Bangladeshi society has been undergoing tension and contradiction between secularism and political Islam. Political Islam has been gradually making inroads into the society by challenging secularism, the founding principle of Bangladesh state. Secularism envisions a society where people of different faiths live side by side and practice their religions without hindering others while political Islam spreads animosity among different sects of Islam and against other religions with a view to occupying political and state power by cajoling people in the name of Islam.
The preachers of political Islam draw inspiration from two politico-religious movements called Wahhabism and Mowdudism. Pakistan-born British activist thinker Tareq Ali traces the roots of Wahhabism in his book The Clash of Fundamentalisms. According to Tareq Ali, Wahhabism hinges on an ultra-orthodox eighth century interpretation of Muslim law. Its preacher Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab began to preach this in Uyayna with a call to return to the “pure beliefs” of Islam by condemning Muslims who prayed at the shrines of holy men, criticising the customs of marking graves, and denouncing all non-Sunni and even some Sunni groups. His social prescription - punishment like beatings, insistence on the stoning to death of adulterers, the amputation of thieves, and public execution of criminals - created a real problem in 1740 and he was expelled from his native city by his rival Islamic religious and political authorities, adds Ali. However, Ibn Wahhab's preaching received a political footing following his collaboration with the emir of Deraiya, a city state of Nejd province, Muhammad Ibn Saud. Ibn Wahhab provided theological justification for almost everything Ibn Saud wanted to achieve while Ibn Saud provided political and military support for Wahhab's preaching. Their relationship was sealed by a marriage. Ibn Wahhab's daughter became one of Ibn Saud's wives. By 1792, the Saudi-Wahhabi forces had subjugated the cities of Riyadh, Kharj and Qasim. In 1801, they raided Karbala, the holiest city of Shias, killed five thousand inhabitants and looted their valuables. In the following year, they occupied Taif and destroyed the domed tombs of the Prophet and the caliphs which were rebuilt after the Ottomans defeated the Wahhabis, Ali added further. Wahhabi doctrines radicalised many Muslims across the Arab world over the years.
Mowdudism, an orthodox religious movement, was created by Syed Mowdudi in the 1930s and 1940s in the Indian Subcontinent. Mowdudi developed the concepts of Islamic state, Islamic political system, and Islamic economic system. He also wrote tafsir or interpretation of the Quran. He created an Islamist political party - Jamaat-e-Islami - to preach and establish his brand of Islam and Islamic state. Like Ibn Wahhab, Mowdudi also waged 'jihad' against his rival sects in Islam. Mowdudi was given a death penalty for raising hatred against the Qadiyanis. However, he was acquitted by the Supreme Court after an appeal.
Political Islam became a global phenomenon with variable local expressions because of wrong policies of the West. In their formative stage, Islamist radical groups were sponsored by the West to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. The toppling of secular rulers in Iraq and Libya in recent years provided fertile breeding grounds for Islamic radicalism. They now not only attack rival Muslims but also challenge the hegemony of the West and attempt to subvert western culture.
Islamist radicalism was initiated in Bangladesh by the followers of Mowdudism during the Pakistan regime. However, Bangladesh was born as an independent country with secularism as a state principle. The followers of Mowdudism opposed the creation of Bangladesh and some of its leaders committed war crimes against humanity. The government of Sheikh Hasina has beaten all odds to try the war criminals. After the liberation of the country, the first government, led by the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, made religion based politics illegal in Bangladesh. But radical Islamism was allowed to remerge in the country after the assassination of Bangabandhu, along with most of his family members, in 1975. Military dictators, who ruled the country after Bangabandhu, helped re-establish religion based political parties to flourish by removing secularism from the constitution. Radical Islamist politics got a huge boost during the rule of the four party alliance which involved the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami.
Inspired by the recent success of Islamist radicals in creating anarchy and spreading hatred around the world and because of their anger towards the war crime trials, Islamist radicals in Bangladesh now threaten the state. The Bangladeshi state, under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, has been steadfast in fighting against Islamist radicalism. Law enforcement agencies have been successful in taming radicalism to a large extent, but could not stop the killings of several bloggers.
Law enforcement agencies alone are not enough to tackle the threats of Islamist radicalism. Fighting Islamist radicalism requires a social movement initiated by an alternative ideology rooted in the spirituality of Islam. Islamic scholars who can challenge the radical and orthodox interpretations of Islam should be promoted and protected. Imams of mosques need to be motivated to combat radical Islam. Families, schools, and madrasas need to teach religious tolerance. Two significant documents from the Prophet's time, the Madina Charter and the Prophet's speech during his last Hajj visit, can work as sources of inspiration to fight Islamist radicalism because on both occasions, the Prophet talked about religious tolerance and recognised religious pluralism.
The writer is a Professor of Television and Film Studies at the University of Dhaka.