Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh: Where To From Here?

22 Apr, 2014    ·   4402

Dibya Shikha comments on the recent resurgence of the JI in the Upzila elections

Dibya Shikha
Dibya Shikha
Research Intern

The High Court of Bangladesh declared the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh as illegal in August 2013 on the grounds that the party’s charter was against the secular provision of the 1972 constitution. The election commission did not allow the party to contest the tenth general elections held in January 2014.

Earlier, one of the main agendas of the Shahbagh movement was to push through the demand to hang the leaders who were actively involved in war crimes in the 1971 Bangladesh liberation struggle and ban Islamic parties such as the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) who sided with the Pakistani army and opposed the formation of the nation. However, less than two months after the national elections, when the nationwide Upzila or sub-district elections took place, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and JI contested and performed exceptionally well. These results have challenged the umbrella view that the JI is a hated organisation across Bangladesh. The Liberation War Affairs Minister AKM Mozammel Haque said that the JI may be banned in June 2014. Where does the JI stand in Bangladesh today? And where would it go from here?

Where Does JI Stand?
JI has always been on the wrong side of history in Bangladesh. During the Liberation War of 1971, the party worked hand-in-hand with the Pakistani army, and the provisional government of Bangladesh banned the JI in 1972. Now, the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) has convicted its leaders as propagators of crimes against humanity. As a result, the JI may be banned.

The last few years have been difficult for the party: the top leadership is in jail for alleged war crimes and the second rung of the leadership is in jail for opposing the war crime trails. Hence, the party is basically run by leaders of the third and fourth generations. There is significant internal debate within the JI on the limitations, in the current context, of a strategy that originated with Prof Ghulam Azam.

One section, which is led by the business wing of party (with strong financial connections to Gulf countries), wants to modify the party on the lines of the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP). But the other section, led by former Chhatra Shibir members, wants to take direct action. This group was mainly responsible for the coordinated violence across Dhaka and other cities during the Shahbagh uprising.

Upzila Elections: An Opportunity for the JI?
JI won substantial seats in the fourth Upzila elections - the son of condemned war crime convict Delwar Hussain Sayedee was elected as chairperson of the Ziangar Upzila.

What prompted the people to vote for the JI despite their alleged involvement in war crimes? Is an Islamic identity slowly overpowering the secularist democratic ethos of Bangladesh?

Though JI claims to be a ‘moderate force’ working for peace, their main agenda is to establish an Islamic state. In both Pakistan and Bangladesh, the main strategy of the JI has been ‘infiltration’: keeping faithful people in important state positions, gaining a stronghold in non-State sectors, and trying to capture power at the right time.

To gain legitimacy and popular support, the JI has tried to make strategic alliances with the BNP and AL (Awami League) at different points in time. Activists of its student wing, Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT) andIslami Chhatra Sangha (ICS) have embedded themselves in universities and colleges and established a strong base for radical politics.

Analysts suggest that the reason behind JI’s strong performance is more due to its grassroots organisational capacity rather than disorganisation and dissent within its arch-rival, AL. The importance of JI is often underestimated on the grounds that they do not have much of a hold in electoral politics. However, the kind of influence JI has over Bangladeshi society resurfaced when they succeeded in garnering support in Upzila elections.

Jamaat-e-Islami: The Way Forward
Since religion is important part of the sociological and political life of South Asia, JI will continue to play an important role in Bangladeshi politics. By distinguishing themselves from radical Islamic groups, the JI already has the sympathy of Western governments, policy-makers and analysts who are in dire need of ‘progressive’ Islamic groups in Muslim countries.

The main strength of JI lies in a well-organised political structure, committed cadres and supporters, and an image of being incorruptible, which is lacking in almost every other political party in Bangladesh.

The AL decision to ban JI will depend on their assessment of whether secular youth would be able to overwhelm the conservative politics of Islamic groups and how much rural/conservative support AL is ready to lose. Furthermore, JI has a strong back-up of professionals such as doctors and engineers and AL would not like to make them hostile by banning JI.

During the recently held Upzila elections, relations between the BNP and JI became strained over seat-sharing issues. Hence, it will also be interesting to see how the BNP reacts to the banning of its alliance partner in the changing political dynamics of Bangladesh.

The second session of Jatiya Sangsad, which may begin at the end of May 2014, is likely to decide the future of the JI.