Bangladesh’s Islamic modernity

By Mustafa Malik

POLASHPUR, Bangladesh – A casualty of your trip to Bangladesh (and many other Muslim countries) could be the belief, or illusion, that Islam and modernity are conflicting value systems.   A college classmate’s visit to my ancestral home here in Polashpur village reminded me of this illusion, which is I see widely shared in America.

I wouldn’t have recognized Rafiqul Islam if he had not told me who was, especially because of his sprawling gray beard, Islamic cap and long kurta, Islamic shirt.  It was more than three decades since the last time I had met him, then a clean-shaven businessman in slacks and a short-sleeve shirt. Relishing jackfruit from a tree planted by my deceased father, Rafiq said his children had settled down, and he now had “the freedom” to devote to some social service.

That included campaigning for “Islamic-minded” candidates at elections and fund-raising for a “modern madrasah,” or Islamic school.  The madrasah would offer the usual Islamic courses, but also English, math, science and social studies. Secular courses were rarely taught in non-government madrasahs four decades ago when I lived in Bangladesh. While madrasahs providing secular education are proliferating throughout the country, secular schools are teaching more Islamic subjects than ever.

About 90 percent of the Bangladeshi population of 160 million is Muslim. Rafiq is among the many educated ones who began their professional or business careers as run-of-the-mill secularists but eventually were swayed by the Islamizing wind.

“You look like a mujahid [one who struggles for Islam],” I said in jest.

“I wasted my life,” he replied, “doing things that don’t mean anything …. It’s already late for me to do what you would like to remember in your deathbed.”

Islamic activism such as Rafiq’s used to be red herring to Bangladesh’s staunchly secularist founding elite, especially the “father of the nation” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.  “These beards!” he scowled during an interview with me in September 1970 at his home in what is now the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. He was referring to bearded Islamic activists. “It will take 30 years of [spread of] education and progress to weed them out,” he added.

Bangladesh was born the following year as a terribly poor and backward country. After two decades of economic and political turmoil, it began to modernize at an impressive pace.  Surveys by U.N. agencies show that the country’s per capita GDP has tripled during the past 20 years — from $217 in 1991 to $640 today. During this period, the national literacy rate has risen from 26 percent to 56 percent.  More remarkable is Bangladesh’s progress in female education.  In the 15-24 years age group, the female literacy rate is 77 percent, compared to the male 74 percent.

Bangladeshi women are highly visible in politics, business and other professions. For two decades, the country has not known a male head of government. Two women, heading the two largest political parties, have been rotating as prime ministers.

Most of these professional and activist women, however, don’t step out of home without having their Islamic head covering on.  Indeed, the country’s cultural landscape flaunts Islamic symbols and idiom so lavishly as never in history.  In Sylhet, the town nearest to my Polashpur home, many – if not most – of the business, social and educational outfits show off Islamic names: Shah Jalal (local Muslim saint) University, Ibn Sina (eminent Arab Muslim philosopher) Hospital, Al-Hambra (Muslim architectural masterpiece in Spain) Shopping Center, Islamic Insurance Company, Al-Makkah (Mecca) Pharmacy, Bismillah (in the name of Allah) traders, and so on.  During my visits in the early years of the country’s independence, I don’t remember seeing any of these Islamic symbols and thousands of others in Sylhet and outlying towns and bazaars, except that of the saint Shah Jalal.

As in many other Muslim societies, the educated class in Bangladesh who grew up under British colonial rule or in its immediate aftermath believed in Western-style secularism with mosque-state separation.  The farther they are from the colonial era, the more they feel the pull of their native Islamic culture. The more Western lifestyle doesn’t “mean anything” to them, as Rafiq mentioned.  To make modernity meaningful to their lives, they are adapting it to Islamic values and way of life.

• Mustafa Malik, an international affairs columnist in Washington, hosts the blog Beyond Freedom.

Mustafa Malik
Mustafa Malik, the host and editor of the blog Community, worked three decades as an American journalist and as a researcher for U.S. think tanks. He wrote continually for major U.S. and overseas newspapers and journals. He also conducted fieldwork in Western Europe and the Middle East on U.S. foreign policy options, "crisis of liberalism" and Islamic movements.

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