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Bangladesh’s Deadly Waltz with Political Islam

ICC Note:

Bangladesh ’s flirtation with political Islam, if fulfilled, will have terrible consequences for their already persecuted Christians.


Bangladesh’s Deadly Waltz with Political Islam

Bangladesh News
Aminur Rahim, South Africa

The fragile national ego of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party has come home to roost. Khalida Zia, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, has called for national unity to fight the political terrorism unleashed by the Jama’atul Mujahedin Bangladesh (the Bangladesh Assembly of Holy Warriors).
The reason for the rush to change her position is clear enough: November 30 and the killing of judges. But what is not clear, and will not become so, is how serious she is. Until November 30, 2005, Bangladesh governments had routinely denied that Bangladesh was “a cocoon of terror”. In a state of denial, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies the Jammat-e-Islami and Islami Oikya Jote (Islamic Unity Alliance) have concocted a conspiracy theory.
According to this theory political terrorism in the country was part of international plot sponsored by the Research and Analysis Wing of the Indian Secret Services (RAW) and the Mossad (Israeli Intelligence Agencies) in a desperate move to discredit Islam and the Muslim nations for the benefit of the principal opposition party, the Awami League (Bangladesh Observer, September 3, 2005; Prothom Alo, September 10, 2005).
All the evidence on the ground, thus, tends to show that nobody knows where it all is taking Bangladesh . But one thing is obvious: political Islam is a fact of life in the country and it is a political force to be reckoned with.
The growing religious militancy in Bangladesh is seen as the culmination of a number of political factors which are both internal and external. Internally, the state apparatus in Bangladesh was part of this trend. Since gaining independence in 1971, Bangladesh has witnessed a period of unprecedented political instability and bloodshed.
The country has suffered three military takeovers and 19 attempted coups. As a result, no particular group or faction could emerge as a hegemonic power bloc. This is indeed important for the ideological cockpit, whether Bangladeshis are Bengalis first or whether their Islam should take first choice in their lives. Externally, since the 1970’s the oil boom enhanced the political power of many Muslim countries in the Middle East and channelled funds to Islamist militants for Islamic causes. Also Egypt ’s war against Israel in 1973 and accompanying oil embargo against the West demonstrated the importance of Islam as a political power on a world scale.
The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran as well as the Afghan jihad had a rejuvenated effect on the umma. It is reported that 2364 Bangladeshis fought in the Afghan war on the Taliban’s side (Prothom Alo, August 19, 2005).
Return of the Mullahs
Bangladesh was carved from Pakistan in 1971, and began as a secular people’s republic. However, since 1988, a tide of religious militancy has been rising (Janakantha, March 9, 2005). The rise of political Islam in Bangladesh , however, has not appeared out of the blue sky. Rather, it is directly related to the country’s chequered political history. The first military takeover which led to the killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, the first Prime Minister of Bangladesh, catapulted General Ziaur Rahman to power.
To consolidate his political power, he took a number of political steps that helped return of Mullahs to the political arena. Article 38 of the Constitution was amended to legitimize religious-based politics in the country deleting the word “secularism” that paved the way for mixing religion with politics in the country.
Secondly, Ziaur Rahman rejected linguistic nationalism and accepted territorial nationalism to forge a new national identity for the people of Bangladesh by making a distinction between the Bengali of West Bengal, India and the Bengali of Bangladesh. From then, the citizens of Bangladesh were described as “Bangladeshis” (Article 6). Thirdly, a new clause was added to article 25(2) of the “Islamic solidarity” which allowed the cultivating fraternal relations among Muslim countries. Ziaur Rahman considered himself “a nationalist realist” which he thought someone should do to make Bangladesh independent of India . His brand of nationalism, thus, had deliberately politicised religion to counter India ’s political influence in Bangladesh .
This eventually opened the floodgates of using religion for political purposes. Many Islami NGOs sprang up in the wake of politicising religion. Islamic NGOs tied to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries came in droves like the Kuwait Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (KRIHS), the Servants of Suffering Humanity International (SSHI), al Harma’in and so on.
This Islamist NGO’s have acted as a conduit for political Islam. Millions of taka has been pumped in the country to cater to the political requirements of fanatic and politically motivated mullahs whose aspiration was to turn Bangladesh into an Islamic Republic.
This had a ripple effect on Bangladesh politics. One of its effects was the rehabilitation of a number of prominent collaborators of the Pakistan army, who were accused in 1972 of their involvement in the killing of civilians, including the intellectuals. Indeed, a majority of the collaborators came from the religious oriented political parties. They used every religious occasion to chastise liberals and secularists for abandoning Islam and the Prophet and accepting Rabindranath Tagore as their new prophet.
For the right wing nationalists, Bangladesh was controlled by a minority, who took their orders from Calcutta and New Delhi , but the majority of the people in Bangladesh were Muslims who valued Islamic way of life. By invoking the majority rule, the right wing establishment succeeded in transferring its communalism into Bangladeshi nationalism. This communally oriented politics led to the foundation of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in 1978.
Although it never accepted the two-nation theory which subscribed to the view that the minority and the majority communities are two nations, propounded by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, the communal orientation of the party is palpable in the party’s manifesto and its foundational principles.
General H.M. Ershad, who came to power through a bloodless coup in 1982, continued his predecessor’s policy with unabated enthusiasm. He went one step further than of General Ziaur Rahman, who was credited with having brought Islam back into the political discourse in Bangladesh . General Ershad used Islam to counter political opposition to his dictatorial rule. In 1988 the Eighth amendment of the Constitution was passed by the parliament declaring Islam as the State religion of Bangladesh . So Bangladesh had come full circle, a neo-Pakistan.
This ideological rift between the liberation forces had been adroitly exploited by the anti-liberation political organisations spearhead by the Jammat-e Islami after the restoration of democracy in 1990, when Khalida Zia (the wife of the late President Zia) became the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.
Political Islam began to flex its muscle by issuing fatwas (religious edicts) against secular and liberal intellectuals such as Ahmed Sharif and Shamsul Haq. It smelled blood when Taslima Nasreen was forced to flee the country in 1994 after receiving death threats from Islamic radicals for allegedly making derogatory comments about Islam. In the same year the Khaleda Zia government also charged Nasreen with blasphemy. One of the tragedies of the Nasreen affair was that liberal political and cultural organizations failed to rise to the occasion and challenge insurgent political Islam in Bangladesh . This was its first victory and political Islam has never looked back again.
During Sheikh Hasina’s rule (1996-2001), the mullahs started clamouring for madrassa education (religious education), bad-mouthing the liberation movement as well as throwing bombs at secular cultural functions. Islamic radicals also prepared a hit list of intellectuals who were to be targeted for assassinations. Poet Shamsur Rahman was one of these on the list and indeed, an attempt was made on his life in 1999.
But the Awami League in its victory saw the end of history. Instead of adopting robust political programmes to combat political Islam by improving the human conditions through education and health care services, the whole machinery of the state was geared to restore Sheikh Mujibur Rahamn as a cult figure.
It was at this juncture that the Awami League caved in. mardrassa education expanded and the Ministry of Religious Affairs was given carte blanch to fund religious education at the expanse of general education.
The Trojan horse syndrome
Bangladesh not only is one of the poorest countries in the world, but it is also the most corrupt country in the world too. Embezzlement by public officials is rampant. The corrupt government officials annually collect Tk. 160 million as bribe.
The Transparency International Bangladesh estimated that the Government of Bangladesh lost Tk. 4 billion through the corrupt practices in 2004 (Financial Express, September 16, 2005). In other words, Bangladeshis have to hand in 7.5 percent of their earnings as bribe , which is almost equivalent to the total earnings of the lower middle class of the country (Financial Express, December 11, 2005).
Police, communication, education, health and family welfare, local government and rural development were identified as the most corrupt. According to Professor Abul Barkat, Dhaka University, 75 per cent of the Tk. 2,000 (US$ 36 billion) billion Bangladesh received as foreign aid since 1971 has been appropriated by Bangladeshi politicians, bureaucrats, commission agents and contractors (the Daily Star, October 7, 2002).
The gap between the wealthy few and the powerless majority highlights the class division –nearly half the population lives below the poverty line. The outcome of such an uneven development has opened the space to bring Islam as a religion of development.
Corruption coupled with the intense disagreement between the power blocs (the BNP and Awami League) on the identity question has severely weakened state autonomy.
As a result, the state of Bangladesh has ceased to be autonomous from any power blocs. Rather it has become subservient to the whims of the political bloc in power. This has led to the massive politicization of the state apparatus paving the way for clan politics. Clan politics refers to a political system through which a power bloc seeks to maximize its bargaining power with the community by containing access to resources and opportunities to a limited number of members. Thus controlling the state gives a power bloc a competitive advantage in getting access to resources.
At the last elections in 2001, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ)won 20 seats between them. In other words, Islamists do not control enough votes to enact Islamic laws nor do they have power to override the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. But being part of the governing coalition, both these parties have been using their swing positions effectively to promote their own political agenda in government, an Islamic Republic.
For example, Mufti Fazlul Huq Amini of the Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ) is not afraid to express his support for the Taliban and al Qaeda. In 2001, he issued death threats against two judges who passed the judgement banning the use the Muslim religious edicts (fatwas) in December 2000. In rural Bangladesh , mullahs often issue fatwas to resolve family disputes and punishment ranges from humiliating to physical punishment. For Amini, only an Islamic way of life can counter corruption and political terrorism in Bangladesh .
In the same vein, Maulna Nizami, the Chief of Jammat, argues that both communism and the western model of capitalism are inherently anti-Islamic and materialistic. Only Islam can provide an alternative path of development for Bangladesh . For Islamic radicals, however, the road to Islamic revolution is a long walk. To achieve their revolution, they have to get political recognition from Bangladeshis.
In other words, political Islam has taken shelter under the umbrella of liberal democracy and Bangladesh nationalism. Islamic radicals thus have found a natural affinity with the BNP in their mission to establish an Islamic Republic.
This marriage of convenience between nationalism and political Islam has encouraged the emergence of certain extremist movements in Bangladesh based on the takfir trend, inspired by “Jihadist Salafis (Wahhabis) –such as the followers of Taliban and al-Qaeda. According to the takfir principle any Muslims or organisations that cooperate with un-Islamic people or organizations are impious and apostates (irtidad).
This allows the Islamists to identity selected individuals and organizations who are to be effectively isolated, deemed impious and then killing them. This explains why Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) has been targeting opposition leaders, liberal intellectuals, progressive organizations, mazars and the Ahmadiyya Muslims. Of late, this takfir concept has provided the justification for the JMB’s indiscriminate attacks on Muslims. Targeting civilian Muslims, however, was widely practiced at first by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria and Takfir wal Hijra in Egypt . Of late, Islamic insurgents in Iraq have been following the examples set by the GIA.
On the cultural front, thanks to the presence of the various Islamic NGOs, Islamists ran numerous mosques, orphanages and madrasas. For example, since 1996, the Kuwait Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RHIHS) has built one Islamic University, 10 madrasas, 4 orphanages, 1000 mosques, 1,100 ojukhanas, 100,000 deep tube wells in 16 districts in Northern Bangladesh which are considered to be the hinterland of East Bangladesh (Prothom Alo, June 16, 2005).
In 1970 there were 1,500 registered religious seminaries with the government, known as Ebtedayee madrasas. Today there are nearly 8000. Such a growth of religious education was made possible after the BNP lead collation government came to power in 2001. The government nowadays spends more funds on Islamic education than general education (Daily Star, August 4, 2005), despite the fact that religious education has contributed negatively in creating skilled human resources.
In addition, 15,000 Qawmi madrasas (but Mufti Amini claims there are 20,000 Qawmi madeasas) have been set up and are totally out of government control (Prothom Alo, December 2, 2005). Also tens of thousands more madrasas have been opened up which are not listed with the Qawmi Board (Daily Star, August 4, 2005,).
The Qawmi Madrasa Board has its own curriculum. Although English, maths and science have been added at the primary level, the curriculum is dominated with a jihadi mentality. A majority of students are drawn from the poverty stricken families who are provided with free education, lodging and food.
Teaching and learning take place in an inhuman condition. Corporal punishment is the norm and even teachers keep their students chained up for misbehaviour. Students are not allowed even to see their parent for years. Mufti Amini claims that students and teachers numbers for Qawami Madrasas are almost 500,000 (Prothom Alo, December 2, 2005). These are the future shock troopers of Islamic Revolution. In 1994 they were mobilised by IOJ against Taslima Nasreen in 1994 and again in 2001 against the High Court ruling prohibiting the use of fatawas.
Playing Russian roulette with Bangladesh
The culture of Bangladeshi politics is the politics of the big stick which hardly makes any differentiation between national interests and personal aggrandisement. It is this political culture that has encouraged Bangladeshi politicians to regard politics as an internal human action rather an external one. In politics the end is not the goal, nor is the political motive independent of the politician, rather pursing a good life.
A good life requires liberty, social and personal securities. To the contrary, politics in Bangladesh means the pursuit of power. In their relentless pursuit of power Bangladeshi politicians have sacrificed the human dimension of politics. From the shadow of Pakistan ’s domination to independence onward a vicious internecine politics and profiteering have paralysed the civic life.
Bangladesh has become an estate for the two major political parties forgetting that the “other Bangladesh ” is dying of cold-hearted neglect and political criminality. What is unusual about the 35-year of independent is that the suffering of the people has not been alleviated. The majority of Bangladeshis live on the poverty line while 30 million people are living below the poverty line (Prothom Alo, December 11, 2005).
In other words, in terms of population Bangladesh has the highest number of poverty-stricken people in the world. This abysmal human condition is a metaphor of the two Bangladeshs that fails to satisfy the basic needs of the people.
The rise of Islamic militancy points a finger at the erosion of democratic values and deteriorating human conditions. The two dominant political parties have marginalised parliament.
The Executive branch has undermined judicial independence and the political party in power persecutes political opponents. Corruption denies equal opportunity and prevents achievement-based social rewards. The education system has been paralysed under the weight of politically appointed teachers. The curriculum remains outdated and does not teach economically and socially viable skills.
In the circumstances, Islamists are targeting democratic institutions like the judicial system which stand in the way of implementing the Shari’ah law. The killing of several judges serves to show that the BNP’s Islamic allies are not moderate Muslims. Particularly, the role of Mufti Amini and his Islamic Oikyo Jote’s activities since 1994 tell volumes about what they are up to.
Mufti Amini and his close associate Maulana Azizul Haq were arrested after the death of a police officer in a Dhaka mosque in 2001. The Jote has also played a leading role in starting the anti-Ahmdiyas movement urging the government to declare them non-Muslims. Given the scale and urgency of political terrorism, it requires a political will, and playing the blame game is tantamount to playing Russian roulette on a national scale. It is a game that only the cold and a criminally inclined can play and hope to win.
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Aminur Rahim writes from South Africa

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