Waiting for the Islamic moderniser

Secularism is not an overwhelming reality in Bangladesh.

Scholarly dissection of Islam in Bangladesh has forever posed the interaction of an outside religion with a native culture. The introduction of ´Arabic Islam´ changed the psyche of the Muslim masses of Bengal, but their links with local culture could not be disturbed so easily and this great tension in Bengali Muslim society lasts to this day.

More recently, the focus of discussion has been on the ability of Islam to modernise. From modernisation to secularisation is a feasible and smooth step, but it is doubtful if Bangladesh can take that step or whether it even wants to. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was roundly upbraided by his dictator-successors for putting Secularism into his four State Principles (the others being Nationalism, Democracy and Socialism). It is often said, even by modern-minded scholars, that the absence of an organised priesthood makes secularism impossible in the country and that Islam is, by definition, averse to it.

Gathered around for adda and tea and snacks with "our own" kind of people, staying with them in their homes, eating at their tables, reminiscing about shared student days, chatting with their grown-up children, dipping into the abundance of prose and poetry published, however, the impossibility of secularism seems a very unlikely proposition. And friends are emphatic in asserting that fundamentalism can never be dominant in Bangladesh. But this is probably self-delusory to an extent, overlooking the orthodox layer of the population, largely in the upper and lower middle class. And also the thickest, popular layer made up of -as the driver who always takes me around in Dhaka says – ´hearsay´ Muslims. He says, "We only hear preachers, we cannot read any texts."

Bizarre legacy
Also perhaps overlooked is an acquisitive streak in the people for whom greed for property is more powerful than the bonds of the Bengali language: these are the ones who not only welcome Hindu out-migration but push for it. The popular layer knows little about the Arabist element of Islam and its Umma, but village Imams talk about an Islamic State even while legalists argue that to have a state religion does not mean having an Islamic state. The liberals downplay the dictators of the past and political bigots who consciously use Islam as a vote catcher deliberately set ´Hindu´ India up as a potentially invasive giant.

A very senior Bangladesh National Party (BNP) leader went to an election meeting and proclaimed, "If you vote for the Awami League you will get the conchshell bangle and sindoor (the mark of married Hindu women), if you vote for the BNP you will get the Koran." Sticking stubbornly to Sheikh Mujib´s Four Principles, including Secularism, reduced the Awami League to a minority party, a status it certainly does not want to go back to and so it has done quite a lot of back-pedalling. Notwithstanding Sheikh Hasina´s sometimes barbed statements about India, the League´s opponents still accuse it of being an "India lover". Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the League is no longer called a "Soviet lover".

What is significant is that those in the Jamaat-e-lslami and other Islamic parties, who collaborated with the Pakistani administration and forces during the Liberation War, were left undisturbed even after Zia and Ershad were allowed to regroup and play an important role in parliamentary and national politics. This is perhaps a bizarre factor of Bangladeshi life, but without a stream of support and sympathy it would not have been possible.

All the post-liberation rulers have played on religion and manipulated Islam to negotiate legitimacy for their regimes. Some also used Islam to curry economic and political support from other Islamic states. This despite the fact that no Islamic country supported Bangladesh in its death-struggle against Pakistan. Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Libya did not even recognise Bangladesh till after the assassination of Sheikh Mujib. Obviously, West Asian money has been coming to Bangladesh for mosques and madrassahs and maybe to the fundamentalist parties too.

It is customary to praise Sheikh Mujib to the skies for his stand on Secularism in 1972, but the fact is that as the political challenges grew he too tried to firm up his political base by appealing to Islamic sentiments. He revived the Islamic Academy, which was abolished in 1972, and even dropped the "Joy Bangla" slogan. Petro-dollars were more important than secularism.

M.N. Roy probably summed it up best. Secularism, he said, is not a political institution but "a cultural atmosphere", which cannot be created by proclamation of individuals, however highly placed and sincere. Such an atmosphere is not found in Bangladesh yet. Among the highly-educated and modern, yes, but for a very large number, culture and language, sadly, are not thicker than the divisive aspects of religion fuelled by fundamentalists who rue the passing of Pakistan. True, as liberal Bangladeshis always say, "There are no communal riots in Bangladesh," but as a Muslim colleague commented wryly, "What need for riots if there can be bloodless coups?" To one scholar´s conclusion that liberation has produced in Bangladesh an Islamic-cum-secular culture the response is, "not so". In fact, the attempt at secularisation probably caused fundamentalists to close ranks and be more aggressive.

Fatwas and dorras
The stranglehold of narrow religion is the result of poor education. The Bangladeshi educational system is in shambles, from the primary through the middle stage right up to the university level. In the deep interior of Chittagong district, in a small thana (sub-division within a district) called Banshkhali alone, there are 17 madrassahs, where the teaching is Islamic. Countrywide, there are a few very famous rebel breakaways from the madrassah system, like the artist Kamrul Hassan and the still living literary figure Shaukat Osman. But the regular products of the system are blinkered, ignorant and intolerant, readymade material for fundamentalist campaigns.

The Qudrat-i-Khuda Commission set up by Sheikh Mujib strove hard to rationalise the education system and separate it from religious teaching. Mujib´s successors undid the Commission´s recommendations and also provided for a compulsory paper called Islamiat from standards I to VIII. Zia and Ershad also introduced religious teaching and practices in the Army.

As in Pakistan and in Saudi Arabia, some aspects of Islam in Bangladesh are extremely sadistic. A heretic or non-believer can be declared a murtad and stands in fear of his life. I once met a highly rated professor of Dhaka University, Ahmad Sharif, who, though a brave man, could not stir out of his house or even stand in the verandah after he called himself an agnostic. Others writing critically about Islam have had to flee the country.

There are not many cases of fatwas pronounced, said Habibur Rahman, retired Chief Justice and an extremely liberal man who was Chief Adviser to the government which oversaw the period that produced the last election. He is probably right, but a 535-page volume given to me, Fatwa 1991-1995, is a detailed anthology of all that has appeared in the print media about fatwas, mainly against helpless women. It makes frightening reading.

There is as yet no law against socially irresponsible mullahs pronouncing fatwas or passing sentences for stoning or lashing. Often, the unfortunate victims do not have to be punished with death; they commit suicide. In Chittagong, I talked long about this with a college teacher, an extremely devout and courteous man who, however, argued that as a deterrent the dorra (lashes) should be used.

Vote and the Prophet
Spiritual leadership in Bangladesh has been poor, and there is not a single cleric today like Maulana Bhashani, who commanded nationwide respect. The pir of Sarsina (Barisal district) and Chak Bara (Bogra district) cultivated by Zia, and the pir of Artoshi supported by Ershad both warmly blessed the dictators´ political moves. The student wings of the political parties like Islamic Chhatra Shabir (the Jamaat Front) and the Jatiya Chhatra Ulema (of the Jatiya Party) are openly fundamentalist and violent. Unlike in India, the use of religious symbols and slogans are allowed in Bangladesh, like "Anno, Bastro, Basasthan Islam debe sam.adh.an" (Islam will solve the problems of food, clothes and shelter). Or "Vote dile hurale khushil hobe Rasule" (The Prophet will be pleased if you vote for the axe).

On the other hand, modernisation has shaken up the mullah´s teachings in at least three areas – family planning, women´s rights, and modern agricultural methods. Family planning is very widely practised in Bangladesh and the birth rate has fallen sharply. The large and evergrowing numbers of young girls in the garment factories are disregarding the directions of mullahs who say women should not go outside the home to work. The Export Promotion Zones will employ more and more women, who make up 48.5 percent of the population.

In assessing Bangladesh and its Islam, it is most important to realise that over half of the Bangladeshi Muslims observe and practise religion in more than a casual manner; much more so, of course, in the rural areas. The people and the country claim themselves to be the disciples of a just and all-merciful Prophet. If so, the very first thing they should do is to annul the draconian and blatantly unconstitutional Enemy Property Act, 1965, which survives even today in all its communalist and discriminatory garb as the Vested Property Act, aimed directly at the Hindu community.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian