The Expression of Scepticism: Emerging Patronization of Religion Upon The Non-Believing Bangladeshi Youth
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a drastic effect on the behavioural orientations of the non-religious youth in Bangladesh due to the prominent recognition of “ almost instant” death tolls proven by the number of losses the pandemic had left behind. The dominant
explanation for this occurrence is the increased parental pressure towards patronizing religion at a core level upon the predominant Muslim youth, who formerly preferred to recognize themselves as either non-religious, atheist or agnostic for their religious identity. Prior research has made it evident that quantitative research does not find the level of personalized meaning towards sensitive discourse such as religion, therefore, making qualitative findings much more appropriate for the matter. I used data collected from in-person interviews with the youth themselves and linked my findings to personal research done with the use of anthropological literature which covered (1) the anthropological fieldwork of religious groups, (2) the importance of religion in Bangladesh, and (3) the expression of Islam in the political, social and cultural spheres. In contrast to the global belief in which religion is meant to function on a personal level, my findings indicate that religion in Bangladesh is the need for the youth to conform to the dominant religion practiced by their families. There is a degree of fear of becoming socially excluded from the norm of Bangladeshi society, therefore, compelling youth to maintain a sense of superficial belief in the Islamic faith.
Not even in the year 2019 did we predict an occurrence of such a pandemic, COVID-19 to be specific, would invade Bangladesh and change the lifestyles of the masses of the land this drastically. During the initial phase of the virus spreading across Bangladesh, the fear of death was skyrocketing because till then not enough knowledge regarding the virus was produced. The current perspective of how people think about the virus is very different from the mentioned juncture. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a striking impact upon lives across the globe. In Bangladesh, too, people’s lives have changed and they are gradually adapting to the new normal. In fact, the new normal has been almost normalized. Although the duration of the lockdowns imposed by the government has significantly lessened, it has increased the amount of time spent with family for many. Within the context of urban upper/upper-middle class Dhaka, the youth are having to spend more time with their parents since, recreation aside, they barely have any obligation to go outside. Considering, in the last two years, people have witnessed and/or heard about too many death cases, instilling or accentuating fear of death in many. Such observations led to my hypothesis that the increasing casualties on a global scale had compelled many to become more religious. Religion is a way to enhance the well-being of individuals, helping them cope with stress (Lim and Punam, 2010). In the Bangladeshi context, religion factorizes wellbeing since it has a huge role in identifying people’s life choices as it directly affects the regular socio-political processes (Devine, Hinks, & Naveed, 2017).
This essay looks into two very specific groups of people based on their age and religious views. One of the groups is comprised of the younger generation (people aged between 19 and 25) who were born to a Muslim family and do not subscribe to any religion and prefer to identify themselves as – atheists, non-believer, agnostics or anything in between. The second group includes parents of the youth, also known as senior citizens (aged 45 and above), who consider themselves as dedicated, practicing Muslims. In regards to strata, both the groups belong to the urban middle/upper-middle socio-economic class of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. In short, this essay shall name the former group as the “non-believer youths” and the latter as the “Muslim parents.
My research specifically focused on the experiences of the non-believer youths rather than their parents. That being said, the essay explored the conundrum among the non-believer, urban, middle/upper-middle class youth and their conservative Muslim parents amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Exploring the following content has given me an outlook that there has been an increased parental pressure to perform salat (Islamic prayer) upon the youth. This is due to the rising rates of parents going into eternal rest due to being victims of the pandemic. Although the degree of religiosity varied amongst parents, most caregivers from the mentioned strata desired for their children to pray the five obligatory prayers, with the additional pressure on their daughters to dress modestly. The way in which it affected the expression of the faith upon non-believer youths, they have continued to keep their views concealed and felt compelled to perform salat predominantly out of the concern of appeasing their parents.
Bangladesh, glorified as a secular land, consists of people from various religions living together harmoniously due to the equally respectable positions it provides to people of diverse faiths. The respectful attitude offered towards the diversified religious views looks accepting and secular enough from the surface level. The reality, however, is much different from the theories people proudly talk about.
In post-independence Bangladesh, in order for the ruling party to construct a new form of hegemonic ideology, they used religion as a frame of reference (Riaz, 2020). The notion – although reflected a secular and liberal aura on the surface level – was somewhat contradictory given it was promoting ideas of secularism while also appeasing the Islamic groups as a Muslim majority land. A closer glance at the stances of the two powerful political parties of Bangladesh (Awami League and BNP) over the last two decades would confirm that they have always tried to keep a friendly relationship with the Islamists. Eventually. Bangladesh’s seemingly liberal political discourses turned into an Islamized political system. Instances of how mass people and Islamists reacted to the blogger-killing incidents in Bangladesh would show a clear image of how entitled the general Muslim population of the country feel about Islam.
At first glance, a moderately religious Muslim cannot be identified by the general public due to the lacking of stereotypical Islamic wear such as the Alkhalla or Tupi. However, it becomes apparent during the time of the Muslim festivities such as Eid- that the country is subtly, if not almost entirely, dominated by the Muslim population. This is proven by mass media and their large-scale broadcast of such events. Suggestion to shorten this sentence, “It would almost be equivalent to providing a “special treatment” towards the Muslims since such recognition of a government holiday is not largely broadcasted during other religious festivities such as the Durga Puja or Buddha Purnima.
Therefore, considering in multiple socio-cultural scenarios within the Bangladeshi context have shown images where Islam had quite a prominent place. From socio-political discourses to familial conversations – words seem to echo, assuring how significant the Islamic faith is to the Muslim community of Bangladesh.
For a very long time, sociologists have been heavily invested in understanding the functions of religion, its problems in regards to inequality and the overall impact it has on a community’s daily flow/routine. (Emerson, Monahan, & Mirola, 2011). However, the ethnographic accounts and the forms of data extracted by the anthropologists had some inevitable methodological limitations. While ethnographic fieldwork is being conducted, faith or lack of faith is interpreted via a communication process that consists of tensions, distances, proximities and how the anthropological production is done based on those factors to meet the expectations and the strategies (Blanes, 2006). Considering nobody is free from biases, it is common knowledge that religious people express themselves in different contexts which may vary. Opinionated individuals with very specific moral ideologies would definitely customize their ways of expressing their thoughts depending on their group of concern. Therefore, it is important to provide the interlocutors with a comfortable, spacious zone for them to open up within.
The extraction of data from the fieldwork amongst religious people requires researchers to be amicable to observe various forms of religious expressions while focusing on scholarly objectives (Harvey, 2011). Besides, from the believers’ perspectives, they do not find looking deeper into religion with a humanistic lens to be wrong since believers, in general, acknowledge that there is a humanistic angle to religion (Stark, 2008). In the case of non-believers, the methodology would be much different for mainly two specific reasons. Firstly, the non-believers do not have any rituals/practices that one can observe. Secondly, they cannot be found as a group, cult, nor community since disbelief is not an organized form of faith. Considering people’s beliefs are multidimensional and can be interpreted in many ways, a qualitative interview method is more effective since it allows the researcher to get rich, complex and nuanced data (Bremborg, 2011). Interviewing, therefore, would be more appropriate for extracting personal data from the self-conscious youth.
Considering the period based on which the research has been conducted is relatively new, there is a limited amount of research providing relevant information on the subject. Therefore, the discourse had to rely heavily on primary research. The interviewed youths were chosen arbitrarily via Google Forms. The answer box for “religious views” was kept open and only allowed typed input so that the youth had the liberty to state as they pleased rather than having restricted selection amongst the common beliefs. – Hindu, Muslim, Atheist and so on. Through casual, in-person interviews, I was able to create a space for the closeted non-believing youth the opportunity to discuss their daily experiences with strictly religious parents. Due to being an agnostic-atheist myself, there was a sense of comfort among the participants to discuss sensitive matters without the fear of single-minded judgement.
Arguably, the biggest limitation of the used methodology is that the parents were not included in the primary research due to the religious views of the participants and were left in secrecy from their caregivers. Therefore, the accounts regarding the degree of religiosity of the parents was solely based on the description provided by interviewees.
Now, the primary research conducted by anthropologists had relied more on the general outlook of religion within different cultures and the methods through which such data was extracted from. Along with the articles that focused on the methods (mostly in-person interview and participant observation) of anthropological fieldwork among religious groups, I looked into articles regarding how important religion is to Bangladeshi people. For me to eventually become capable of comparing and contrasting the everyday experiences of Muslims and atheists, I looked into studies about how Muslims express their religious views in various social, political and cultural contexts.
Findings and Analysis
Religion holds a significant place among the religious population of Bangladesh. The country – despite not being an Islamic country in the global political sense – has followers of Islam as the majority, proven by national and socio-cultural realities within the Bangladeshi context supported by multiple pieces of evidence. Although not at a national level, the public’s increasing religiosity at a personal and social level has significantly deepened after the global pandemic.
Growing up in believer and/or practicing Sunni-Muslim families, all 7 research participants were concerned about keeping their identities anonymous. This was mostly due to the fear of their parents finding out that the participants are not only non-believers but also upfront about it is what made them extra conscious regarding the anonymity. Based on this very observation I could connect the dots about how religion, in this country, is not a personal matter of faith, but rather something you have to conform to; refusal of conforming to the social norms would make one’s morals questionable. For, the religious versus non-believer binary in Bangladesh is equivalent to the dichotomy of good versus evil and/or someone possessing the potential of harming the society considering they are not fearful of the Almighty’s punishments.
Such criticizing remarks are not only found all over social media or other formal and/or informal platforms for regular discourses but also within the familial context. The moral aspect of religion aside, textbooks of the Bangladeshi national curriculum and the discourses regarding how accepting Islam is, portray Islam as a religion that teaches one to respect all other religions. The combination of being compelled to subscribe to the religion you are given by your family and having to respect people having faith in other religions resulted in two consequences. Firstly, it blurred out the possibility from the children’s and even adults’ minds that not having an organized faith is valid too. Secondly, the morality question occurred: how can one be a moral person if he does not have specific codes to follow? One of the 21-year-old male interviewees, Rashed (pseudonym) shared –
“I remember, when I was a kid, my parents telling me about how great Jannat (heaven) is. On one side my parents told me to respect all the religions and on the another side they wanted me to prioritize Islam. I was confused. If there is only one true God, why the rest of the ones aren’t false? And if all Gods are true, why am I allowed to submit to Allah only?”
As to how the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased duration of staying at home with parents have affected their day-to-day lives all seven participants said that they are facing more pressure than the pre-pandemic days. However, they are being brought up in dedicated Muslim families who would not consider themselves “ultra-modern” (a buzzword used to refer to the people who are free-going about religion) and “gora” (fundamentalist) while ironically enforce pressure for performing salat. Khadiza (pseudonym), a 22-year old female, is the eldest child and the only daughter in her family. She identifies herself as an agnostic. Regarding the change in pressure she experienced she said,
“I knew it was going to happen. I was prepared. I have been accustomed to it since my childhood. All I now worry about is making sure the door is properly closed when I am in my room pretending to be saying my prayer.”
Sadat, another 22-year-old, shared somewhat similar stories.
“The time of Zuhr and Asr used to be gone while I had to stay at university. Now that I am having to stay at home, I am having to act namaz five times a day instead of 3.”
Tasmia, a 20-year-old female, used to live in a hostel with one of her university friends who was an atheist. She misses the liberty she had there. The difference in the labels (atheist and agnostic) provided them one common ground in which they were not fond of prayers while both of them belonged to equally religious families.
“We barely touched the prayer mat and headscarf our parents had given to us. Every time our parents were on the way to meet us we brought out those and kept them somewhere our parents could see.” With a little smirk she added, “Obviously they thought we were busy getting closer to Allah.”
All of the participants agreed on one point that their parents’ increase in age (therefore, wisdom) have inclined them towards performing rituals as per Islam. From actively saving up money for being able to afford Hajj (pilgrimage) to being more serious about performing Wazib (second to mandatory) practices – the overall religiosity has increased given the pandemic scenario.
“Obviously it’s the pandemic that made my father panic. He has never been this religious. After witnessing the deaths of close relatives he has grown more religious. He has always been into praying 5 times daily. Recently he started listening to Quran recitation and started forcing us [he and his younger brother] to listen to the recitation.”
Tasmia, Rashed and Khadiza, too, experienced such pressure from their parents. While all three of them think that the pandemic has impacted their parents’ minds greatly, to the point that they have reached their peak level of being religious, and therefore, now, they are trying to make sure the children carry the exact same ideology.
“Things were much different when I had to attend university. This sudden pressure of practicing religion in front of my parents’ eyes is not new to me for I had to do it my whole school life.”
Although there were mixed and ambiguous responses as to what actually made the parents grow this sudden seriousness about “dying religiously”. There are two probable options: (1) the gradual process of aging and (2) the increased number of death cases caused by the pandemic. The common factor prevailing between both the probabilities is that both the options are somehow connected to the fear of death. Death being inevitable and unpredictable, people are, in general, scared of it. The myriad of death cases that took place during the pandemic was no less than reminders of death for many. Moreover, there has always been the moral obligation felt by the parents, as endorsed by all, to raise their children as religiously as possible. The ultimate combination of moral obligation, fear of death and overall depressive state of the nation might have factorized the increased religiosity which is further pushing the youth to the closet while they are maintaining a religious image from the outside by pretending to perform salat and never considering an open conversation surrounding religion as an option.
Religion, being one of the comfort zones for the believer communities, may be considered as unworthy of acknowledgement and validation by the non-believing community. Hence, the Bangladeshi youth find secrecy as the safest option to prevent social exclusion, compelling them to remain closeted disbelievers. Let alone talking about their views publicly, they are scared of striking an open conversation with their parents regarding even the slightest doubts that they may have about the religion. Prayer (Namaz, in this case) being popularly known as a form of seeking help directly from Allah, the mass Muslim population of Bangladesh, obviously, would be more concerned about bringing more people to the “right” path in order for making Allah happy enough to free the people from the pandemic.
Given the rapid diffusion of fear of death caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, providing the people with irreligious faith a valid position within the societal context has turned into the least of people’s concerns. In fact, the atheist people were and still are considered immoral by the general mass, and to many, people like them are what make Allah unhappy and send viruses like COVID-19. Such perception is not as prevalent among urban middle/upper-middle class families. The fear of death or that of exasperating the Almighty is just as real as it can get. The vibrancy of such thoughts increased during the pandemic. The pressure of remaining in the closet for the atheist youths, too, has thus increased. No one knows how long it would take for non-believers to find a valid label in society, at least not while the pandemic is in action and the “new normal” is yet to be normalized.
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