Religious extremism in Bangladesh
Taking advantage of the current political deadlock, Islamist parties have had a field day last year. They are now offering Islamic Khilafat as a viable alternative to the democratic order. The more the mainstream political leaders indulge in corruption, nepotism and mendacity, the more the Islamists are becoming vocal to present themselves as the ideal leaders capable of bringing about positive changes in the society. The rise of religious extremism leading to terrorism in Bangladesh has a lot to do with the failure of political leadership too. The failure of governance at all levels, deteriorating law and order, lack of access to the justice system for the poor and the disadvantaged are some factors that alienate people from the state. As a consequence people start to view the state as a corrupt and coercive institution and Islamic Caliphate as the saviour.
Although political use of Islam dates back to pre-partition days and was the raison d'être of the establishment of Pakistan in 1947 to which Bengali Muslim played the key role, the Islamists political parties remained on the fringes until about two decades back. Although their following among the masses continue to be small compared to the mainstream political parties, the numbers are growing fast. Because of their very organized structure and party discipline, the Islamists are fast assuming the position to exert pressure on the society and government, far more than their numbers alone would suggest.
Last year it was starkly noticeable by the agitations carried out by Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the well-organized Islamist party in Bangladesh. It started nearly three years back when their top leaders were arrested on war-crime charges, and have now taken so violent a turn that it can now be termed as acts of terror. Its student wing - Islamic Chattra Shibir (ICS), is the most well-organized student body in the country that provides muscle to the JI activities. Dismantling of railway lines and bridges, burning down public transport with passengers inside, bombing and burning people who are totally unconnected with any political activities are defined by the United Nations and the international community as “acts of terror”.
December is the month when we achieved victory over the Pakistani occupation forces. Jamaat-e-Islami, along with some other Islamist parties, was on the run then for their active collaboration with the Pakistan Army in the genocide they committed. Since then, at least during the month of December, JI used to be in low profile. It is an irony that in 2013, for the first time, they were able to impose a country-wide shut down on the 15th of December, a day ahead of the Victory Day.
While JI's acts of bombing, killing, arson and vandalism had been on the headlines of the media every day, other Islamist forces, including some terrorist organizations, had not been idle either. In fact, taking advantage of the political impasse, uncertainty and violence, these parties are actively regrouping and consolidating their organizations for a show-down that they expect will come soon. The most active Islamist terrorist group at present is Ansarullah Bangla Team whose leader Mufti Jasimuddin Rahmani was arrested on 18 August 2013 for propagating Jihadi ideology and urging Muslim youths to carry out bombing, killing and other violent acts to establish an Islamic state. Rahmani's disciples included Rajib Karim, an IT expert who was jailed for 30 years on terror charges in UK in 2011, and Nafis, a 22-year-old Bangladeshi jailed for 30 years in the US on 9 August, 201, for plotting to bomb the US Federal Reserve Bank in New York a year ago. In Bangladesh, Rahmani's disciples included 5 NSU students who killed blogger Rajib on 15 February and Mesbahuddin, a BUET student who allegedly hacked to death a fellow student on 9 April last year.
Police reported that since the arrest of Mufti Rahmani the organization is run by ex-Major Ziaul, a fugitive since his attempted coup two years back. Ansarulullah Bangla Team has link with its counterpart in Pakistan as well as with AL-Qaida elements in Yemen. A number of arrests of Rahmani's followers were made across the country in the middle of this year, but the website containing Rahmani's sermons, lectures and videos urging young Muslims to join the Jihad, kill people who they perceive as apostates, destroy the state structure as it exists and establish a “true Islamic state” is up and running as of today. The website provides tips on how to make bombs using easily available materials, eulogizes Bangladeshi jihadists killed at home and abroad, and provides links to websites containing Al-Qaida propaganda materials. Exact number of members of Ansarullah is not known, but from the hits on its websites as well as blogs and Facebook entries, it can be deduced that the organization is growing fast. One wonders how these websites can run while the government is avowedly committed to eliminating Islamist terrorist outfits in Bangladesh.
Hizbut Tahrir (HT) is another banned Islamist organization that is fast increasing its activities throughout Bangladesh. Its website, that was blocked for sometime, is working. HT has not been involved in overt violence or terrorist activities, but through its website, posters, leaflets and occasional rallies it engages in denigrating democracy, secularism and the state of Bangladesh as it exists. It strongly condemns both AL and BNP leaderships for leading the country towards what it sees as slavery of Indo-US-Israeli axis. Its shrill anti-US and anti-Indian slogans sell well with the disenchanted Muslim youth who consider themselves as victims of big power conspiracy. Off late, HT has been urging the Army to bring an end to Hasina-Khaleda misrule and establish a government run by true Muslims.
HT members are generally from the educated urban youth from affluent families who had been to English medium schools or are in the private universities. It is apparent that most of these youth, who had had little contact with Bangladesh's cultural diversity, its rich history and traditions, are easily susceptible to the revisionist history portrayed by the HT. While most of Islamic extremist groups recruit from the lower middle class, rural, half-educated, unemployed youth, HT targets the urban, economically affluent, educated professionals. Therefore, although their numbers may be small, their ability to influence the society is significant.
Another extremist group that came in the limelight last year is Hefazat-e-Islam. It was formed in 2011 as an organization of Quomi Madrasa lobby to oppose government's move to give Muslim women equal rights in inheritance and its attempt to reform Quomi Madrasa education. However, Hefazat burst into the political scene in 2013 with its 13-point demand. The demands included among others, promulgation of blasphemy law with a provision of death penalty, scrapping of laws on women rights and the proposed education policy, declaring Ahmedya community as non-Muslims, banning of Christian missionary activities, especially in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and dismantling of sculptures erected at public places as those are considered by the Hefazat as un-Islamic symbols. Hefazat represent a very narrow, obscurantist view of Islam, akin to the Talibans of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their march to Dhaka on 5 May, 2013 drew a crowd of nearly half a million madrasa students, teachers and sympathizers, virtually choking the city and forcing the city dwellers indoor. Its rally in Motijheel, the heart of the nation's financial district, extended well into the night and grew increasingly violent. Finally, the government had to apply considerable force to eject the protesters from their sit-in. Hefazat's meteoric rise is the proof that the madrasas, so far considered by the political elites as the abode of the poor and neglected, now developed into a potent political force impossible to ignore. However, their proposed march to Dhaka on 24 December did not take place.
The Islamist extremist organizations that stole the headline by their acts of terror in 1999-2005, such as Jamaatul Mujahideen, Bangladesh (JMB) and Harkatul Jihad Al-Islami, Bangladesh (HUJI-B), are not so much on the radar screen now since most of their leadership were either prosecuted and hanged or awarded long term prison sentences. However, they had been regrouping and reorganizing, often under new nomenclature as had been established through a number of arrests made over the years. HUJI-B is particularly trans-national in character with its headquarters in Pakistan. Pakistani operatives have been arrested in Bangladesh, trying to use Bangladesh as a launching platform for attack on targets in India. Mufti Hannan, the leader of HUJI-B, is the prime accused of 21 August 2004 grenade attack on Sheikh Hasina, the current Prime Minister and at that time the Leader of the opposition. Hannan's organization is accused of a series of deadly attacks on public places targeting the Awami League and the left political elements.
It is a sad testimony that Bangladesh that won its freedom through a bloody Liberation War fought to establish a modern democratic state is now confronted with elements who want to turn the state into a medieval theocracy. We have reached the present state because of our failure to develop strong democratic institutions in the country and our failure to deliver the due governance and justice that the citizen expected from the state. Almost all governments that came to power since 1975 were engaged in appeasing the religious forces in order to counter the political opposition. The religious forces gained at the expense of mainstream political parties. The bitter political feud between AL and BNP created the space for parties such as JI to expand its power base. Today the Islamist forces are better organized than ever before. Awash with money flowing in from domestic and foreign sources, as well as from the charities, banks, insurance, hospitals, diagnostic centres, educational institutions and coaching centres run by them, the Islamists in Bangladesh are ready to face the mainstream political parties in their own turf. With stepping in to 2014, we see only dark clouds in the horizon. Unless the two major political parties identify their common enemy and close ranks, soon they themselves will be overwhelmed by the Frankenstein they created.
The writer is a retired Air Commodore who researches on terrorism and religious extremism.