The right to religious freedom is a secular guarantor of all, including minorities, to believe in and practice their religion freely. A hallmark of democracy and pluralism, the right to religious freedom is borne both in the legal system as well as in the wider political and cultural arena. In order to ensure that this secular promise delivers, societies should have attained, as Simon During writes, intellectual, state, and social secularization. These however are not parallel processes, and the developing world has experienced them unevenly. The uneven experience has had several consequences. First, it has led to constant debates about how to achieve “ideal secularism” by keeping religious “pollutants” at bay. But more importantly, as Saba Mahmood points out, the secularization process in the developing world has presupposed “certain kinds of subjectivities so as to render them compliant with liberal political rule.” In this post I explore the case of Bangladesh: the state of secularism there and the tensions and polemics that accompany the pursuit of an ideal secular state and society. I do this by reflecting on reactions surrounding women’s turn to greater religious engagement fostered through their participation in Quranic discussion circles in Dhaka. In outlining some of the tensions underlying the reactions, I wish to draw attention to the stakes of remaining confined to a binary view of religion and secularism, especially as new religious forces and faces come into the public space with the intent of developing and transforming it.

Bangladesh is often lauded as the poster child of third-world development: the birthplace of microcredit, the harbinger of religious tolerance, and exemplar of a transition from turbulent politics to persistent democracy in the developing world. Different from its neighbors on the basis of varying post-colonial experiences and development trajectories, the religion question came to be written on the nation through a particular “secular” construction, referred to in the vernacular as dhormoniropekkhota, or “religiously neutral.” This construction initially argued for an absence of religious political parties and for equal treatment of religions by the state so that all citizens may enjoy “equal” opportunity. While the ban on religious political parties has subsequently been lifted, and greater allowances made to Islam in the constitution, these are widely considered by liberal-secular defenders of the original constitution as intrusions that have defiled the sanctity of secularism. Restoring the original secular constitution, with all its constitutive elements is, as many argue, essential for socio-economic development, successful indicators of which, such as decreased maternal and infant mortality, increased literacy amongst the poor, and innovative ideas such as credit for the poor, have garnered Bangladesh a certain degree of global visibility. These advances, many argue, have been made possible only because the language of development has steered clear of religion in an attempt to construct the ideal secular nation. In other words, pro-secular development advocates argue that development successes have occurred in spite of, rather than (in collusion) with religion and religious beliefs, practices, and sensibilities.

Parallel to the achievement of the state, donors, and NGOs in the field of socio-economic development, much of which has furthered the status women, are legal triumphs through which, unlike in the Pakistani case, the Islamist call to declare Ahmediyas apostates has not been vindicated. Thus, the state’s secular mandate NOT to define the content of Islamic belief and practice is seemingly preserved. However, this “secular” prerogative does not find equal resonance when it comes to minority populations, for whom struggles over property and other rights seldom even make it to the courts. The “triumph” of secularism thus manifests itself in keeping alive a “liberal” notion of life for the majority population. An example of this is the recent victory in which the High Court directed the Ministry of Education to take immediate steps to implement the Guidelines on Sexual Harassment and to ensure that no woman working in any educational institution, public or private, is forced to wear a veil or cover her head, and may exercise her personal choice whether or not to do so.

The privileging of a liberal notion of Islam was the raison d’etre of the secular construct whose original clause that no political party can operate in the name of religion was borne directly out of the independence struggle. The Pakistani state had asserted its hegemony on the pretext that Bengali cultural markers, on the basis of their similitude with (Hindu) West Bengal, were inadequate expressions of the “Islamic nation” that Pakistan felt it had to project itself as. The birth of Bangladesh was seen, by the ruling elite of the time, as an opportunity to construct a new national character where a monolithic notion of Islam that required purging Bengalis of their linguistic and cultural affinities would not prevail. The state, although certainly not neutral vis-à-vis Islam, thus created particular Muslim citizen-subjects, who, in order to be nationalistic, had to refrain from a public/political position on Islam. However, in the course of development and modernization, the citizen’s engagement with Islam could not be contained to rituals that linked one’s inner self to the supernatural world via pirs, mystics, sufi saints that serve as spiritual leaders in praying for and guiding one’s worldly problems, and the darga sharif, or shrine of a dead pir where prayers are believed to be better heard. Given the tensions around public expressions of religion and their presumed anti-Bengali, “anti-nationalist” affinities, how would a more “modern” engagement with Islam express itself in Bangladesh? The Islamist platform brings with it all the pent-up negativity of aggression and anti-nationalism. Other more “neutral” platforms such as the Tabligh Jama’at are just too “neutral”—almost ineffective if Islam is to deliver us from bad governance, corruption, and personal, spiritual, and intellectual bankruptcy.

Other “creative” and evolving ways are on the horizon. I encountered some of these modalities while conducting fieldwork in women’s taleem, or Quranic discussion circles, in Dhaka. While such circles are not entirely new to the cultural, religious, and political landscape of Bangladesh, the ones in which I participated, along with many others in the city, are somewhat different in their pursuit of “modern religious” engagements that refrain from affiliating with existing religious groups and political parties. While the women are conservative vis-à-vis gender and sexuality issues, they appear more open in their thoughts about the political import of their public actions.

The first explanation offered by secular liberals of this modality of mobilizing—which calls itself “a-political” in its refusal to stand on an Islamist platform while at the same time distancing itself from a Tablighi kind of personal piety—is that it is strategic, aimed at keeping at bay the anti-nationalist stigma attached to the Jama’at-e-Islami. Framing the women’s religious engagement as strategic is consonant with the secularized normative religious subject for whom religion and the public sphere do not and must not mix. Thus, it is convenient to see the desire to mix the two as an aberration, as the intransigence of secularism’s defiling elements, and therefore to predict that this must result in the women ultimately embracing Islamism. This argument, which retains for the liberal advocates of secularism their position of authority as creators and drivers of secular modernity, stems from a misunderstood notion that the secular and the religious represent distinct domains of national life, leading to distinct subjectivities. This view has been complicated through the works of Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, Wendy Brown, as well as in recent collective publications such as Rethinking Secularism.

What are the women’s perspectives? The women believe that they are engaging in da’wa, or proselytizing, and use the same term to refer to their modus operandi. Their methods of shaping and changing the self as well as taking those selves to the public space rests in reading and following other, often competing interpretations of the Quran and Hadith along with other exegetical material and constantly bringing the ensuing understandings to bear upon current-day realities and requirements. Through such methods, the women seek to inculcate in themselves and their families deeper faith and practice, such as wearing the hijab and being meticulous in the daily prayers, as well as to create “responsible and productive” citizens. They refer to many of their outreach initiatives as “secular operations with religious undertones” and argue that the ultimate objective of living in the world is not only piety “which has its ebbs and flows,” but responsibility and accountability in creating a productive society. This phrasing reflects the attempt to make a religious agenda appear secondary to others—an effective way to draw in many (young) people towards productive community work and to disarm potential critics.

In making Islam relevant to the cultural, political, and economic landscape of the country, the women must contend with what is out there—the achievements of the development sector, the failures of twenty years of democracy, a political system that has seemingly placed religion on the backburner, and a displacement of the enchanted from “God to Bollywood.” The women, and many of their male peers, are knee-deep in thinking through how to put religion back on the table. What would be the best possible routes to achieve this task? In “effectively and productively” putting Islam back on the table, how does one stay true to God, self, and society? Thus, while the “secular-liberal” suspicion that these newly religious men and women have an agenda is not completely unfounded, their plan also consists of positing religion as a choice, albeit a very desirable and beneficial one. Such desirability of religious engagement may not keep religion in the private sphere, but it also does not approach the formal political space of the public sphere. These engagements thus not only strive to create new intersections of the religious and the secular, but also redefine and alter religious belief and rituals through dialogues, debates, and adjustments to perceived requirements of the day.

By drawing attention to the similarities in the presupposed subject of the newly religious and the secular Bangladeshis’ worldviews, I do not intend to blur distinctions and subject these women’s initiatives to either pseudo-Islamist or secular readings. What I would like to draw the reader to is the particular ways in which worlds are created through exchange and sharing and the particular language and attachments that allow them to arrive at their goals. To think about religious engagement in light of embodied practices through different modes of engagement within and outside the religious repertoire is an important exercise not only for an understanding of how religion advances in the world, but also for insights into whether, to what extent, and how all that is apparently secular delivers upon its promises.

The stakes of this conversation, especially for the field of development, in contexts such as Bangladesh and other parts of the developing world are high. The development paradigm promoted by state, donor, and NGO partnerships, which has presupposed a universal citizen subject has long kept the question of religious identity at bay. Advocates of liberal development models stand vindicated when Bangladesh does not come up on the World Economic Forum’s list of the top-ten countries ranked by the Global Gender Gap (GGG) index. Since the development process had ensured that women in Bangladesh fare better than those in India, Pakistan, Yemen, Turkey, and Egypt, amongst others, to bring to the surface how the religion question has been subsumed under and shaped by development initiatives, thus, seems not only unnecessary, but even dangerous. “Why spoil a good thing?” secular, pro-development advocates ask. But would such an insight necessarily be spoiling a good thing? Instead of preserving certain existing notions, would not a critical examination of the development process and its handling of and negotiations around religious identities open possibilities for a deeper understanding of how transformations actually occur? After all, religious identities, especially in the context of South Asia, have long been a part of one’s political and everyday existence. Religion, as far as I am concerned, has always been on the table.

I understand that if such an exercise reveals that the shaping and mediating mechanisms of the development process have stifled religious life, then secular advocates will fear sharp critiques by religious quarters, as experienced in 2003-2004 through Islamist attacks on BRAC schools. Since these events took place, several development organizations have kept as far away as possible from dealing with issues around religion. This distancing has neither silenced radical, Islamist voices, nor has it enabled a greater understanding of the dynamics of the development process or the growing appeal of faith-based development organizations. What is “Islamic” about Islamic microfinance and why is it on the rise? As a development model, does it operate on similar principles and presuppose the same normative subject as secular microfinance? These are important questions—not only because they allow us to better understand new trends, but also because they may lead to greater clarity on the effects of institutional arrangements that work upon religious ideas and practices to produce certain tangible outcomes. Exploring these questions will take away the monopoly of those who think that their (religious or secular) approaches offer the only solution. Coming at the issue without presumed distinctions between the religious and the secular, and the animosity often bred by that distinction, can lead to a better understanding of the development process, and to qualify how and why, for example, Bangladesh has managed to stay out of the list of the ten worst countries to live in for Muslim women. This research is crucial to lifting blinders that have historically been placed on groups that advocate both religion and secularism in dire opposition to one another. The gains of such an exercise would be invaluable to thinking about secularism, its limits and dispensations, and about religion as an ever-changing component of a secularizing, modern world.