Doug Saunders of Globe and Mail has written a very balanced story on Bangladesh’s ‘secular Islam’.
DHAKA — This riverside slum in Bangladesh's capital has endured, over the past three years, the ravages of wind, water and dengue fever, mass arrivals of environmental refugees, explosions of violence, pollution and crime, and the fastest rate of urban growth in the world.
But its narrow, pungent laneways have never faced a barrage like the one I witnessed this week: a full hand-shaking, baby-kissing assault by a politician and his entourage.
“It has been years since we have had democracy, and these people are hungry to have a vote!” yelled Sheikh Noor, the star candidate of the Awami League party, as he ran frenetically through fetid back-alleys, hurtled over open sewers and plunged into darkened shacks, surrounded by equally well-coiffed aides, in a sprint-pace doorstep tour of one of Asia's poorest and most densely populated communities.
On Dec. 29, Bangladesh is scheduled to hold its first national election in seven years, one that could affect the fate of a vast region, after a series of bombings and a gargantuan corruption scandal in 2005 paralyzed the country and provoked the military to seize control of the government for almost three years, a state of official emergency that only ended on Wednesday.
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During this period of limbo, Bangladeshis have watched their country sink behind its neighbours India and China, whose rapid economic-growth rates have illustrated the advantages of political stability.
But something even larger is at stake here. For the 150 million people of Bangladesh, political contests have increasingly turned into terminal struggles between the forces of east and west.
No, not the imaginary divide that fuelled the British Empire and the Cold War, two events that absolutely devastated the people who eventually called themselves Bangladeshis. This is a far more significant east-west struggle today – the one between Islam and Islam.
Bangladesh is at the heart of the eastern wing of that divide, a fact that is dramatically apparent to visitors. If you come to this country expecting East Pakistan (its name before its blood-drenched 1971 independence) you'll be pleasantly surprised.
The first shock is the grand show of assertive femininity, the great displays of gleaming Bengali hair on women, most of whom have never covered their heads in private or public – and they're in public a lot, in important roles, wearing colourful saris rather than bland Islamic dress and enjoying robust rights.
The mosque remains a gathering point and a source of exuberant holidays for most of the population, but most people pray only on Fridays and holidays, if at all. And it is an Islam without the bland asceticism of the Arabic strand, its mosques ornamented, its ceremonies full of borrowings from Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and its followers happy to treat Islam as a personal reference point rather than a source of politics. This is a very secular-minded society, Muslim in roughly the same way that Canada is Christian.
You'll find this same variety of gentle, pluralist, secular-minded Islam stretching across the vast crescent of the former Mughal empire, incorporating the largest and second-largest Muslim countries in the world – Indonesia, with 207-million Muslims, and India, with 170 million – and the fourth-largest, Bangladesh, with 150 million.
In other words, about half of the world's Muslims are from communities that don't wear head scarves, don't see Islam as something that should have a role in government and law, and don't tend to produce international terrorists.
On this side of the word, where what we call the Middle East is known as “West Asia,” there is a palpable sense that the other kind of Islam is on the march: Saudi Arabian religious imperialism is fighting a well-funded battle to follow London and Moscow as the next foreign force to seize control of these continually subjected peoples. That, in this election, is a central source of distress.
“There is no root system for that kind of Islam here,” says Shamsul Wares, an acclaimed Bangladeshi architect and democracy activist.
He has come up with a name for the eastern flavour of faith – “vegetarian Islam” – and a somewhat tenuous theory to back it: “The culture of Arabian Islam is a desert culture,” he says. “And we are outside the desert culture. …
“We belong to monsoon areas with lush green vegetation and we don't need to eat meat – we could survive on vegetables – but in Arab countries there are no vegetables, so they have to kill animals to survive. And that has affected our thinking about religion and about life.”
He told me this, I should add, as the Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party in Bangladesh, with about 10 per cent of the vote, was preparing to launch its election campaign a couple of blocks away in a powerful coalition with the Bangladesh National Party. The same pairing controlled the last government.
The BNP is still considered corrupt. So is the opposition Awami League, whose founder, the father of the young candidate we met campaigning in the slum, was Bangladesh's founding father, then prime minister, then autocrat, then murder victim. But they are campaigning with a coalition of left-wing and ex-autocrat parties, on a secularist platform.
The BNP-Jamaat coalition is open to Arab-Islamic influences, some of which it introduced in the last government.
I don't completely buy Mr. Wares's leafy theory of theological politics – we shouldn't forget that there's another, equally moderate strain of Islam in the carnivorous west, stretching through the former lands of Ottoman Europe from Ankara through Sarajevo.
But it is true that both these secular-minded tendencies of Islam are under assault from the West Asian branch of the faith – an assault that is fuelled by the one-dimensional policies of the U.S., which have provided a fine foil for those who want to turn Islam into a single, homogeneous faith.
This concept is still offensive enough to most Bangladeshis – who, after all, fought a horrific war of independence from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in the name of secularism, despite vehement opposition by Islamist parties – that the Jamaat-e-Islami tries to hide its identity.
I had tea with Abdur Razzaq, the Western-educated lawyer who is the party's assistant secretary-general, and he tried to persuade me that his party is comparable to Turkey's ruling AK Party – that is, a party of people who happen to be Islamic rather than an Islamist party, one that is pluralist-minded and non-assertive.
Why, then, I asked, did his party, in its last incarnation in a coalition government, successfully kill a legal change that would have given women equal rights to inherit the estates of their spouses and fathers (under current law, they can get 50 per cent of what men do)?
Simple, he said: “It has to be that way, because the man must be the head of the household.” The Koran says so.
As for head coverings, he says, they are a form of modesty that is required of all women who are Islamic believers. The Koran says so, he said (actually, it doesn't). And Bengali culture is mistaken in its belief that Islam can be colourful and multifarious, he said: There is only one faith (a popular Saudi-fuelled myth).
As our meeting descended into polite glares, I felt like I might have been meeting an agent of the East India Company, a century-and-a-half ago: Same unruly natives, same steadfast certainty, same east – only this time, a slightly different west.
This time, I hope the outcome will be different.