Unraveling the tapestry of religion and politics: Distinguished Professor Ali Riaz sheds lights on rise of extremism
A mobile phone sitting on the table of a busy coffee shop in Uptown Normal hummed in rhythmic vibration. The phone’s owner looked down, and a resigned sigh escaped his lips. “My apologies, she and I have been missing each other all day.”
“She” turned out to be a reporter from The New York Times, calling last year because a growing issue in Southeast Asia was quickly sliding into a refugee crisis involving hundreds of thousands of people. The man taking the call was Distinguished Professor of Politics and Government Ali Riaz, whose studies and work had carried him across Bangladesh, Hawaii, Singapore, and London, before he found a home at Illinois State University. And it is here, nestled in the heart of the Midwest, where he has cemented his reputation as one of the most knowledgeable—and most quoted—scholars on South Asia, which is capturing the attention of the world.
Returning from the call, he offered another quiet apology. Upon meeting the soft-spoken Riaz, it is difficult to imagine him as a celebrity. He is more likely to brush a hand through his dark hair or graying mustache in contemplation than he is to flash a camera-ready smile. Yet his words are followed by nearly 19,000 people on Facebook, mostly in Bangladesh where Riaz was born and raised. He is known in Washington, D.C., circles as a resource for diplomats, international reporters, and members of government agencies.
Riaz’s renown is based upon his studies of how religion plays out in politics, especially with regard to the rise of extremism. Years before the 2001 terror attacks in the United States, he was researching the work of madrassahs—or Islamic schools—in South Asia. “I was speaking about the madrassahs as social institutions, as educational institutions, and in some instances, as a source of radicalization,” said Riaz. “It was after 9/11 that people began to call and say, ‘Did you mention those schools?’”
The demand for his studies contributed to more than a decade of scholarly works. He recently spent six months working at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to write Bangladesh: A Political History Since Independence (2016), and his latest book, Lived Islam and Islamism in Bangladesh, was released in December 2017. His other notable works include God Willing: The Politics of Islamism in Bangladesh (2004), Faithful Education: Madrassahs in South Asia (2008), Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh: A Complex Web (2008), and Islam and Identity Politics Among British-Bangladeshis: A Leap of Faith (2013).
The phone calls this time around were from reporters who needed Riaz to paint a richer picture of the crisis facing the Muslim Rohingya refugees as they fled religious persecution from majority Buddhist Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh. “You have to see the entire tapestry of how religion and politics come together in a society or region,” said Riaz. “When looking at the world, you cannot start with the assumption that religion and politics together is good or bad. Life is not so simple. You have to begin by looking at where a society stands—without judgment—to begin to understand it.”
By viewing that tapestry of a society, the threads of extremism can be detected, Riaz contends. In the wake of growing violence in Bangladesh in 2013, Riaz was called to testify before the U.S. Congress. He smiled when remembering the experience. “I’m known as a bit of a straight-shooter there. I say what I think. Yet that has not stopped people from asking what I think, and I always want a good dialogue.”
In testimony, interviews, and conversation, Riaz usually begins by dispelling assumptions, and his explanation of extremism follows suit. “People point to religion as the reason for the rise of extremism. They shout that Muslims are violent,” he said, waving his hands in feigned hysteria. “Yet there are millions of Muslims across South Asia, and not all of them are extremists.”
Riaz leaned back in his chair. “So let us try another idea,” he said, slipping into the full cadence of a professor. “Some advocate that poverty breeds militancy, yet there are more than 400 million South Asians living below the poverty line. So, my God, if that is true, then we are in trouble!” he laughed, then added, “No, not all poor people are militant. We can’t fall for these facile explanations.”
Tapping a finger to his lips in thought, Riaz continued. “I believe in education, of course. I am an educator. And some say that a lack of education breeds militants. So then, are all militants uneducated?” He leaned forward. “As a matter of fact, I haven’t seen a militant who is illiterate. In most cases, they seem to be not only literate, but many are pretty well educated.”
Riaz slowly shook his head. “No, it is exclusion that drives people to extremism,” he said in a low voice. “Exclusion from the democratic process, from the economic opportunities, from having a voice. And it is the failing of a government to protect and include all of its people—no matter their political or religious affiliation—that sparks extremism.” He carefully placed both hands on the table in front of him. “It is only when governments begin to protect all of their people, listen to all of their people, that militancy can be diffused.”
Literally surrounded by books
Riaz’s scholarly curiosity about South Asia was instilled from his earliest days. Born in 1958 in Dhaka (in an area then known as East Pakistan), Riaz came into the world the youngest of 10 children to parents who stressed the importance of education. “I slept on a bed that was literally surrounded by books,” said Riaz. His small home was filled with family members talking about issues of the day.
Both his father, a government official for the national land survey, and his mother reserved time each day to read the newspaper. “My mother was a very pious Muslim who prayed five times a day, and she was a liberal in her orientation. She never tried to impose her lifestyle upon us.” In the crowded house, the sound of the radio was a constant companion bringing the latest news, triumphs, and troubles. And the family’s native land possessed an abundance of all three.
The 1947 Partition carved West and East Pakistan from India. The majority Bengalis in East Pakistan earned independence from Pakistan after a violent war, and established Bangladesh in 1971. The country was founded as a secular democracy, but fell twice into military rule. Since the 1990s, the country has seen a push and pull between secular- and religious-dominated parties. It was in this era of Bangladesh’s independence that Riaz was raised, under the watchful eyes of his brothers and sisters.
In the late 1970s, he became active in student government at the Dhaka University and edited the school newspaper. “I was a bit of a radical in those days,” said Riaz. “Being an activist back then—pushing for democracy and rights, for an egalitarian society—that was the groundwork.” He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism and communications in the early 1980s, and began his career working at the Daily Sangbad as a copy editor. He then taught at Dhaka University. His brother Ali Anwar and sister Gulshan Ara were scholars at universities, and encouraged him to continue his studies. Another brother, Ali Manwar, an author who lived in the United States, and sister, Safuran Ara, a librarian who lived in England, instilled in Ali Riaz an unending appetite for knowledge. Intrigued by burgeoning communication technology, he chose to study communications at the prestigious East-West Center’s Institute of Culture and Communication, and at the University of Hawaii in Manoa.
The pull of politics
More and more, Riaz felt the pull of political science, seeing how policy impacted communication and how journalists portrayed politics. After earning two master’s degrees in communication and political science, he stayed in Manoa for a doctorate focused on the political economy of martial law. “This was 1991, so I was looking at Bangladesh. What I began to spot then was the rise of Islamist political parties and the appeal to people of Islamist political ideology.” He also explored the role of Islamic seminaries—or madrassahs—in propagating Islamic ideology.
After two years of teaching at his alma mater, Dhaka University, and spending a few months conducting research in Singapore, he saw an advertisement for the BBC World Service News radio, which matched both his loves of communication and politics. “As a BBC journalist, in addition to broadcasting, I did a number of radio documentary series for the BBC Bengali Service. I made several trips to India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh,” he said. “I could see firsthand the Islamic schools and the impact they had on the social transformation of not just this area, but places like Afghanistan.” Between 1995 and 2000, Riaz was witness to the rise of the Taliban through updates that came almost hourly.
His responsibilities grew, but the schedule soon wore him thin. By this time, Riaz was married and had a daughter. His wife, Shagufta Jabeen, was working as an engineer in Phoenix, Arizona. “I essentially lived in three time zones,” said Riaz. “I was in London, trying to stay up until 1:30 a.m. so I could at least speak with my wife and our daughter, Ila, in the United States. Then I would catch a few hours of sleep. By the time I was up, it was midday in Bangladesh, and there were decisions that were waiting to be made for the Bengali service’s flagship news and current affairs program. And then it would all start again.”
After five years at the BBC, he took a teaching position in Lincoln University outside London. Within a year, he moved to a small university in South Carolina. It was August 2001. “When September 11 happened, it … changed things,” Riaz said carefully. “Suddenly my work took on a new relevance, and I also knew I needed to be somewhere else.” He saw the notification of the faculty position open at Illinois State. “All of the stars aligned to bring me here.” In 2007 he became the chair of the Department of Politics and Government, a position he held for 10 years.
Riaz is still connected to his passion of journalism, yet now he is the one being interviewed. Riaz sees himself as a “public intellectual,” working to translate daily decisions by politicians and leaders to members of the media. “There is a timeliness to this work, which compels me to interject in the discussion, especially in national and international media,” said Riaz. “We are not only here to teach with a classroom. It is our job, our responsibility, and it is incumbent upon us to inform a larger community.” Over the past few months, those interviews included CNN International, Al Jazeera, Time, The Economist, the Financial Times, and newspapers across Bangladesh, where his work has made him famous, or infamous.
“I was told a few million Bangladeshi watched my 2013 testimony to Congress, even though it was way past midnight there,” he said. His comments advocating inclusion, tolerance, and secularism occasionally put him at odds with hardline groups in Bangladesh, as well as the powers that be. “It is part of the journey,” he said simply.
Riaz looked down at his phone to see a new email pop up. He explained it was from a reporter in Madrid. “I don’t speak Spanish, so this should be interesting,” he said. The next step of the journey awaited.
Rachel Hatch can be reached at rkhatch@IllinoisState.edu.