world is entering a period of great ferment, and this is an inevitable part of the process of change that will free the religion from the grip of the Wahabbis and their Khomeinist clones. Intervening in this in any way other than preventing a spillover into the rest of the world is self-defeating. Rather than check extremists, such intervention will embolden them. Backing democracy in the Muslim world is a priority. Ensuring that the present states retain their current boundaries, or that the current dominant groups remain so, is not. There are our problems and there are other problems. Let the rest of the world concentrate on the first, as interfering in the second would lead to the type of error that resulted in present-day Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and al-Qaida.
-(M.D. Nalapat is professor of geopolitics at India's Manipal Academy of Higher Education.)