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Islamists in the backseat, not in front

  • Published at 12:01 am December 21st, 2018
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Intolerance and bluster do not make for good politics SYED ZAKIR HOSSAIN

Groups like Hefazat and Jamaat are slowly starting to lose significance in politics

Earlier this month, as the coalitions for the upcoming battle on December 30 took more solid shapes, a curious feature became apparent. There are about 70 Islamist political parties in Bangladesh, 63 of them are now with the Awami League-led coalition, while only five are part of BNP-led alliance.

The massive irony of religious parties flocking under the wings of the “protector” of secularism in Bangladesh, could not escape even the most obtuse. However, as the popular saying goes, it’s not how many Islamist parties you have got, it’s about which Islamists you have.

Once again there is the gnashing of teeth, rending of garments from the usual suspects about the fact that BNP has given nominations to leaders of Jamaat. Once again, BNP acted as the last shelter of evils that stand between Bangladesh and all that is good.

However, the massive gathering of Islamic parties under the ruling regime generated furious alarms in the sincerer quarters also. They are regarding this as a definite sign of the inexorable Islamization of politics and society.

The mullahs are not just coming, they’re here.

I think that political developments in recent years in Bangladesh, and also in the Muslim world, are showing that political Islam is not a rising tide but may be an ebbing flood past its peak. Shafi Huzur and Hefazat accepting the patronship of the ruling party and joining the coalition show that ambition of madrassa-based organizations has remained at the bread and butter level.

They do not aspire to take charge of the large and complex polity, of whose gears and levers they have little understanding. Jamaat, the Islamic organization that has ambition of achieving reigning power one day near or distant, is now a shell of its former self.

The braggadocious Jamaat of the 90s and early 00s, when it claimed that the dedication and professionalism of its members made Jamaat sui generis of political organizations in Bangladesh, is no more.

Its pantheon of top leadership has been annihilated, the vaunted member-base couldn’t do anything to stop it despite suffering grievously in all-out efforts. Jamaat rank and file are confused, shell-shocked still. Obtaining state power, always a long-term ambition, has been postponed indefinitely into the future. 

Nothing could display the inherent disarray of Islamic forces within Bangladesh more starkly than the chaotic-but-deadly clash of Tablig factions that occurred on the first of December.

Tablig, which was mostly known for its detachment in this world in preparation for the next, showed that it can be as scrappy as any other organization when fighting over worldly possessions. All these recent incidents only underscore the fact that nobody in Bangladesh regards political Islam ready for taking up governance any time soon.  

In this age, one cannot separate the domestic from the international, especially for movements with global pretentions like political Islam. Internationally, we are also witnessing an ebbing of Islam’s march on political power.

In Egypt, brutal state repression has broken and scattered the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the global organization with which Jamaat have a long-standing affinity.

It’s not that MB is going away in Egypt or in other Arab countries, it is still the main non-government political organization in most of these countries. It is that MB supporters throughout the middle east and the world are introspecting why the suppression of the organization was so successful.

Why they couldn’t raise a groundswell of popular support for them and against the traditional rulers. In Tunisia, the main Islamist party, Ennahda, has compromised so much on secular governance that it is hardly distinguishable from a mainstream conservative party, rather than a political Islam project.

In Turkey, the Erdogan regime is increasingly transforming into strongman populism rather than embarking on political Islam. 

A common theme behind the evolution and current state of MB and all affiliated organizations in various countries is that, while they invested decades in developing organizational and theological support, they did not invest in developing any form of “governance thinking.”

More honesty, more justice, more welfare, these platitudes do not make coherent political and economic thoughts capable of dealing with the modern world.

Unlike capitalism, liberalism, East-Asian authoritarianism, or even populist nationalism, political Islam has not yet been able to present successful governance systems. No rational leader or thinker in the Muslim world try to inspire fellow countrymen.

There is no denying that religion is becoming more important and influential in Muslim societies all over the world.

However, political organizations are discovering that support for religious principles and identities do not automatically translate in to support for religious politics, policies, and organizations. Most Muslims, in the modern world, also generally render unto Caesar things that are Caesar’s, and unto Church the things that are Church’s.

This article has so far been full of gross generalizations. After Fukuyama’s debacle, no one should be unaware of how tenuous it is to extrapolate current trends into long-term projections. 

However, it is not shaky to argue that institutionalizing Islamic organizations into regular politics, particularly when they are weak and small, is a better way for the development of Muslim polity than excluding them or confining them into unconventional politics.

Political organizations don’t just dabble in politics -- politics also make them. The crucial thing is the way of doing politics. 

Shafiqur Rahman is a political scientist.

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