A few thousand kilometers off the east coast of Madagascar, in the middle of the Indian ocean, lies the island of Mauritius, a beautiful tropical paradise - the country that had as its President for almost ten years, Cassam Uteem.
Surrounded by deep blue lagoons, soft white beaches, and gorgeous coral reefs, Mauritius is about 720 square miles in size, and has a mixed population, numbering about 1.1 million inhabitants with Indians, Muslims, Chinese, Creoles and people of European descent living at peace with one another. Muslims are a minority, comprising about 17% of the population. Mauritius was a British colony until March 12, 1968 when it became independent. In 1992, Mauritius became a republic.
Like Mauritius's current Prime Minister, Dr. Navin Ramgoolam, President Uteem's ancestors came to this island about 133 years ago when the British took over India, and entire families were relocated to other British colonies as indentured labor to work in sugar cane plantations. It was very hard work, but little did they know what their descendants would accomplish in the future.
Initially, a very active social worker, the country's accession to independence in 1968 marked Cassam Uteem's own transition to political involvement. He first served as Minister of Social Security, then as Lord Mayor of the capital city of Mauritius, Port Louis, before becoming the Minister of Industry and Industry Technology. In 1992, Cassam Uteem became the first Muslim President of Mauritius, and was reappointed to a second term in office.
In his capacity as a political leader in Parliament, he worked very hard to restore trust and confidence among all segments of the population in Mauritius especially after the disturbances that preceded this country's independence in 1968. First, instead of focusing on one segment of the population, he emphasized the all-encompassing philosophy of "Unity in Diversity." Again and again he stressed the theme of national unity, stating the following in one of his passionate pleas on this subject: "Equal opportunity for all, equal access to education, professional training, and meritocracy are the bases of a civil society, an egalitatarian society, and especially a united society." Second, he led the fight against illegal drugs and substance abuse -an unwelcome side-effect of Mauritius's improving economic conditions. Third, he worked hard to emphasize education and positive change. Mauritius now has a literacy rate of 82.9 percent. Finally, he fought long and hard for workers' rights.
President Uteem is a musulman convaincu (a staunch Muslim), and has always been quite involved in activities involving Muslims. For example, he used to broadcast radio programs on Islam. He was instrumental in helping establish the IWF, the Islamic Welfare Foundation - an organization dedicated to helping the poor and needy, and to promoting education through the pooling of zakat donations. He belonged to both the Muslim Youth Federation and contributed significantly to the efforts of the Students' Islamic Movement. In fact, his activities with respect to Islam have been well received by Mauritians of all faiths.
As president, Br. Uteem was the very symbol of humility and dignity. One incident that particularly inspired him relates to 'Umar (ra). When 'Umar (ra went to sign the treaty signaling the capture of Jerusalem, he could hardly be recognized from his small group of attendants. In fact, he went to Jerusalem with his servant. They had one camel on which each of them rode by turn. When 'Umar (ra) was entering Jerusalem it happened to be the servant's turn to ride on the camel. Though the servant offered his turn to the khalifah, 'Umar refused and remarked: "The honor of Islam (i.e., being a Muslim) is enough for all of us." He entered Jerusalem holding the rope of the camel on which [his servant] was riding.
This example of humility and modesty from Umar (ra) has continuously inspired President Uteem. Unlike many other heads of state, he did not live in the Presidential Palace. He only used it for his office, keeping the doors open to everyone, including the poorest sugarcane laborers. When someone wanted to write a book about him, he tried to dissuade the person, and the biographer had to cull facts from Uteem's writings and speeches. Every letter written to him always received an answer. In the words of his wife, Sister Zohra, he has always been "un homme droit,"" a man with principles. Once he helped a student from a poor family. The mother of the student was so pleased that she came to visit him at home. He was away, and she left him a pen as a gift. When he came home, Cassam Uteem was unhappy when he found the pen. He did not want to take it. Why? He is a man who never accepts any reward for helping people.
President Uteem believes that the Republic of Mauritius can only grow and prosper by accepting the fact of cultural diversity, and that Mauritians in general and Muslims in particular can only progress by learning about their differences as well as by reinforcing the values that they share in common. He believes in collegial leadership - he wants to see a united Mauritius, not the splintering of Mauritian society.
Indeed the task of nation-building is not yet completed, and his presidency has been animated by the quest to provide what is best for the people of his country: the spread of liberty, the expansion of economic prosperity without the destruction of the environment, justice in the distribution of wealth, and accountability and ethics in both the public and private sectors. For him, multiculturalism can only thrive in an open society where the political environment enables full participation and open interaction of all the diverse elements. During his term in office, he has been the president of the people, but at heart he is still the social worker who has assumed the role of president. Finally, his bid to transcend cultural specificity to inhabit the realm of universal ideas reminds us that in so doing, he has behaved exactly as he should as a Muslim living a critical Qur'anic injunction, expressed as li ta'aarafuu (to get to know one another)? - an injunction that Allah has addressed to mankind as a whole, not just to Muslims only. Indeed, Allah says in Surah Hujurat (49:13):
O mankind, we have created you from a single pair of a male and female, and have made you into nations and tribes that you may know one another.
In his determination to take a stand against potential injustice and abuse, he voluntarily resigned after a bill on anti-terrorism was passed by the country's parliament, which he had opposed. While concerned the bill would give too much power to the police and fearing it would be abused, Uteem did not approve the bill at that time. He then resubmitted the bill with 10 amendments, which were turned down by the parliament. He had only 4 months left to serve his second term in office.
This article is courtesy of Dr. Rafik Beekun's blog The Islamic Workplace.
Dr. Rafik Beekun is currently Professor of Management and Strategy and former chair of the Managerial Sciences Department, College of Business Administration at the University of Nevada in Reno, and Co-Director, Center for Corporate Governance and Business Ethics. He has taught at Temple University and the University of Texas. He specializes in strategic management, international management, business ethics, leadership, and the links between spirituality and management. In 1999-2000, he served as a Senior Fulbright Scholar at the University of Mauritius.