Islamist Politics - from the wings to the centre stage
With the beginning of 2013, the part that 'Islam' plays in Bangladeshi politics has become more crucial. While the trial of a number of front rank members of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Bangladesh, along with few other rightist politicians goes on for their alleged crimes against humanity during the Liberation War in 1971, there are frequent strikes and widespread agitation and vandalism by JI workers on the streets as a protest.
At the same time, there is a countrywide movement led by youth which is apparently supported by the pro-liberation, secular forces, who are demanding capital punishment for the War-criminals. JI activists have hit back with country-wide violence, often targeting the Hindu minorities and Mandirs. JI leadership argues that they have been targeted by the ruling Awami League (AL) for political vendetta, whereas AL's position is that the trial of war criminals was one of AL's election agenda in 2008 general election that secured the party with 3/4th majority. With the next general election due in less than a year and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) throwing its full support for JI, the current political impasse threatens to destabilize fragile democratic future of Bangladesh. A review of Islamist politics in Bangladesh is significant at this point.
Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) was founded by Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, a small-time journalist in Hyderabad, India in 1941. Maududi, who had no formal religious education, orgainsed JI as a radical Islamist party. He was against the creation of Pakistan arguing that the leaders of the Muslim League did not have an Islamic outlook and that Muslims of the subcontinent need to establish an Islamic Caliphate in India rather than a part of it as Pakistan.
Maududi rejected Western form of democracy and urged in favor of armed Jihad to establish a true Islamic state. He migrated to Pakistan in 1948 and established Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) Pakistan. In 1953, JI rose to prominence by inciting Anti-Ahmadiya movement in Punjab province of Pakistan. Martial Law was declared in parts of the province to subdue violence. A military court found Maududi guilty of inciting sectarian violence and sentenced him to death.
The sentence was later annulled, allegedly under Saudi pressure. The party had its branches all across Pakistan, including in the then East Pakistan, however it remained a party on the fringe and never had mass appeal or participation in the Parliament. In the 1970 general election in Pakistan, the JI was not so much of a success -- securing only 3 seats out of 300 and not winning any seat in East Pakistan. While with huge public support Awami League secured almost 75% of votes in East Pakistan, JI emerged as the next highest with 6% popular votes, surpassing older parties such as the Muslim League. As the Liberation War started in March 1971, the Pakistan military regime found its natural ally in JI.
The party, along with Muslim League, tried to provide a civilian façade to the regime. Hard-core cadre of JI, who were ideologically motivated to Jihad, came forward to provide a civil militia know as the 'Razakar'. The Razakars, and its special operation groups known as 'Al-Badr' and 'Al-Shams' carried out large-scale atrocities across Bangladesh. JI leadership joined army-backed civilian government in Dhaka post-March 71 and led missions around the world to collect support for the Pakistani regime. The JI and others rejected the spirit of the Liberation War and joined hands with the occupation forces.
The constitution of Bangladesh, promulgated on 4 November 1972, prohibited the use of religion for political purposes. Religion-based political parties, such as the JI, were not allowed to operate till August 1975. After the changeover on August 15, 1975, the political masters who usurped power needed a platform political for support. Jamaat-e-Islami, Muslim League and other rightist parties came readily in support of the new regime. Interestingly, during this period we saw a close tie between the Islamic rightists and the pro-Chinese Marxist to form a common political platform known as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that challenged the Awami League and other centre-left parties that was then in the opposition. The two successive military rulers of Bangladesh, Gen Zia and Gen Ershad, used Islamist parties to oppose secular forces. By 1978, Gen Zia welcomed top JI leadership to return from abroad and allowed the party to operate openly by amending the constitution. He rehabilitated and elevated people such as Maulana Mannan, Abdul Alim, Khan A. Sabur and Shah Azizur Rahman who had opposed the creation of Bangladesh on many fronts. Gen Ershad went a step further to placate the Islamists -- he declared Islam as the state religion, Friday a weekly holiday and appointed Maulana Mannan, an alleged killer of Bengali intellectuals, minister of religious affairs. Gen Ershad had encouraged setting up of thousands of Madrasas across the country that had since then been multiplying and often been a source of ready recruit for the Islamists.
Since the fall of Gen Ershad in 1990 and the restoration of democracy in the country, JI and other Islamist parties have been active in the field of politics, but always with piggy-backing with the one or the other major political parties.
In fact, the Islamist parties used the two major parties to their advantage. In all the elections held in Bangladesh, the Islamist vote bank never exceeded 5%, yet their clout and influence in national politics far outweighed their popularity. While the election in 2001 gave them the highest number of seats (18 seats with 2 cabinet posts) the election in 2008 brought the party to its nadir with only 2 seats out of 300. Meanwhile, JI and other Islamists parties built a strong economic base in the form of banks, insurance, hospitals, diagnostic centers, mills and factories.
They have built a strong base among the students. JI's student wing, known as Islami Chattra Shibir (ICS), is today a highly organised cadre-based student front ready to be at the service of the party even to the peril of their lives. While ICS cadres are mostly from the Aliya madrasas and some from the mainstream schools, the students of Quomi madrasas, who form about 15% of the total student population, provide support to smaller Islamic parties.
The taste of political power that the JI and other Islamic parties had as a result of their election performance in 2001, gave rise to a new phenomenon in Bangladesh politics -- the rise of religious extremism leading to the growth of Islamic terrorist organizations. The rise of Al-Qaeda and its terror attack on USA, war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and above all, a conducive political climate in Bangladesh gave rise to terrorist outfits such as Jamaatul Mujahedin, Bangladesh (JMB) and Harkat-ul Jihad al Islam, Bangladesh (HUJI,B).
From 1999 to 2005, the country witnessed series of armed attacks and even suicide bombings by these outfits that resulted in the deaths of hundreds and injuries to many more. Bangladesh earned infamy as Afghanistan in the making, a 'Cocoon of terror' as some international journalists commented.
In fact, some of the slogans of Islamist parties such as “We are all Taliban, Bengal will be Afghan” have only strengthened the apprehension of outsiders about Bangladesh. While the government was initially in the denial mode, blaming the terror attacks as the opposition's attempt to malign the government, the world pressure forced the government to finally go into action in late 2004 which ended up with the arrest, prosecution and deterrent punishments to the terrorists.
Since the end of 2005, there has been no violent terrorist attack, yet law enforcers have been regularly unearthing huge quantities of arms and explosives from the terrorists and their hideouts. There has also been links unearthed between terrorist networks in Pakistan, especially Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and their sympathizers in Bangladesh, often using Bangladesh as a conduit of arms and explosives transshipment. Money laundering for terror financing is also a growing threat that the government is busy tackling. All these go on to prove that the terrorists may be down, but not out.
The newest kids in the block are the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), an International Islamist organisation that aims to establish an Islamic state stretching from Morocco to Mindanao, first by dawah (invitation) and finally by armed Jihad. HuT, founded by a Palestinian Judge in 1953, aims to set up a world-wide Caliphate under an Islamic flag.
Although such a vision is unrealistic to say the least, young people disenchanted with modern democracy and powerful capitalistic state, find solace in such an idyllic dream. HuT is presently operating from its headquarters in UK with strong national centers in Canada, USA, Malaysia and Indonesia. HuT does not recognise the government or the constitution of Bangladesh. It calls the country 'Daarul Kuffar', land of the unbelievers. Bangladesh government banned HuT in October 2009, but that did not diminish clandestine activities of the organisation. While JMB or HuJI-B targeted generally middle-class and lower middleclass youth, the HuT members tend to be from the elite families, going to elite schools. Recent arrest and prosecution of a Bangladeshi student in USA on terror charge, and again arrests of 5 alleged suspects on charge of Rajib murder are all from a leading private university in the country and reported to be linked with HuT. It is believed that HuT has already infiltrated into the civil and military administration. HuT, together with JI and its student wing ICS, poses clear and credible danger to the national security.
As we go ahead with the war crime trial, it is possible that JI, ICS and HuT will evolve into terrorist organizations like JMB or HUJI-B. While the state takes police action against the law breakers, we need to create social awareness against all form of Religious Extremism; we have got to present to our young people a socio-political narrative that is fundamentally superior to the one of the Islamists. Jihadi Islam of Maulana Maududi or medieval Islam of the Taliban or the romantic dream of a Caliph appearing to establish an Islamic world of HuT will take us nowhere.
Traditional Islam in Bengal that proscribes extremism and exclusiveness, but preaches universal brotherhood and inclusiveness is the one that needs to be patronized. Our rich cultural heritage that blends Islamic faith with our Bengali identity is the one that must be nurtured and nourished. Government, academics, civil society, indeed all citizens have important roles to play in this matter of vital national interest.
The writer is Registrar, BRAC University.