Jamaat-e-Islami | Old party, new brand
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The Opposition party, discredited by the war crimes trial and weakened by a state crackdown, is trying to rebrand itself as a ‘soft’ Islamist group that’s opposed to the Hasina government

December 18, 2022 03:21 am | Updated 12:47 pm IST

In the backdrop of the protests led by the main Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), authorities in Dhaka arrested Jamaat-e-Islami’s ameer Shafiqur Rahman and his son Rafat Sadik Saifullah last week. The arrests were interpreted as a move to pre-empt Jamaat, the largest Islamist party in Bangladesh, from infusing critical mass to the protest rally set to be launched by BNP leader Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir.

The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina arrested Mr. Alamgir a day before the BNP’s ‘Grand Rally’, and more arrests followed. Reports suggested that the rally failed to trigger a public movement against the government that the BNP had hoped for, but there were hints that unleashing of Jamaat’s foot soldiers could have triggered a larger challenge for Ms. Hasina.

The relationship between Jamaat and Ms. Hasina has been hostile for most of her last three tenures. The Hasina government has championed a trial for the genocide of 1971 during the Liberation War. Mir Quasem Ali, one of the biggest leaders of Jamaat, was convicted by the war crimes tribunal, set up in 2009 to investigate the crimes committed by the Pakistani Army and its local collaborators, and hanged in 2016. The hanging drew criticism from several quarters, but the Awami League government did not back off. Several other figures of Jamaat were hanged during 2013-16.

Also Read | Bangladesh’s Opposition party holds massive anti-government rally demanding resignation of PM Sheikh Hasina

Jamaat in Bangladesh is one of the major offshoots of the main branch of Jamaat-e-Islami, founded by Islamic theologian Abu Ala Maududi in British India in 1941. Maududi developed a political ideology based on Islam and Jamaat was the party organisation to meet its objectives — establishing an Islamic state. The group split into different organisations after Partition.

It took strong roots in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and subsequently, its cadre were accused of supporting other organisations such as Al-Badr, who wanted continuation of the Pakistani rule over Bangladesh. After the end of Pakistani rule in 1971, Jamaat established itself as an entity of Bangladesh and continued to play a prominent role in the country’s politics.

Both the BNP and the Awami League had joined hands with Jamaat in the past against their common rivals. But after the war crimes trial and the subsequent state crack down, Jamaat adopted different tactics to stay relevant in Bangladesh’s politics. The party is now banned from contesting elections. But it remains a powerful radical force on the streets of Bangladesh. 

‘New Jamaat’

Jamaat today marks December 16 — the day when Indian forces defeated Pakistan and the new nation of Bangladesh was born against the will of the Pakistani Army and its supporters such as Jamaat in 1971 — as Vijay Divas. This was unthinkable till a few years ago, but the organisation has come around to acknowledge that the Pakistani military was defeated in the war of 1971, though it is yet to concede to the truth of genocide of that time because of the obvious self-humiliation that it might cause.

However, Jamaat has not undergone any essential change when it comes to its worldview. The ‘new Jamaat’ is the party of old beliefs, which aspires to create a homeland for the Muslims in the region, that uses modern tech and the power of advertisements and social media influencers to spread its message. While the main leadership of Jamaat has stayed away from ground-level politics, the message of Jamaat and other opposition parties is widely disseminated through the YouTube channels of prominent anti-government critics such as Ilyas Hossein.

Jamaat always wanted to whitewash its role in the developments of 1971 but failed to do so as there’s overwhelming historical evidence. But the contemporary hybrid information system, which often targets the younger generation of Bangladeshi citizens with a version of Jamaat, offers them an opportunity to rewrite the past. The new Jamaat in Bangladesh is in fact much broader than what the orthodox roots of the organisation had once envisaged.

The Hasina government is also under international pressure to review its approach towards Jamaat and other Opposition parties as elections are approaching next year.

Call for transparency

The U.S. government has been asking for greater transparency and credible elections in Bangladesh. The opposition had accused Ms. Hasina’s party of rigging the 2018 elections. U.S. Ambassador Peter Haas recently visited families of victims of enforced disappearance in Dhaka, including a BNP leader’s house, triggering protests by local Awami League activists. Sources in Dhaka have hinted that several pro-Jamaat social media influencers serving the BNP-Jamaat political combine have found asylum in the U.S. and are running widely followed YouTube programmes from the east coast of the U.S.

Shyamal Datta, editor of Bhorer Kagoj, a Dhaka-based daily, maintains that the U.S. has a strong lobby involving former Nobel Prize winner Mohammed Yunus that believes in engaging the Islamist groups like Jamaat-e-Islami. “They believe that providing a democratic platform to forces like the Jamaat-e-Islami will prevent them from becoming more radical and that is why they are indicating that there is something called a “soft” Jamaat that will be a factor in Bangladesh in near future,” Mr. Datta told The Hindu.

The risk of such a belief, he maintains, is that there is no way to hold Jamaat accountable once they are given credibility by helping them win popular vote. As a lesson, he reminded of the links that Jamaat maintains with diverse Islamic groups such as the Hefazat-e-Islam of Bangladesh that was involved in the killings of 2013. Once Jamaat finds global and diplomatic support as a “soft” fundamentalist force, there are chances, Mr. Datta said, that they would coalesce with other ideological fellow travellers such as Hefazat and quickly gain strength and momentum.

Pressure from hardliners

In the recent past, the Awami League had succumbed to the pressure tactics by the hardline religious lobby often drawing criticism from the secular sections of the party. One group of opinion makers in Dhaka believe Jamaat emerged stronger as the government backed off under pressure on several occasions.

One example was the government’s proposal to erect a bust of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh and Ms. Hasina’s father, in a prominent spot in Dhaka in 2021-22, Mujibur’s centenary year. But Islamist groups led by Hefazat opposed the move and launched protests calling it un-Islamic. The government could not build the bust till the end of the festivities.

As elections are approaching, Bangladesh politics is expected to be more turbulent. And Jamaat, given its past of street violence, could wreak havoc if the country slips into violent protests. The arrests of Jamaat leaders took place against this background. The BNP wants Jamaat’s street power. But the government, by bringing in terrorism charges against the group’s leaders, seems determined to pre-empt them.

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