Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Bangladesh's Secular Revolution

Bangladesh continues to make important strides towards greater social and religious freedom, turning its back on the trend towards cultural and religious isolationism seen too often as a reaction to Western cultural encroachment. That's not to say that Bangladesh is losing any of its national character or sanskriti - in fact, it's arguable that they're preserving it.

Last week the Education Ministry directed authorities not to force women or girls to wear veils or religious attire. Unlike the Shah's ban on veils in Iran - and the subsequent forced veiling under the Ayatollahs - Bangladesh has chosen to let individuals practice religion as they see fit.

K. Anis Ahmed writes in today's Wall Street Journal that this "secular revolution" is largely the result of women's empowerment in the country.

Credit women's empowerment, which provide not only a sign of societal progress, but also remain its most salient cause. The prime minister and the opposition leader are both women. The foreign affairs, home and agricultural ministries are all run by women. Women hold top jobs in government, banks and business, and are especially prominent in legal, medical and social industries. They excel in art, culture and sport. They serve in the armed forces and fly planes for the national airlines. In the lower socio-economic spheres, women work in agriculture, microfinance and the garment industry. Tens of millions of women are economic decision-makers.

Of course the struggle for gender rights and equity still has a long way to go. But the attempt to achieve these worthy goals, led mainly by nongovernmental organizations, has also increased social resiliency against religious fanaticism. In fact, it's not a stretch to argue that the government's actions to stem Islamism could never have been imagined without society's secular backdrop.

The truth is, radical political Islam is an invention of clerics such as Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab who, despite their stated intention of removing innovations in the religion, actually did more innovating than anyone else.

This new political Islam became a convenient rallying cry for tyrants and dictators who imposed foreign and often invented cultural mores onto their countries. Bangladesh has a strong and proud Islamic tradition, but they also have a deep and proud national culture. The two are complimentary, and by trusting the people to live and worship as they see fit, the state is doing a good job of ensuring that they preserve both.

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