Saturday, June 15, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Islamism is dead. Long live Islamism

The fall of Islamism as a potent political force has ushered Bangladesh in a new age of Islamist-secularist divide

Update : 08 Oct 2023, 12:33 PM

As a political force, Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, is on the brink of becoming irrelevant. Islami Andolon Bangladesh has attempted without success to replace the formidable Jamaat of the past. 

The current international political climate is inhospitable for Islamism, whose best bet appears to be the “post-Islamism” of Turkey, a remarkable example of de-Islamization of Islamism itself.

Nation-states have eroded the ummahtic sense of belonging. Transnational Islamist networks are ever shrinking as the veteran Islamist leaders continue to pass away and (formerly) Islamist movements become ever more nationalist and liberal in their approach.

Against this backdrop, Bangladesh is witnessing the rise of a new kind of Islamism -- and with it, a new type of Islamist-secularist rivalry.

If Islamism is dead, secularism in Muslimistan becomes unwarranted. Secularism cannot tell what it is without outlining what it is not, ie, Islamism. It loses its raison d'être in the absence of Islamism.

Even Muslim nationalism like the one espoused by Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) needs an Islamism so as not be placed in the same bracket as the latter. On top of that, many often forget that the chief rival of Mawdudi’s Islamism was the Muslim League’s Muslim nationalism. 

In short, what this means is even if Islamism is dead, a new Islamism must be created to, if nothing else, keep secularist politics alive.

This new form of Islamism arising from the ashes of its previous self is found in the anti-discrimination activism of modernizing Muslims. Far from the ideology-oriented Islamism of the past, this brand of Islamism is primarily focused on the rights of those branded Islamists within secular modernity. 

Being vocal about discrimination against individuals displaying Muslimness, eg, madrassah and hijabi students, in secular spaces, they decry the stereotypical depiction or non-representation of Muslimness in popular culture. 

Their demand is not to erect an Islamic state. Despised by the secularists and abandoned by Muslim nationalism, they want acceptance and equal treatment in secular modernity.

Socioeconomic inequality and hostility arising from it add fuel to the fire in this emerging form of Islamist-secularist divide. With the rapid horizontal expansion and vertical penetration of modern social institutions, a massive number of Bangladeshi population, yet to shed its religious beliefs and practices completely, is entering modernity. 

They are bringing to the previously cautiously filtered secular spaces the hijab, beard, panjabi, and skullcap. When they enter the secular temple that is Dhaka University, they refuse to leave at home the orators and writers whose existence our secularism has, up until now, carefully ignored. 

Feeding into the secularist anxiety, this massive number of aspiring middle-class population is making urban-middle-class-educated-elites question the sudden rise in hijabs and beards in the public sphere. Those attending elite schools in Dhaka cringe at the prospect of having to share their university classroom and campus with “barbarians” from the countryside, whose unabashed religiosity is a major irritant.

Bangladeshi secularists forget that modernization accompanies a surge in religiosity. For instance, the Protestant Reformation, one of the first attempts at modernization in the West, was a religious movement. It is only gradually that religiosity among moderns subsides.

But our secularist elites appear reluctant to allow the Muslim “philistine” the time they need to settle in the civilized sedentary life, thereby precipitating this new battle against Islamism.

The West needed roughly 400 years before it could secularize itself. Even then, critical scholars claim that the West has yet to come out of Christianity’s shadows. But Bangladesh’s secularists offer neither the time nor a fixed benchmark for secularization. 

The inclusion of a heterogenous and scattered population into the category of Islamists underscores the fluidity of the Islamist category and the politics behind it. 

When Jamaat was a force to reckon with, secularists attempted to strategically co-opt these actors in their struggle against Jamaat. With Jamaat dead, these strategic allies of the past -- previously described as conservative, religious, Islamic, traditional, or backward -- have replaced Jamaat as the Islamist enemy.

After conquering one Islamism, the triumphalist Bangladeshi secularism has set out in its holy mission of civilizing the rest of the heathens.


Md Ashraf Aziz Ishrak Fahim is a graduate student of Social and Political Thought at the University of Leeds. He can be reached at [email protected].

Top Brokers


Popular Links