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January 25, 2005

On the "Next Islamic Revolution"

As I noted a few days ago The New York Times Magazine sent an intrepid journalist to chronicle the rise of Islamism in Bangladesh. This story is getting some play on the web, Winds of Change and Little Green Footballs have both pointed to it. If you want a Razib-o-centric view on this issue...read on.

First, one needs to keep the numbers in perspective. Bangladesh is a nation of ~140 million. 10,000 Islamic militants, 500 jihadis, tens of thousands of hoodlums who take to the streets. Such things are difficult to judge in terms of what they truly mean. A writer who travels to an alien land can only impart you their impressions, a particular slice of life. How representative is that slice?

I have a distant relative who is a development economist. He was quite frank that numbers in Bangladesh are always a tricky game, truth is something defined on a piece of paper, while reality only exists in the shadows.

My personal experience of Dhaka in the spring of 2004 was of a somewhat ostentatious Muslim nation, devout in any Western context, but generally focused on attaining a degree of prosperity in the face of its omnipresent poverty. Certainly I was peppered with questions about hatred toward Muslims in the United States, but on the other hand people were just as ready to talk about the coming flood of Chinese garments into the world markets and the ramifications for Bangladesh's economy.

The call to prayer ebbed and flowed throughout the day (some mosques summoned their worshippers earlier than others, so there was a distribution which peaked at a particular time and diminished). But there was also the persistent bustle and hustle of commerce, "respectable" women were complaining that prostitutes were expanding the red light district and becoming more bold in staking out their place in the public arena, while the local English language newspaper had a somewhat light-hearted piece about the open air pornography stalls that dominated one market. Corruption is more salient than Allah in Bangladesh, and so of course the local police officers looked the other way in exchange for their quota of pornographic goodies. In some of the main public squares there were bright posters with plump golden fleshed women in various states of undress, advertising "private shows" and what not. Some were torn down, but the next day they were there again.

Are porn stalls and strip shows typical of Bangladesh? The local prostitutes' union organizing is not something that should indicate that sexual freedom is the norm among Bangladeshi women, while the relative lack of modesty of dress (in a Middle Eastern way of judging such things) does not imply that Bangladeshis feel themselves to be any less Muslim and are any less pompous in their private assertions of piety. Rather, I am pointing out that extracting from the rich texture of an extremely poor country the possibility that its whole being might move toward Islamism seems to be implausible...but then who I am I to judge? I saw what I saw, from the perspective of one whose family members are rather privileged, and on the whole urban. But, I would offer that urban Islamism is the real threat, while rural Islamism generally indicates that local grievances are being channeled through religious forms to cover up their base motivations.

Finally, let me offer that in my own family are many devout people, but in particular I have two uncles who might be considered fundamentalists in Western parlance. One of my uncles is an imam who keeps his wife in purdah. Another of my uncles is a professor of geology at a small college, and he also keeps his wife in purdah, and he is a member of an organization called Tableegh. Tableegh has been termed the "Muslim Jehovah Witness," their obnoxious exhortations to relatives and friends, their aggressive interpersonal sermons, tend to rub many moderate Bangladeshi Muslims the wrong way. I have seen many relatives' eyes glaze over as they listen to the thousandth sermon from my uncle about how women should be secluded, everyone should pray five times a day, how one should eat, sleep, think and breath. But, it is crucial to note that this order does not engage in politics. That is, they are not Islamists in the public sphere, their domain in personal witness and conversion. I do not note in the article above any mention of this group, but in my experience these are the fundamentalist Muslims who are the most powerful day to day force in the life of Bangladeshis, not those who are involved in political parties (Tableeghis specifically avoid politics).

One must avoid generalizations based on samples of two. Or my slice of life. My uncles, religious, pious, rather medieval Muslims, are not typical of Muslims. Let me be frank and note that I see the stamp of common familial tendnecies, a combination of extroversion combined with hyperrational reflection. Their Islam is a meditation on eternal truths rather than an emotional expression of the love of God. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find that both of my uncles expressed little hostility toward the United States, that my uncle who was an imam had inquired about obtaining a position in the United States, while my uncle who was involved in Tableegh noted that in the United States you had a land where being a Muslim was incredibley easy because of its freedoms. This is not to sanitize their mindsets, in the end they believe that all should submit to Allah, but in their relative quietism it was clear they conceived of this via the means of persuasion rather than compulsion.

These are just my impressions. My distant cousin the economist left me deeply disturbed about the state of data collection in Third World countries, and one should always be skeptical of headcounts and tallies offerd by "governments" of such nations. Hitler's Germany never gave a majority to the Nazi party, so it is possible that the majority of Bangladesh's rather moderate Muslim population could assent to the will of a militant minority, but it is important to note that there are fissures and substructure within the conservative Muslims themselves. In many urban areas Bangladesh's society is changing so fast that the agenda of reformists, whether Islamist or Western liberals, must always keep pace with local looming social disasters that metastize and shape-shift with each alteration in the socioeconomic winds. My relatives, rather prosperous individuals, complain now that it is extremely difficult to find household help because so many young women are working in the factories. This one piece of the puzzle is a crucial one that many miss, Islamism in some ways is a reaction to the headlong rush of a culture that is shifting from pre-medieval to information age in fits & starts, and in a mosaic fashion as some segments remained mired in subsistence while others attempt to become subdivisions of Walmart.

In any case, there are some prosaic reasons for Bangladesh not becoming an Islamic maelstrom in the coming years:


  1. It is too poor.
  2. It is too inward looking geopolitically.
  3. It is too outward looking economically.
  4. It has large religious minorities.
  5. There is a tension, a dichotomy, between Bengaliness and Muslimness, so that the neither can totally come out victorious. A fundamentalist Bangladesh would have to repudiate Tagore....

One or two of these variables can be overcome. Poor Afghanistan was geopolitically entangled with the outside world and economically isolated, so it felt both free and compelled to Islamicize. Bangladesh's 140 million people are twisted in too many directions to form a fist against the West. The threat comes from countries which have attained a level of prosperity, which can mobilize their population who now look beyond subsistence, but have not obtained universal middle-class levels of affluence. They can marry resentment to lack of want and therefore meditate upon plans which look over the horizon. (my opinion also applies to segregated Muslim nations which are being incubated in some European polities)

Posted by razib at 02:09 AM