The Challenge of Resilience in Bangladesh: Negotiating Faith, Politics, and Development

By: Katherine Marshall

February 21, 2014

Contemporary Bangladesh has for some time been held up as a hopeful example of human development and democratic progress in a Muslim society. Remarkable transformations in women’s social and economic roles, rising school enrollments, and improved health service delivery since independence (that came only in 1971) owe much to a creative, engaged, and robust civil society.
But observers see worrying signs in persisting governance challenges and mounting political and social tensions. Bangladesh benefits from new opportunities that come with globalization but it is also buffeted by competing global ideological currents that call social, religious, and cultural norms into question. Bangladesh, already natural disaster prone, also faces dramatic and immediate repercussions of climate change. If human development is to progress as rapidly as it has in the past, new thinking is called for. Resilience, a live buzz word in development circles, may be the key factor determining the nation’s capacity to cope, change, and progress. An inclusive and cooperative society is critical to building resilience. How religion factors in furthering this end is a central question.

Religious and social conflicts are constantly in the news in Bangladesh these days. As a toxic and deeply fractured political situation mixes with a quite new current of religious tension, the proud Bangladeshi traditions of pluralism and tolerance fostering a peaceful society seem less secure. The specific religious dimensions of these challenges are not easy to discern. There are obvious danger signs: aggressive questioning by some religious leaders of women’s new public roles, tensions around the content and direction of madrasa education, and intra and interreligious violence. Questions about how far Bangladesh is a secular or an Islamic state and what that means provoke a lively new discussion. However, that discussion remains quite divorced from the religious beliefs and practices lived by the majority of the population; most Bangladeshis take great pride in their traditions of openness and pluralism.

As part of its ongoing faith and development mapping work supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, the Berkley Center and the World Faiths Development Dialogue convened a meeting of leading academics and development practitioners in London from January 26-27, 2014. The aim was to come to a nuanced understanding of the contemporary issues facing development in Bangladesh, seen primarily through a lens of religion.

The discussions focused on both current points of tension and how they are changing, but also looked at root causes, going back through the decades since independence but also deeper in cultural and religious history. How are radical messages and divisive religious rhetoric gaining traction? How far is it a symptom of caustic political discourse or a sense of powerlessness? Is there a transnational fundamentalist virus that Bangladesh needs to combat?

A hopeful message that emerged came from practical, lived examples of direct engagement of religious actors on a wide range of development issues. More engagement is needed around topics such as the meaning of secularism, what new roles for women mean for families and for men, and how modernity challenges aspects of religious practice. Casting current tensions as solely inspired by religion obscures complex fault lines in modern Bangladesh, notably rural-urban, class, and political divides; religion is used in service of a range of causes. Context and careful analysis are critically important.

The long held narrative of Bangladesh’s social harmony needs to be discussed and refreshed (or even brought up to date) if lasting paths forward are to be traced. The fact that Bangladesh is 90 percent Sunni Muslim accentuates a false impression of homogeneity and ignores not only Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian groups, but also the great diversity within Bangladeshi Islam itself.

Critical to a robust dialogue on religious diversity in Bangladesh is religion’s role in education and, indeed, education’s roles in religion. Many religious tensions center on the madrassa system of Islamic schools. The belief, widely touted especially abroad, that madrassas are breeding grounds for Islamic extremism, is greatly exaggerated. Nor do madrasas serve only the very poor. The situation is far more complex. For example, many families send children to different kinds of schools, a practical and spiritual way of hedging bets. What is crystal clear is that far too little is known about how the madrasas work and what is taught, and they benefit from little support and less interaction with other segments of the education system. More broadly, a concern of Bangladeshi scholars is that even Bangladeshi Muslim history and traditions are unknown to new generations and dialogue about core issues of theology and practice is far too limited.

There are good reasons to believe that Bangladeshi society has strong social features that will allow it to adapt and to withstand ongoing change and sporadic crisis. Strong Bangladeshi voices speak boldly for human rights, the women’s movement is vibrant, and Bangladeshis take deep pride in cultural heritage and savor learning and progress. All of these attributes contribute to resilience.

But the tendency to avoid discussion about tensions and above all about religion could, if it persists, undermine the very resilience that offers Bangladesh a real chance to move rapidly toward the next stages of development. A thoughtful approach to issues like how to handle tensions among classes and religious groups needs to start with better knowledge and understanding. Scholars, religious leaders, politicians, and the media all need to be involved. Leadership at all levels is needed to highlight the ethos of tolerance and to build on both traditional and modern conflict management approaches to resolve tensions before they erupt in violence. Religious leaders need to be far more part of thinking and dialogue about social change and about development programs than they have been in the past.
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