One of the most promising aspects for the proponents of democratic change in the Middle East is that the ongoing Arab revolutions are largely being led by youth activists.
Unlike the stereotyped bearded conservatives and liberal communists, the current reform movements in the Arab nations have been fuelled and sustained by the region’s sizeable youth population; a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reveals that 60 percent of the Middle East’s population is under the age of 30.
With a median age of just under 25 years, the Maldives also has a very young population that peaked right around the time the country achieved democracy.
Political scientists often tout these statistics as positive indications of a brighter future in these countries.
For a society to be stable, however, they contend that it is necessary to keep this young energy directed and focused on the onerous task of nation building.
One of the long awaited measures towards this end was achieved on the morning of February 15, 2011, when the Maldivian President inaugurated the country’s first National University.
In a country where the educational levels are abysmally low – only one out of five senior secondary students go on to pursue higher education – this comes as welcome news that could aim to reverse that dismal trend.
Traditionally, however, universities have been more than just institutions of learning.
In countries like Turkey, Egypt and Iran, universities have also been centres of intellectual and political activism and indeed, factories of social change.
Student unions in Eastern Europe were the focal points around which the various colour revolutions would coalesce and result in the fall of deep rooted communist regimes.
Universities have also been a hotbed of political activism in Iran, where student bodies participated in the ‘Islamic Revolution’ that dethroned the Shah and installed the Ayatollah in power. Decades later, it was once again university students that would form the core of the ‘Green Movement’, which has in recent years taken to the streets demanding democratic reform.
In the United States, a country with one of the most deeply entrenched university cultures, there has been an interesting historical trend of political ideology and beliefs on university campuses exhibiting marked departures from mainstream public views. Thus, universities have been the flashpoints of major anti-war rallies and liberal activism.
At various points of history, governments have tried to exercise control over universities and dictate the course of their youthful idealism.
One famous example is that of Nazi Germany, where the state apparatus removed books by Jewish authors, communists and other critics from the universities libraries, and burnt them in public squares.
Intellectuals, including the celebrated scientist Albert Einstein, were expelled from universities under German Law, and the Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels famously proclaimed in 1933, “Jewish intellectualism is dead”.
However, history records that Einstein would move to the United States, publish over 300 scientific papers, and spur the top secret Manhattan Project that would soon make America the world’s first nuclear nation.
A little over a decade after Goebbels’ proclamation, the book burning Nazi Germany would face an ignominious defeat, and Einstein’s adopted home would reign for decades as the world’s leading scientific, economic and political superpower.
The temptation to assert ideological control over universities has also seen unpleasant consequences in other countries like Egypt and China.
It is heartening, therefore, to see even conservative politicians like former State Minister of Islamic Affairs, Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, propose that the Maldives National University should offer courses in comparative religious studies and theology – ie, study of religions other than Islam.
The traditionally isolated Maldivian has at many points struggled to deal with foreign ideas, often resulting in potentially xenophobic tendencies.
In November 2008, owners of a local water bottling plant were forced to issue a statement following controversy over the discovery of a ‘cross shape’ on the caps of the water bottles. The culprit turned out to be a faulty machine part that could not be repaired locally. Nevertheless, the company had to sand-paper the offending shape into something less controversial.
In September 2010, an Indian teacher in Foakaidhoo, Shaviyani Atoll, was reportedly tied up and forced off an island after “devout Muslim” parents mistook a compass design drawn on a blackboard for a crucifix.
Courses like Comparative Religious studies could indeed introduce diversity of thought and foster greater mainstream public enlightenment about other belief systems and cultures, which in turn would undoubtedly have a lasting effect on broader concepts of social tolerance.
One must also note the role of universities in revolutionising technology and lifestyles.
From ground breaking medical research to increasing our understanding of life and the cosmos, the thousands of academic papers published annually in leading universities have made invaluable contributions.
Innovative multi-billion dollar corporations like Google, Yahoo and Sun Microsystems have emerged from the laboratories of Stanford University, while Columbia University alone has produced nearly a hundred Nobel Laureates.
Dozens of world leaders from Margaret Thatcher to Indira Gandhi, have emerged from Oxford University, whereas Cambridge University has given the world Isaac Newton, Neils Bohr and Stephen Hawking. The first computer was invented within its walls, as was the revolutionary double helical model of DNA.
Student athletes trained in University gymnasiums have racked up scores of Olympic sports medals, whereas some of the biggest bands in the music industry have at some point shared dorm rooms while living on campus.
In every field of progress, universities and academics have traditionally been a few steps ahead of mainstream society and making giant strides into the future.
Some might be sceptical that a university in the Maldives, without the luxury of a self-contained campus or an atmosphere of academic seclusion, or even a sizeable student or faculty body can quite leave a comparable footprint on the national intellect or society, as is visible in so many other countries.
During the inauguration, however, the Maldivian President recognised the role of universities in upholding democracy and freedom of expression, and the Chancellor of the newly instituted University, former Education Minister Dr Musthafa Luthfy has promised to follow in the illustrious traditions of Oxford.
As Chancellor, he has the monumental task of directing the youth’s energy into strong intellectual and academic pursuits and to nurture a conducive, stimulating environment in which such pursuits can be undertaken without undue political control and societal intimidation – with full intellectual freedom of thought and expression; an atmosphere of research, curiosity, questioning and free inquiry that are crucial to keep the flames of intellectualism burning bright.
As a country that has only recently tasted democratic freedoms, the Maldives counts on its first National University to produce the future leadership and become engine of national growth and prosperity, while simultaneously charting the country’s destiny.
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