On da’wa and harakat

Posted in Islamists, politics, society, Uncategorized by jrahman on January 30, 2013

In a number of online forums including this blog and UV, I’ve chided Bangladeshi progressives for lumping all Islamic movements — harakat, to use the Arabic term preferred by many participants of such movements — as one monolithic and homogenous enemy, and demonising them as war criminals / collaborators / militants (if not chhagu or something worse).  For some ultranationalists, anyone with facial hair and skull cap — dari-tupi — or hijab is enough to warrant such derogatory tagging.  Childish such behaviour may be, but in a country where 90% of the people are Muslim, that behaviour will have dangerous blow back.

This post, however, is not about making that argument.  Rather, this is really my attempt at classifying several streams of harakat as I see them in (hopefully soon to be post war crimes trial) Bangladesh.  The analysis behind the classification is based on my own personal experience, observation and conversation, as well as a reading of the relevant literature (authors I would recommend include Gilles Kepel, Olivier Roy, Timur Kuran and Wali Nasr).

As always, the views are ever evolving and tentative.  I may well change my mind in future.  In fact, I will very likely do so.  But this is how I see the movements in near future Bangladesh.

This is a positive post, not a normative one.  That is, I am not going to comment on where I stand on the movements or their objectives.  Rather, the idea is to classify the movements.

At the broadest level, a distinction needs to be made between the political and apolitical movements, where political is defined as those pertaining to achieving power over the state machinery.  There are many Islamic movements that either actively disavow politics and distance themselves from the state.  In a sense, these movements underscore the liberal concept of a separation between spiritual and secular.  Let me broadly classify this stream as the Da’wa (the invitation).

Tabligh Jamaat is perhaps the largest Da’wa movement in Bangladesh.  Anyone familiar with them — and let’s face it, any Bangladeshi, of whatever religion, socioeconomic or ethnic background, is likely to know someone who belongs to Tabligh — will know that this movement has nothing to do with attaining state power.  Their entire programme is about changing lifestyles — growing a beard or wearing hijab, sleeping on the floor because the Prophet didn’t sleep in a bed — to become ‘better’ Muslims.

The idea of Da’wa is usually (but not always, see below) to change the individual — non-Muslims to convert, nominally Muslims to become better Muslims.  Tabligh attempts to do this through a peer network system.  But others have different methods.

Various Pirs across the country preach Da’wa in their own way.  A Pir essentially claims to have some spiritual superiority over his followers, and others are invited to share the fruits of his spirituality.  People like Zakir Naik or the recently sentenced fugitive AK Azad or the alleged war criminal Delwar Hossein Sayedee also practise a form of Da’wa when they use modern technology to explain Islamic precepts and ideas to their followers.  

Da’wa movements can be further classified into the interpretation of Islam being preached.  On one extreme is the Salafiyya — those who want to live like the Prophet and the Rightly Guided Successors.  For them, anything not found in the Quran and the Sunnah is forbidden.  Then there are the Tablighis, who also favour a literal or traditional interpretation.  Various Pirs, on the other hand, are a different matter.  The whole concept of Pirs and Sufis is considered bid’a (harmful innovation) to the Salafiyya.  Whatever they preach, the Pirs are a product of local conditions of rural and semi-rural Bangladesh.  They are, almost by definition, syncretic.  The modern Da’wa practitioners, of course, could be anywhere in the Salafi-syncretic spectrum.

While most Da’wa movements aim to change the individuals, there are some who aim to affect social changes, but fall short of outright politics.  In Bangladesh, there are two broad social Da’wa movements.  The older of the two is the network of traditional qawmi madrassahs, who look to Deoband for spiritual guidance (as does the Tabligh).  The more recent one is composed of the Gulf funded philanthropies — Islamic NGOs if you like — that have come to challenge western-funded organisations like BRAC in delivering various services to marginalised communities across the country.

Related to these Islamic NGOs are the Islam-based education, health or financial service providers that have sprung up around the country.  Some of these are outgrowth of NGOs (think BRAC University or BRAC Bank).  Others are outright profit making ventures.  But many are linked to the political harakat that is Jama’at-e-Islami.  I’ll do a separate post on Jama’at.  For now, the relevant thing is this.  Whereas, say, Tabligh Jama’at eschews politics, Jama’at-e-Islami is all about politics.  Whereas Tabligh wants the individual to become a better Muslim by following the rituals properly, Jama’at says that one cannot live an Islamic life in a state that is not run by Islamic precepts.

How do you run the state according to Islamic precepts?  You begin by capturing the state machinery.  And to do that, you need to participate in politics.

The political harakat can be further classified by the nature of that politics.  On one extreme are those who refuse to accept the legitimacy of modern states — not just Bangladesh, but any state.  Formally, Hizbut Tahrir seeks to replace modern states with a Caliphate.  On the other extreme are parties like the Turkish AKP who not only accept the sovereignty of their respective states, they also ground themselves in respective national identities, and accept the basic constitutional and political pluralisms of their societies.  Further, there are those who refuse to accept democratic means — elections, courts, media — as legitimate, even when these are available, preferring violence.  Others use violence because that’s the only option available, but would prefer democratic means if they were available (if only to do away with them once they achieve power).

If elections are any guide, Jama’at has been the largest political harakat in Bangladesh over the past quarter century.  During this time, they have accepted the reality of Bangladesh, and sought to consolidate their position within electoral politics.  Individuals such as Fazlul Huq Amini (of Islami Oikko Jote) or Maolana Mannan (founder of Daily Inqilab) have been Jama’at’s main rival in this kind of politics.  Both Amini and Mannan are now dead, as will the senior Jama’at leader be soon (they are old man, the trial or not, nature will run its course).  There are several million voters out there waiting to be captured by some new generation of harakat.

Well, that’s the harakat that seeks to work within the confines of electoral politics within the reality of Bangladesh.  What about those who wants to practice violent means or seek global revolutionary ends?

For a while in the middle of last decade, people like Bangla Bhai seemed like a significant factor in Bangladesh.  And the government likes to trumpet HT as a major threat.  These groups deserve a post on their own.  But for now, let me end with noting that I don’t actually see such any significant violent, revolutionary harakat in current or near future Bangladesh.
















4 Responses

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  1. piracetam said, on February 11, 2013 at 10:42 pm

    While Islamism has long been a major factor in Pakistani politics, Bangladeshi Islam has traditionally not accepted radical Islamism’s view of the faith. Due to their country’s indigenous Sufi movements and the assimilation of Hindu and Buddhist attributes, most Bangladeshis have historically practiced a moderate and tolerant form of Islam. While 98 percent of Bangladesh’s population are Bengalis, of which more than five percent are Bengali Hindus, the remainder is largely non-Muslim tribal groups. These religious minorities, along with the territorial imprint of Indian culture, provide Bangladesh with a background of religious diversity and pluralism anathema to radical Islamism’s Manichean worldview.

  2. BoroLokh said, on December 24, 2013 at 6:04 am

    Don’t know. At this stage I’m basically an atheist. The closest philosophical ideal I come to is probably physicalism. With the possible exception of a caveat here or there. But basically, I don’t believe in any “higher power”.

    However, I still sway culturally towards Islam [and whatever peculiar form that may take in Bangladesh]. Are there distinctions for guys like me back home? Bearing in mind I grew up bideshi, but with strong ethno-linguistic-cultural links with the fatherland. I notice that though I do not practice it, I retain certain “tribalisms”. No pork. No alcohol. I justify these by saying they are more “healthy” choices. Pork is [relatively] high-fat and rich in nitrates. Above-moderate alcohol consumption leads to various diseases and health issues in the long-run. However I get the real sense that I avoid these items religiously [ahem, pardon the pun] because I was brought up in an Islamic Bangladeshi household.

    Actually, though I do not hold any of the beliefs dear, I still find myself defending the religion from ignorant/misguided remarks and arguments. You could say that I just wished that people were more well-informed about the religion they are trashing [at least hate it on it’s real demerits]. But like the above [para], I feel I am doing this before the facts. Meaning it’s that [pseudo] patriotic-nationalist stirring whose initial impetus does not follow pure logic.

    Going from my own [admittedly] ignorant perspective, I’m not sure that lack of religiosity entails that you are “influenced” by other traditions [namely, Hindu-Buddhism as mentioned by piracetam above]. Perhaps Bangladeshi Muslims are not [on the whole] fundy whack-jobs, not because of having these alternative religious traditions, but because they simply do not carry over religion into every aspect of their lives as rigidly. As I said, I follow many of the Islamic traditions, including celebrating Eid [yes, that means going to a mosque], despite the [paradoxical?] fact that I totally don’t believe in any of it. Sort of similar to the way a Westerner can celebrate Christmas, even attending church services, despite being an atheist.

    For example, I wonder how much impact the [mostly Buddhist] tribals have in influencing the beliefs of the masses, when they are so utterly tiny in number. Sure, you could argue Buddhism was fairly prevalent in Bengal [e.g. at the flowering of the Pala Empire], but that was a looooong time ago. Plus it’s not clear to me how this breaks down when we look at East Bengal [Bangladesh]. My understanding is that Eastern Bengal was rather lightly populated and sort of animist. The land was settled mostly by Bengali-speaking Muslim peasants. That’s how the demographic shift occurred. So it’s wholly unclear to me how much influence Hindu-Buddhist thought had on the Muslim population of Bangladesh. After all, Punjab was a pretty mixed place. And they had Sikhs too. Okay they are geographically closer to the Islamic belt, but still sufficiently in the interior that they displayed pluralistic attitudes towards both religion and culture. And yet look at it. It’s a fundamentalist mess. Simmering with boiling tension and bloody violence [at least from time to time].

    Add to this that Bangladesh is in fact especially homogeneous compared to the rest of the subcontinent [for large countries → India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal etc.]. So I’m not sure you can argue it’s actually the minorities that have any [significant] input in whether or not Bangladesh experiences Islamic fundamentalism.

    Then add this to the fact that demographically-speaking, Bangladesh is set to become even more religiously homogeneous [because the Muslim birth rate is dropping at a slower pace than Hindu/Buddhist; although the country is near replacement level overall], and I’m even less sure you can attribute the lack of fundamentalism and violence in Bangladesh down to factors like religious plurality or “Indian influence” [after all, India’s biggest movie industry, Bollywood, is more suited culturally and linguistically, for the Pakistani market, not the Bangladeshi one].

    ♣ I wonder how much is due to folks being like me to a greater or lesser extent, irreligious. Maybe religion simply does not play as heavy a part in Bangladeshi lives as it does in Pakistani [or Indian, for that matter] lives.

    • BoroLokh said, on December 24, 2013 at 6:17 am

      In the above post [para 4], I wrote:

      Going from my own [admittedly] ignorant perspective, I’m not sure that lack of religiosity entails that you are “influenced” by other traditions [namely, Hindu-Buddhism as mentioned by piracetam above]

      I would like to amend that sentence to:

      ❑ Going from my own [admittedly] ignorant perspective, I’m not sure that the moderate and tolerant brand of Islam practised in Bangladesh [necessarily] entails that is has been “influenced” by other religious traditions [namely, Hindu-Buddhism as mentioned by piracetam above] ❑

    • BoroLokh said, on December 24, 2013 at 6:34 am

      And in the final para marked “♣”, replace the word “irreligious” with → “agnostic in belief, yet following [some] religious ritual in practice”. And replace “like” with the word “similar”.

      The sentence should thus read:

      ❑ I wonder how much is due to folks being similar to me to a greater-or-lesser extent, agnostic in belief [strictly speaking I would classify myself as an atheist], yet following [some] religious ritual in practice. ❑

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