Struggle for Bangladesh’s cultural soul

SYLHET, Bangladesh: Is modernity finally putting brakes on the Islamization campaign in Bangladesh? Is it eroding the nation’s ethnic culture? These questions keep haunting me during trips to Bangladesh. A visit yesterday to  Shahjalal University of Science and Technology in Sylhet lent the two questions special poignancy.

The population of what is now Bangladesh is nearly 90 percent Muslim. They were in the vanguard of the Pakistan movement. By the 1940s they had been fed up with the economic and cultural suppression by the dominant Hindu elites. They pulsated with the pan-Islamic fervor and  joined other Muslim communities in the Indian subcontinent in a campaign to carve out the Muslim state of Pakistan. Ironically, a veteran of the Pakistan movement was  Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who would later lead the struggle to dismember Pakistan to create independent Bangladesh.

In fact Muslims in Bangladesh, which used to be called East Bengal and later East Pakistan, began to feel their Bengali ethnic pull soon after they had helped create Pakistan. Beginning in 1952, just five years after the birth of Pakistan, a movement to make Bengali an official language in Pakistan dramatized that ethnic resurgence. It was fueled by the repression of Bengalis in East Pakistan by non-Bengali political and military elites of West Pakistan. In 1971 that struggle culminated in East Pakistan breaking away from Pakistan’s western provinces.

But then, almost immediately after Bangladeshis severed their ties with their fellow Muslims in (West) Pakistan, their Islamic spirit began to revive again, almost with a vengeance. During several visits to Bangladesh I almost dazed from the sights of mosques and Islamic schools proliferating and prayer congregations overflowing mosques buildings. More and more Bangladeshi Muslim women began covering up their heads in colleges, government offices and market places. More and more Bangladeshi men wore Islamic clothing.

“It’s incredible,” Hamidul Huq Chowdhury, publisher of the Bangladesh Observer newspaper (where I once worked), exclaimed during my 1991 visit to his home in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital. He said the Islamic upsurge in post-independence Bangladesh, “is stronger and more widespread” than it was during the Pakistan movement.

Today Bangladeshi society appears to be undergoing a third cultural twist. Islam and modernity seem to be squaring off for the domination of Bangladeshi culture. Jannatul Ferdous Shikha, a demographic researcher I met yesterday at Shahjalal University, said Bangladesh was “Islamizing and modernizing” simultaneously. She didn’t wear a headscarf and expressed strong secularist views. She predicted that “secularism will overcome the backwardness and bigotry” of Bangladeshi Islamists. Shikha praised a “growing secular movement,” which she said was widening and deepening in Bangladesh.

“But it’s true,” said the political scientist, “that people [Bangladeshi Muslims] are acquiring religious habits. They follow whatever the “huzurs” [Muslim clerics] say. I don’t know why.” She said the Muslims showing enthusiasm for Islam don’t read Islamic scripture. “Many of them don’t pray, but are crazy about Islam, whatever they think it is.”

Some of the other professors and students I met on Shahjalal University campus pointed out that Bangladesh had been making notable progress economically and educationally.

During the last four decades the country’s capita GDP increased 10-fold to $2,000, and literacy rate tripled to 66 percent. Significantly, the modernizing trend has defied the equally dramatic increase in political and bureaucratic corruption and the endemic political violence and instability.

A Transparency International survey for a four-year period has found Bangladesh to be the world’s most corrupt country. My refusal to bribe Bangladeshi officials has made me face difficulties in reclaiming some of my farmlands and shares in fisheries from usurpers. I have learned from several reliable sources that magistrates in this Bangladeshi town take bribes for favorable judgments in criminal cases.

Yet I have been impressed by sights of the rapid improvements in Bangladesh’s roads and highways, and the mushrooming of schools, colleges, businesses and industries. Shaheena Sultana, assistant registrar at the university, said the economic progress and modernization was a “bigger story” than Islamization.

The physical and social spectacles in Bangladesh are sparkling with symbols of modernity and globalization. Roads and streets – once shared by bicycles, bullock carts, goats and cows and occasional passenger buses – are now often clogged by cars, trucks, and streams of buses. Cell phones, including smartphones, are used almost universally throughout the country. An ever-growing number of Bangladeshis wear blue jeans and slacks, dropping the native male skirt called “lungi.” Most urban dwellers can speak English or  understand necessary English terms.

In fact English is replacing Bengali in the business and industrial culture of Bangladesh. On my way to Shahjalal University, I could hardly see an all-Bengali store sign. Those signs bore wholly or partly English names, usually written in the Bengali script: Holy City Grammar School and College, Modern Hair Dressers, Shourobh [Bengali word for fragrance] Stationery Store, Shopto Dinga [seven-canoe] Foreign Furniture, Derai [name of a place] Bedding House, Baraka [Arabic word for blessing] Arabic Learning Center, Messrs Ilyas [man’s name] and Sons, and so on.

On some of those signs, the English script is appended to the Bengali one.

What a paradigm shift! Who could have imagined during the Bengali language movement in East Pakistan in the 1950s that Bengali Muslims would one day trade their cherished native language and concepts for foreign ones?

The twin movements of Islamization and modernization, which are at loggerheads themselves, are clearly corroding Bengali ethnic values and cultural idiom in Bangladesh. I’m wondering whether Islam or modernity is going to be the final winner.

Or modernized Islam?

  • Mustafa Malik, who hosts the blog ‘Beyond Freedom,’ is traveling in Bangladesh and India.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Modern Islam Egypt Islamists’ goal

“The revolution goes on,” said Mohammed Mursi, on being declared president of Egypt in its first-ever democratic election.  He ran for president as the head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.  The transnational Brotherhood has been the world’s oldest Islamist movement.

The president-elect has called for national unity. Mursi wouldn’t, of course, abandon his Islamist mission, but to signal his seriousness to become “president of all Egyptians,” he resigned his post as the head of the FJP.  He realizes that he needs the nation behind him for his upcoming battle with Egypt’s ruling military junta, called the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The SCAF has got a compliant high court to dissolve the parliament, assumed all legislative powers, and curbed the power of the presidency. The military council’s decree requires the president to work with it to frame a constitution.

Assuming Mursi’s victory in the election, some Egypt watchers have been debating whether he and the Brotherhood are going to be co-opted by the military junta or pursue their Islamist agenda seriously. They have a reason to wonder. During the last three decades, the Brotherhood has consistently shied away from confrontation with military dictatorships, not even to challenge the decades-long ban on its participation in politics.

This year the Muslim Brothers were among the last to join the Tahrir Square uprising, which toppled the dictator Hosni Mubarak. And when other groups were agitating to overthrow of the SCAF, which replaced Mubarak, the Brotherhood leadership engaged the generals in a dialogue over the crisis.

“Ideology does not determine [Muslim Brothers’] behavior whatsoever,” says Omar Ashour of Britain’s Exeter University, an expert on Muslim and Middle Eastern politics. “You can say it’s a very pragmatic, opportunistic group.”

Part of the Egyptian Brotherhood’s pragmatism comes from its realization that frontal confrontation with military dictatorships could prove suicidal, and that its decisive challenge to the political establishment should wait until it had a strong footing in society. Sayyid Muhammad Qutb, the Brotherhood’s original thinker, was executed by military dictator Jamal Abdel Nasser.  Nasser is believed also to have orchestrated the assassination of the organization’s founder, Hasan el-Banna.   Successive military dictators jailed, tortured and executed its members. Because of its strong support for the Palestinian cause, it had also been anathema to Israel and the United States.  The organization’s leadership realized that a clash with the dictatorial regimes would give them the excuse to crush it with U.S. blessings, leaving its main mission of Islamizing society unrealized.

I have been visiting Egypt since the 1970s, for research or pleasure.  From interviews with Egyptians and other research I understand that the “pragmatism” that Professor Ashour mentioned is part of the Brotherhood’s strategy to pursue its larger mission.

That mission was described succinctly to me during a 1995 visit to Cairo by a leading Brotherhood ideologue, Mustafa Mashhur.  “May Allah guide us in His path,” he said. “We are working humbly to carry on the da’wa (Islamization campaign) and strengthen (society’s) Islamic roots.” How the Brothers would go about its work would be decided in light of “our ijtihad, our situation and circumstances,” added the Islamic scholar, who would soon become the head of the Egyptian Brotherhood. Other Muslim Brothers and Egyptologists have given me the same description of the Brotherhood’s goals, in different words.

Ijtihad, which Mashhur mentioned, is an Islamic canon law tool to form new rules on matters on which scripture is silent. In such situations theologically competent Muslims are enjoined to use common sense to make new rules of conduct, which shouldn’t, however, conflict with Islam’s core principles.  Most Islamists, unlike many traditional fundamentalists, believe in ijtihad.

In practical life, everyday Muslims don’t go about looking for a theologian to issue a ruling on new situations, often presented by modernity and cross-cultural communication. Muslims familiar with Islam’s basic tenets and principles, use their own common sense to devise guidelines to  adapt alien values and practices to their lives. Most Islamists, including Muslim Brothers, don’t make an issue of it.  Hence unlike traditionalists and radical fundamentalists, Islamists in general are enthusiastic supporters of modernization. The difference between secular and Islamist modernizers is that the former’s goal is modernization for its sake; the latter’s modernization for Islam’s sake.

President-elect Mursi has a Ph.D. in engineering from the United States and modern education spans the Brotherhood’s rand and file.  Muslim Brothers are especially focused on scientific and technological education. Egyptians call them the “Brotherhood of Engineers” (Ikhwanul Muhandithun) because of the large number of engineers (and physicians) in its rank.

Unlike in the early phase of the movement, the Egyptian Brotherhood today has acquired deep roots in society and has grown to become the country’s largest political organization.   Mursi’s call for a nationwide struggle to rid Egypt of the new military autocracy indicates that the organization now feels strong enough to challenge the military regime.  Other opposition groups, too, understand that a nationwide campaign against the SCAF autocracy isn’t possible without the Brotherhood’s lead.  Hence in spite of their bitter ideological struggle with the Brotherhood, most leftist and centrist political parties and groups have vowed to join its struggle for the democratization of Egypt.

I believe that Professor Ashour and other observers who see the Brotherhood’s pragmatism as its abandonment of its mission will revise their views. The Brotherhood remains committed to serving and propagating Islam, while spearheading Egypt’s democratization and modernization campaigns.

• Mustafa Malik, a Washington-based columnist, hosts the blog ‘Islam and the West.’