Let us define the Islamist voter as someone who would blindly vote any party or candidate basing their platform on Islam. Vast majority of such voters in Bangladesh do not have more than few years of formal schooling. And the small minority that is educated are not capable of leading the rest because these two groups of Islamist voters have quite different visions of Islam.
And this difference in how Islam is to be envisaged goes many years back to the 11th century, when a schism emerged among the Muslims on education and knowledge. Specifically, Imam Gazali called for madrassah education to focus only on religious study, ignoring science, statecraft, philosophy and mathematics.
When Muslims conquered Syria they came across hundreds of books by Greek philosophers and mathematicians. During the Abbasid Caliphate starting from 750 AD, Muslims actively searched, translated and disseminated such books of knowledge under royal patron ship. Although many of the ideas in those books contradicted Muslim cultural and religious beliefs at that time, they still went ahead with studying and distributing them in the interest of acquiring knowledge. Meanwhile Europe was in the dark ages where all scholarship was confined into monastery based theological studies.
But things turned upside down from the effects of Crusade and then Mongol invasion. From the interactions of European Christians and Arab Muslims, the Europeans acquired the secular study of knowledge in the Arab lands and the Muslims took up the Church-based education of Europe. The hope continuing the tradition of Ibne Rushd, Ibne Sina, Al-Beruni, Al-Khwarizmi, Al-Farabi, Al-Kindi, Jabir Al-Haiyan etc, withered into nothing.
Imam Gazali was chiefly responsible for this. He forbid all heretical ideas and thoughts to preserve Islam. He fiercely attacked Ibne Sina in his book Tahafut Al Falasifa. Because of the vehemence of his attacks, even bold thinkers like Omar Khayyam withdrew from broadcasting their ideas vigorously. Because of Gazali, madrassah education, which was the only mass education system for youth apart from the universities for higher education, confined itself only on religious studies. But there were oppositions to this restriction in mass education in different parts of the Muslim world.
Eventually, this schism led to three regional schools: a science oriented one based on Egypt’s Al Azhar; a syncretistic one in Turkey; and a religion-focused one based in Samarkent.
Bangladesh’s madrassahs are the heir to the Islamic discourse written in Farsi a millennium ago in Samarkent. The Samarkent school was abolished by the Soviets, but its literature survived in the madrassahs of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India (Deoband) and Bangladesh’s qaumi madrassahs.
The textbooks used in Bangladeshi madrassahs are all based on the Samarkent school literature, and are written in Farsi or archaic Urdu. Indeed, there are instances of Hadiths of questionable authenticity taught in our madrassahs based on this literature. For example, only recently such a dubious Hadith was circulated in social media, claiming that the Prophet (pbuh) ordered us to attack India. Being the heir of the Samarkent school, madrassah students of Bangladesh tend to read archaic Urdu and Farsi more than modern Arabic-Farsi-Urdu.
After 9/11/2001, modernisation of Bangladesh’s madrassahs became a priority. The then BNP government, with the assistance of Jamaat and large foreign funding, attempted a modernisation drive. This led to an intense conflict between qaumi madrassahs and aliya madrassahs and those trained from Medina University — with the latter denounced as Jew-trained-heretic by some eminent leaders of the qaumi madrassahs.
The Imams of nine out of ten mosques in Bangladesh are from these qaumi madrassahs. They are the role models of Bangladeshi Islamists. Scholars from different schools are viewed with suspicion by those trained in the Samarkent tradition. To expect modernising Islamists like Fetullah Gulen or Tariq Ramadan is thus unrealistic in the Bangladeshi context.
And how big is the Islamist vote in Bangladesh anyway? Let’s think about it through attendance at mosques. The same mosque that can’t fit the jamaat on a Friday, causing a traffic jam outside, can’t find a single line of Muslims for the Fajr prayer. That is the blunt reality of Islamism in Bangladesh.
The apparent rise of Islamism in today’s Bangladesh is a socio-cultural reaction against Awami misrule and Shahbagi cultural hubris. It is similar to the socio-cultural reaction against the upper caste Hindu chauvinism a century ago. Just like the Muslim League politics ended after partition, sympathy for the Islamists will also wane once the political scene changes.
Before an Islamic revolution is even plausible in Bangladesh, Islam has to be actually practiced along side science and technology. Vast majority of us practice neither. Those who practice both however don’t represent the Samarkent traditionalists, who are the actual Islamists.
And that’s why Islamist politics is a non-starter in Bangladesh.