In 2015, a liberal blogger called Avijit Roy was stabbed and hacked to death as he was leaving a book fair in Bangladesh. It marked the tensions straining the political and social fabrics of Bangladesh. In the past three to four years, at least sixteen people – including the founder of the first gay magazine – have been murdered in Bangladesh. The weakened capacity of the Bangladeshi state, trying to apprehend and punish the Islamists of the Jamaat-e-Islami party who sided with Pakistan in 1971, has left an open space for militant religious conservatives to inflict violence upon the secular progressive voice of Bangladesh.
There is something disheartening to see a country, crumpled by its staggering poverty and political corruption, fall towards the very values it rose against. Whereas India and Pakistan were states founded upon the concept of religious states, Bangladesh was different. It wasn’t about Muslims or Hindus but about Bengali people fighting to preserve their culture and their history. It was a secular country, and there was something movingly beautiful in that. Today, that legacy is threatened by the rise of religious conservatives.
There is a tendency for some to see what happens there and imagine a similar tug of war between liberals and conservatives taking place here. But extremists here are of a different breed, fuelled by different motivations that are often more political and cultural than religious. Even in Bangladesh, the flare in support for a party like Jamaat has to be contextualised with the crippling levels of poverty and the increasingly draconian and authoritarian measures of the Bangladeshi government, which endures a political crisis almost daily. The fight that faces liberal Muslims here is not nearly as intimidating as it is in countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Yet there is misogyny. There is abuse, and an almost compulsive need for some religious conservatives within the population to immediately attack liberal Muslims, secularists and feminists. Those who suggest reform are immediately deemed to have been intellectually colonised by the west, “uncle toms”, branded as traitors who are supposedly siding with some sort of Zionist western liberal government conspiracy. For many liberal Muslims there is an apprehension in sometimes voicing criticisms of their own community in fear that it might become appropriated by the far-right. This has often fuelled the suspicion that liberal Muslims simply help the far-right, and there is at times a reluctance to voice criticism of internal problems for fear of helping the far-right.
But the hysteria of a cluster of conservative-minded activists to chase after the liberal Muslims like this illustrates how they feel they have ownership of Islam, and they alone can define what it means to be a Muslim. Criticism of conservative Islam becomes interpreted as Islamophobia to the point where it’s arguable that some groups actually profit from the word Islamophobia itself. They chase after groups like Tell Mama who advocate interfaith dialogue and slander anyone who seeks to work with the government over extremism. Whether this is Maajid Nawaz of Quilliam Foundation, Sara Khan of Inspire or Amina Lone, the former Labour councillor. Quite recently, Amina Lone has raised the question of why young Muslim girls are wearing the hijab in primary school, and though I disagree with Ofsted quizzing young girls, but the sheer misogynistic abuse she has been subject to combined with the authenticity of her Muslim identity has been unreal.
It’s worth pointing out to people that progressive Muslims don’t all think alike. Even Sara Khan, so widely sneered at for supposedly lacking grassroots credibility, does not agree with the hijab campaign led by Ofsted. But there is a ploy by certain people, be it MEND, Cage, 5Pillars or others to immediately assume every liberal Muslim to be a confused one ashamed of their roots working with the government. That of course is a problem for liberal Muslims. To win the minds, do we work with the government to help enforce liberalism or wage a more gruelling fight to secure grassroots backing? I’ve mostly recoiled at the idea of ever working with the Tories on anything, but there is a real sense that parts of the British Muslim population are becoming extremely isolated and insular. At the very least, I’m sympathetic to people like Amina for working with authorities to fight religious conservative zealotry.
But as a Muslim who wants to see the community genuinely reform, and become about equality, tolerance, rights and justice, I’m cynical about where things are heading.