A casualty of a trip to Bangladesh (and many other Muslim countries) could be the belief, or illusion, that Islam and modernity are conflicting value systems. A college classmate's visit to my ancestral home here in Polashpur village reminded me of this illusion, which is widely shared in America.
I wouldn't have recognized Rafiqul Islam if he had not told me who he was, especially because of his sprawling gray beard, Islamic cap and long Islamic shirt. It was more than three decades since I had seen him, then a clean-shaven businessman in slacks and a short-sleeve shirt.
Relishing jackfruit from a tree planted by my deceased father, Rafiq said his children had settled down, and he now had "the freedom" to devote to social service. That included campaigning for "Islamic-minded" candidates at elections and fundraising for a "modern madrassa," or Islamic school.
The madrassa would offer the usual Islamic courses, but also English, math, science and social studies. Secular courses were rarely taught in non-government madrassas four decades ago when I lived in Bangladesh. While madrassas providing secular education are proliferating throughout the country, secular schools are teaching more Islamic subjects than ever.
About 90 percent of the Bangladeshi population of 160 million is Muslim. Rafiq is among the many educated elites who began their professional or business careers as run-of-the-mill secularists but eventually were swayed by the Islamizing wind.
"You look like a mujahid [one who struggles for Islam]," I said in jest.
"I wasted my life," he replied, "doing things that don't mean anything. ... It's already late for me to do what you would like to remember in your deathbed."
Islamic activism such as Rafiq's used to be a red flag to Bangladesh's staunchly secularist founding leaders, especially the "father of the nation" Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Referring to Islamic activists, Sheikh Mujib had scowled "these beards!" during an interview with me in September 1970. "It will take 30 years of education and progress to weed them out."
Bangladesh was born the following year as a terribly poor and backward country. After two decades of economic and political turmoil, it began to modernize at an impressive pace. Surveys by U.N. agencies show that the country's per capita GDP has tripled during the past 20 years -- from $217 in 1991 to $640 today. During this period, the national literacy rate has risen from 26 percent to 56 percent. More remarkable is Bangladesh's progress in female education. Among 15- to 24-year-olds, the female literacy rate is 77 percent, higher than the male rate of 74 percent.
Bangladeshi women are highly visible in politics, business and other professions. For two decades, the country has not known a male head of government. Two women, heading the two largest political parties, have been rotating as prime minister.
Most of these professional and activist women, however, don't step out of the house without their Islamic head covering. Indeed, the country's cultural landscape flaunts Islamic symbols and idiom more lavishly than at any other time in the country's short history.
In Sylhet, the town nearest to my Polashpur home, many of the business, social and educational institutions boast Islamic names: Shah Jalal (local Muslim saint) University, Ibn Sina (eminent Arab Muslim philosopher) Hospital, Al-Hambra (Muslim architectural masterpiece in Spain) Shopping Center, Islamic Insurance Company, Al-Makkah (Mecca) Pharmacy, Bismillah (in the name of Allah) traders, and so on. During my visits in the early years of the country's independence, I don't remember seeing any of these Islamic symbols, except that of the saint Shah Jalal.
As in many other Muslim societies, the educated elites in Bangladesh who grew up under Western colonial rule or in its immediate aftermath believed in Western-style secularism with mosque-state separation. The further they travel from the colonial era, the more they feel the pull of their native Islamic culture.
The Western lifestyle doesn't "mean" anything to them, as Rafiq put it. They still embrace modernity, but to make it meaningful, they are adapting it to Islamic values and ways of life.
Mustafa Malik is an international affairs columnist based in Washington (email@example.com). First Published June 13, 2012 12:00 AM