Recasting Politics and Reimagining Islam: Beyond Contested Nationalisms in Bangladesh

Tracing the journey of Bangladesh from a secular state to an Islamic state against the backdrop of Bangladeshi Nationalism, Samia Huq discusses the potential of Islam in the everyday public sphere in light of women’s Quranic discussion circles. 


Bangladesh’s history is marked by the contestations between Bengali and Bangladeshi nationalism, where the former is associated with secularism as a founding political doctrine and the latter more openly acknowledging and engaging with the nation’s religious identity and affinities as predominantly Muslim, but also ethnically diverse. While these two forms of nationalism and their champions have fought for control over the nation’s heart, the religion question has become increasingly salient in not only blurring the boundaries between the two, but also for a reassessment of what it means for Bangladesh to aspire to secularism. In recent years, as Islam has increasingly become a pawn in political contests, it has also come under securitisation in a bid to be tamed. In such conceptualisations, where Islam constructs the nation’s ethos, either regressively or radically, how can the nation recast Islam to reimagine its collective ethos? Are there embers of a “civil Islam” in Bangladesh that can shed new light on political trajectories and possibilities? In order to answer these questions, I look at the case of women’s religious discussion circles in Dhaka, who had begun with an active stance to carve out a “new space” in the religio-political terrain. In discussing these groups’ goals and aspirations, their negotiations around norms of piety and their evolving fate under current political conditions, I shed light on the relevance of an Islamic public and its role in shaping a nationalist ethos that is critical and proximate to the citizen’s experience of Islam as an integral part of her everyday life. 

Secularism ‘Defiled’ and the Nation ‘Derailed’

Secularism, as one of the founding pillars of Bangladesh’s constitution and the ethos of the nation state, has gone through many ebbs and flows to land, 50 years later, to a place of contestations and certain perceived irretrievable losses. Secularism or dharmaniropekhota was enshrined in the constitution of 1972 as a means of securing certain fundamental rights for citizens as well as to foster an ethnic nationalism, born in opposition to the cultural and economic marginalisation meted out by West Pakistan (Hossain 2013).  As East Pakistan gave way to Bangladesh, secularism thus intended to start the newly independent nation on a fresh footing, where one’s Bengaliness was to unify all cleavages and prevent cultural domination of any sort. It is in this homogeneous construction of the category “Bengali” that constitutional debates and agreement over the term “secularism” were forged (Siddiqi 2018). Bengali nationalism and a secular anchoring that emerged through a removal of religion from politics was to steer the course of the nation’s future. The massacre of 1975 and the subsequent era saw the word secularism pulled out of the constitution and Islam made state religion. Thus, the prime modality of secularisation of separating religion from politics was reversed and the Jamaat-e-Islami (or the Islamic Society) and Muslim League were allowed to play an active role in politics. Secular and liberal critics look upon this moment as one that began to do away with secularism as a serious commitment (Maniruzzaman 1990). As secularism in its original formulation dealt these blows, many argue that Bangladeshi nationalism, which surfaced from thereon, did intend to be more inclusive of ethnic groups as well as foreground the Muslim identity of the majority, which allegedly remained submerged in an Indian Bengali, that is, Hindu identity under Bengali nationalism. While, finally, an embrace of one’s religious moorings pleased many, the escalating influence of Jamaat-e-Islami in the public space, an inflow of money from the oil-rich Gulf states to fund madrassas and other charitable projects, etc, left others worried that a Muslim majoritarian ethos may be steering the nation’s course away from its foundational tenets (Kibria 2011; Fair et al 2017). The new course charted through the introduction of Islamist groups resulted in the rise of an Islamic public sphere, a cultural appropriation of Islam in daily life and parlance, along with the emergence of ideas and groups unaverse to the deployment of force and terror to make demands heard. Islam, thus, acquired a place in nationalism and in national politics with consequences that are both deep and far-reaching.

What we see in the transition from Bengali nationalism to Bangladeshi nationalism to contestations over a nationalist ethos where Islam acquires a certain force, is a swing to the right, whereby new Islamic players, such as the Hefazat-e-Islam have emerged and where Islam’s intractability from the public sphere and even public policy become increasingly noteworthy (Riaz 2017). There are certain features that mark Islam’s increasing salience. First, its public presence has not led to its political ascendency. Second, its political place has been secured not through its own innate motion, but through rivalry and competition between secular parties who have found it expedient to reincarnate Islam through different formulations and alliances, a political phenomenon present in Bangladesh as well as in other parts of the world.  We have seen the force of globalisation, that is, transnational Islam to bear upon how Islam is placed in politics as well as in the everyday (Riaz 2017). However, the cumulative effect of Islam in the public space is difficult to gauge. With regard to its political salience, various aspirations notwithstanding, Islam has not been able to be the formidable force standing for democracy, participation, inclusivity, as it has been in certain other parts of the world such as Indonesia (Hefner 2019; Riaz 2014; Lorch 2019). Nor have Bangladeshi civil society platforms engaged Islam as a cultural value to ensure that the Islam of the everyday remains relevant and moderate through an assessment of its practical relevance and needs of communities, testing the extent to which Islamism is amenable to moderation and what those mean in different contexts (Schwedler 2011). In the absence of these outcomes, authoritarian political parties and governance in Bangladesh has in general promoted Islamisation by mobilising certain kinds of visual politics to control crowds, thereby casting Islam antithetically to civilised democratic impulses (Chowdhury 2019). Thus, even as Hefazat is catered to by the ruling Awami League in many ways, the image and affective politics that is mobilised through the imperatives of controlling crowds and mass protests, places Islam in a negative mould as simultaneously naïve, irrational, misogynistic and regressive—all the while focusing and generating an incriminated figure of religious alterity (Chowdhury 2019: 180–87).  But is there anything beyond this image of alterity, and what kinds of real potential does Islam, as enacted and experienced in the everyday, hold for the public sphere? I assess these questions in light of women’s Quranic discussion circles that I observed during 2008–10 and have kept in touch with in the following years. These groups had become quite the neighbourhood phenomenon by the early 2000s. They were part of the Islamisation facilitated by the Jamaat-e-Islami’s political capital, influences of and relationships with Gulf states, and migration to East Asia (Gardener 2001). Of course, this is not to say that Islamisation was solely extrinsic. The Islamic wave came mostly as a social movement whose success rides on “frame resonance” which secures a rooting of the discourse and the values it seeks to impart (McAdams 1994; Hart 1996 and Wiktorowicz 2004). These circles emerged largely through transnational connections, and also locally as breakaway groups of the Jamaat-e-Islami. They referred to themselves as Salafis, although they had no direct link with local Salafi groups such as the Ahle Hadith. The groups preached conservative norms and values, while being innovative, even revolutionary in affording women the space and the means with which to become spokespersons for Islam (Mahmood 2005; Ahmad 2009; Huq 2010; Huq 2011a).         

Between Secular and Religious Nationalisms: Lacunae or Possibilities?

The manner in which Islam has lent itself to political appropriation and instrumentalisation has resulted in a profanation of religious ideals, reducing its scope of speaking to issues and in a manner that is beyond the pale of power. The women’s discussion groups known as Islam class, da’wa class, or Tafsir class sought to reverse that profanation by first claiming an apolitical stance, and second, from that position, religionising politics and forging a symbiotic relationship between political events and personal lives (Huq 2011a). Let me elucidate how these get played out. Disavowing secular allegations that their conservative position must align them with Islamists, the organisers of the Islamic discussion circles never fail to emphasise their Salafi leaning that leads to a desire to be free of affiliations with any political parties, referring to piety as their sole motivation for bringing women together. Suhaila, organiser of the Banani class, as well as a speaker in the Dhanmondi class says, “What I am doing to touch and change the lives of family, friends and other women looking for direction means too much to me. The moment I speak from a political platform, my message will get tainted. It may risk my sermons positive impact and I may be thought to have an ulterior motive of recruiting. I don’t want my words to lose credibility and to lose the audience I have amassed.” Fariha, who began her class as a breakaway group from BCIS—the girls’ wing of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami—signed a petition to hang Jamaati leaders for crimes in 1971 on the grounds that the new generation believed in the Bangladesh of today, free from the corruptions of their ancestors and their wrongdoings through history. In claiming an apolitical position, the women seek to bring to the Islamic public space a new perspective and generate a new appeal towards Islam’s aspirations. 

What does this “newness” or “openness” that these classes represent for those who choose to participate in them bring to the political space in Bangladesh? Can the call for ethical and moral self-formation be thought of merely as the (disguised) quiet and pietistic arm of Islamist mobilisation and its cultural appropriation? Or, does the rhetoric push beyond existing Islamist narratives to allow for alternate visions? Or, do they represent a post-Islamist movement of being Muslim where, “Islamism becomes compelled to reinvent itself … by emphasising rights instead of duties, plurality, instead of a singular authoritative voice, historicity rather than scripture, and the future instead of the past” (Bayat 2010: 243).  For the discussion circles, I argue that Islam’s public scope lies in between the pretence of piety and post-Islamist emphasis. These groups need to be understood foremost for the transformations in personal lives they seek and the manner in which they connect the private and the public. One day after the BDR (Bangladesh Rifles) massacre in 2008, amidst many conspiracy theories, the women in the discussion circles discussed the events to extricate from them some moral learnings (Huq 2011b). For Shehnaz, the theory and indeed the official conclusion to the event that discontent from disparity between the high- and low-ranking officers resulted in the event, hit home at a personal level, where her thoughts and actions were channelled towards the sense of inferiority and deprivation of those under her care may feel. She told her audience that she decided to assuage the sense of deprivation her domestic help may feel by sitting them down and breaking up for them what they get from their job, in addition to their salaries which are low. She narrated to the audience that while salaries should be higher, those who work under us also need to have a greater sense of worth in other ways by knowing that we care and that we must care for them. Such an articulation where class cleavages are beyond monetary compensation and have much to do with care and support, leave an address to the discontents of the public space in a way that it is a site of learning, reflection and personal transformation. Others in these groups allude to more structural factors in highlighting the requisite remedies for personal and societal transformation. Working from the premise that existing remedies to Bangladesh’s problems, such as micro-finance are flawed, Fariha calls upon her group to begin by remembering God’s words and reflect on the message of Islam to find “true” solutions to problems of peace and public order. She says, “If society makes you discontent, remember Sura Rum (Rise). The hour of change has come to glorify your lord and rise.” Mark Jurgesmeyer (1996) argues that locating a religious problem and solution in politics is the second step in the growth of religious nationalism. He also argues that most religious nationalisms flounder in their vision and direction on how they should steer the nation state. In how these discussion groups religionise politics and build self-transformation into the rehaul of societal structures, we do see embers of a religious nationalism. However, it is important to understand that while the end point of the conversations taking place in the discussion circles may have been a more profound religious nationalism, the foundations of such a burgeoning nationalism lay embodied in sedimented histories, and the unfolding of that nationalism cannot be gauged without an understanding of affective attachments resulting from an appropriation of, as well as, a negotiation with norms. Thus, as I ethnographically observed, women’s religiosity did not grow in a linear manner. For example, in how women came to wear the hijab (a head cover worn by Muslim women), they staggered through stages, took into consideration the difficulties of wearing it and even spoke of the impossibility of wearing it “fully” arguing that an appropriation of the item of clothing and the ideal accompanying norms must be one that matches “Bengali” signs of female propriety and modesty.  What emerges in this conversation and the contestation around the hijab, the primacy of interiority versus the externalities that shape it and the question of modesty’s complicity in culture, is a “heterogeneity of desire and subject production” (Hafez 2011: 60). What we find in the mouldings of the discussion circles and the bonds of sisterhoods that are formed is that these Islamic women are complex and multifaceted subjects whose lives and desires do not spell seamless narratives of religiosity or secularity, but are rather “imbrications of religion and secularism” (Hafez 2011: 16).

Islam in Discourse, Platforms and the Everyday

Thus, in the contestation of Bengali and Bangladeshi nationalism, if indeed there are sparks of a sense of nation that is motivated by religion, how is that to be accommodated? By way of an accommodation of the early signs of a religious nationalism, the government has deployed a range of strategies. It has built new links and terms of appeasement with the traditionalists, that is, the madrasa bloc. The secularist anxiety that this new relationship may increase a religious sense of nation is offset by the policing of other groups, notably transnational Islamist ones with a local presence. Especially in the wake of acts of terror (that is, the blogger killings and the attack on Holey Artisan Café), the government has clamped down on many groups that share ideas and/or real ties with the Jamaat- e-Islami. As an extension of such security measures, the discussion circles have also drawn their boundaries closer. While many preachers have “retired,” others have embraced their new position of being quieter, more measured and speaking to smaller numbers of people. While these security measures have appeased many, and curtailed terrorist links, others worry that placing all transnational Islamic discourses, their overlaps notwithstanding, under the same umbrella also leads to certain losses. The conventional wisdom is that heightened force of securitisation stifles expression and drives groups underground, rendering them angry and amenable to unsavoury mutations. However, the loss that I would highlight is drawn from my ethnographic exploration where religiosity was the product of certain needs attained through affective change and embodied practices, and where women found authority and agency and a life of meaning. When these spaces are securitised, so are deeply held meanings and attachments. Is there another way to place Islam in the public sphere beyond terror and security so that it can be a vehicle and receptacle of growth?

Robert Hefner argues that “discourse coalition” has been an important feature of how “civic” Islam has grown in Indonesia and achieved some measure of success in speaking for democracy and governance. Such discourse coalition, Hefner argues, has been possible through Islam’s appropriation by civil society platforms. In Bangladesh, beyond the tropes: terror and security, pawn in politics or alterity representing an archaic Islam resistant to change (the madrasa bloc), I throw light on the desire to create something new, embodied practices and affective attachments to ask what to do with these as values that belie the tropes. In other words, how do we assess Islamic platforms and their potential, and what should we harness so that a lived Islam is actualised and realised towards its fullest potential? Beyond the tropes, Islam has been mainstreamed into some development activities beginning in the 1990s at the initiative of USAID to train Imams to address family planning needs. One of the critiques that the programme generated, that is, that women were not at the centre of such a gender-sensitive campaign, was later addressed when the Asia Foundation engaged Imams’ wives to address violence against women. However, there are concerns that questions concerning women’s bodies remain under the umbrella of the guidance and patronage of their husbands. Thus, these platforms are yet to demonstrate how they allow women to acquire positions of (religious) authority that enables them to reflect on the vagaries of life and carve out an Islam that is friendly towards their lives as women. Thus, there is scope to think of ways to create platforms and build links across them so that people’s desire to make sense of the private–public link in which Islam can remain vital and relevant to everyday aspirations, can develop in capacious ways.   

What public Muslimness through a burgeoning religious sense of the nation may spell for the political terrain in Bangladesh, is a complex question that must contend with the various committed engagements and critical assessments through which the religious self is formed, the various kinds of relationships that are forged between individuals, groups, and associations, and the ways in which ideas can be shared between them. Charles Hirshkind describes the moral call of the Egyptian Islamic counter public as constituting the political not in the conventional sense of influencing state policy or mobilising voting blocs behind party platforms, but rather “in a way close to the sense Hannah Arendt gives to the term: the activities of ordinary citizens who, through the exercise of their agency in contexts of public interaction, shape the conditions of their collective existence” (Hirschkind 2006: 8). As educated Bangladeshi women, young and old, set out to change the conditions of their collective existence by questioning modernity’s myriad deliverances, state policies and alleged conspiracies, are their ways of capturing their engagement with Islam in a meaningful frame? In this article, I have argued that in order to harness the “enabling” potential of the discussion groups created by and for women, understanding the force and process behind the vitality and to allow those elements to flourish openly through interaction, dialogue and exchange may yield better outcomes for Islam’s footing in the nation’s psyche. To explore the possibility of not bludgeoning the religious spirit, but to build bridges across nationalisms, it may be useful to think beyond political manoeuvring to seek opportunities of peacebuilding through the flow and cross fertilisation of discourses. As the examples from the discussion groups show, religiosity does not unfold in a vacuum and certainly not independent of secularity in thought, expression and practice. Thus, the embers of religious nationalism will also do well to be in conversation with constitutive elements of other nationalism for mutual sharing, growth and relevance to the lives of the people who aspire to engage with religious norms to take the nation forward. 

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