ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Defining Self and Other

Bangladesh’s Secular Aspirations and Its Writing of Islam

Bangladesh's experience with secularism has been chequered. Beginning with a strong constitutional mandate and political rhetoric, the word "secularism" has been changed, removed and restored, while Islam remains the state religion. Aspirations to the principles of secularism - tolerance, peaceful coexistence, and equal treatment of all religions by the State - have been battled at the level of constitutional amendments and political affiliations. These aspirations also undergird a certain epistemic ground, framed by hermeneutic approaches, which produces particular ways of understanding the self as Muslim and its non-Muslim others. This article examines that epistemic ground, tracing the changes in constructions of the self and the other brought about by the manner in which the Islamic Foundation has approached the Quran, methods for reading it, and the manner in which it has advocated attachment to the Islamic tradition. The article highlights how an increasingly muted understanding of power has led to an ever expansive gap between Muslims and the non-Muslim others they share the nation state of Bangladesh with.

I would like to thank the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment RPC, which funded the part of this research that deals with the shaping of women and Islam in the 1950s and 1960s in what was then East Pakistan. The research on Abul Hashim is an outcome of that project. I wish to thank Firdous Azim, with whom I had thought of and proposed the work. I am also thankful to Mulki Al Sharmani for providing me with material, for reading and sending me comments on this article. I would also like to thank David Burrell and Mikhail Islam for their valuable feedback. Last but not least, I am thankful to my contacts at the Islamic Foundation, who have given me their time for interviews and helped with whatever material they considered useful. I gratefully acknowledge the comments of an anonymous reviewer.

Today, secularism is a much debated and even embattled term. Liberals, both in the West and the non-West, insist on its virtues as religion makes a comeback in the cultural and political spheres. In Western nations, Muslims and other minorities have made their public presence felt, paralleling an increase in right-wing Christian groups and ideas. In non-Western countries, where religion has more salience in people’s everyday lives, the recent global surge in religious zeal in politics and the quotidian have further inspired secular advocates to counter the “religious threat”. Consequently, current debates diverge in several directions, ranging from thinking about ways to curb the influence of religion, ways to channel and streamline religion, to changing laws and reorienting norms and policies. While these debates take place amongst academics, policymakers and activists, the dominant theses rest on good versus bad religion, and good versus bad secularism. The debates remain loaded in teleological assumptions, whereby nation states must exhibit the ability to transcend differences between citizens so as to create the ideal “modern” polity. Thus, underlying most debates is a discussion on how to foster a process that would result in a pre­determined goal, set by the ideals of modernity.

With good versus bad religion and good versus bad secularism dominating most debates, several insights find less prominence on the radar. First amongst these are recent academic insights that conceptualise secularism as a project of the state, to be understood as a principle of state governance where religion is not removed or reduced, but regulated through state and civic institutions (Asad 2003a; Mahmood 2008). In this regulation, states patronise, condition, and produce particular expressions of religion, and consequently citizen-subjects whose religiosity can somehow be accommodated with the state’s vision. Under such a project, religion and secularism do not fall on opposing sides of a divide. Rather, they are intertwined and borne out of one another. In order to understand this regulatory project, one needs to pay attention to and draw links between different state initiatives, and the social processes that create and foster particular configurations of religiosity and secularity. This approach is a fairly novel one, where only recently scholars have begun to demonstrate and argue for the interconnections between the religious and the secular, and the state’s role in creating, managing, and ossifying rules, procedures and institutions that promote different versions of the religious-secular configuration (Iqtidar 2011).

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