Can Hasina Tame The Jamaat-E-Islami?
There are grave developments in Bangladesh. In spite of the apparent lull after the completion of the recent electoral process and the installation of the Awami League-led government, quite a few ominous incidents have taken place pointing out to the firm hold that Islamic fundamentalism now enjoys over the society and politics in Bangladesh. First, the government in Dhaka raided and sealed the press of the Inquilab, a newspaper known for its proximity to the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI). Some of its senior journalists were also arrested. The charge is serious. The newspaper had alleged that Indian army personnel had entered Bangladesh and took active part in suppressing the violent agitations during the recent election in that country.
Nothing can be further from the truth. Unfortunately, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the largest opposition outfit, has bought this Jamaat-e-Islami sponsored allegation. Without naming India directly, Khaleda Zia, the BNP supremo, has levelled almost the same charge. Referring to disturbances in Khulna, Khaleda said that the destructions there leave the clear imprint that they were done by people of some other country.
Hasina Wazed, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh has the tall and difficult task of taming the Jamaat-e-Islami, the fountainhead of Islamic fundamentalism, in front of her. She has given proof of her resolve. Abdul Quader Mollah, the dreaded Jamaat leader and a war criminal of 1971, has been hanged. The latest court order of hanging of those involved in the infamous Chittagong arms smuggling case, particularly the order of execution of Matiur Rahman Nizami, a former finance minister and the present head of the Jamaat in Bangladesh, is expected to deal a severe blow to political Islam. However, it must be remembered that the Jamaat-e-Islami has a base in Bangladesh politics and over the years it has struck deep financial roots. Now for Hasina Wazed confronting the Jamaat entails facing the challenge from the latter’s enormous money power.
Founded in Hyderabad in 1941 by Maulana Maududi who had shifted to Lahore after 1947, the Jamaat-e-Islami believes in the establishment of Sharia laws and capturing of state power through infiltration of its cadres in different government positions as well as in non-state sectors. It had played a vital role at the time of the downfall of the former Pakistan President Ayub Khan by whipping up frenzied students’ protests against him. Ayub’s successors had viewed the ominous rise of the Jamaat with consternation but could not take any step as it was too firmly entrenched in the then Pakistan economy.
In today’s Bangladesh too the Jamaat has created an ‘economy within economy’ and a ‘state within state’ as aptly described by Abul Barkat, a Professor of Economics at the Dhaka University. The Jamaat has now established its towering presence in almost all sectors of the economy—from large financial institutions to household level micro credit organisations, from madrasas to mass media and information technology and from big trading houses to non government organisations (NGOs). The Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami’s alleged net annual profit from these ventures is said to be around $280 million, ten per cent of which goes to support political organizations. It is enough to sustain five lakh whole timers. Abul Barkat has given a detailed break up of Jamaat’s monetary resources. According to him financial ventures affiliated to the Jamaat like banks, insurances and leasing companies contribute the largest chunk, around 27 per cent, to the net annual profit. Around 20.8 per cent comes from the NGOs, 10.8 per cent from trade, 10.4 per cent from pharmaceutical industries and health care institutions, 9.2 per cent from educational sector, 8.3 per cent from real estate business, 7.5 per cent from transport sector and 5.8 per cent from media and information technology business.
Unfortunately Jamaat-e-Islami has been given foothold in Bangladeshi politics by none other than the mainstream political parties like the Awami League, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jatiya Party. Well before the taking over by Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman, the provisional government of the yet to be born Bangladesh had proscribed any religion based political party. But Mujib committed a blunder in 1974 by declaring general amnesty which allowed the Jamaat leaders, who had fled to Pakistan and other Middle East and Gulf countries, to come back to Bangladesh. After Mujib, Ziaur Rahaman banished the concept of secularism from the Bangladeshi constitution and incorporated several Islamic symbols in his country’s body polity while HM Ershad made Islam the state religion after assuming power.
Hasina’s political journey confounds Bangladesh observers. She returned to Bangladesh in 1982 with the memory of Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman still alive. Soon after Jamaat-e-Islami started political activities after Ershad came to power. Ershad not only accorded legitimacy to Jamaat but took Maulana Abdul Mannan, a top level Jamaat leader, and Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, a war criminial of 1971, in his cabinet. In 1986, the Awami League under Hasina Wazed exhibited utmost political opprtunism by aligning with the Jamaat to fight the election. In 1990, the Awami League, the Jamaat and the BNP came together to topple President Ershad. But Jamaat soon jettisoned Awami League, fought and then won the 1991 election as the junior coalition partner of the BNP. However, this did not prevent Hasina to stitch up another alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami in the mid 1990s in order to launch street agitations. In 2001, the BNP and the Jamaat again came together, won the election and formed a coalition government.
Jyoti Rahaman, a responsible commentator of Bangladesh, however thinks that the Jamaat-e-Islami is perhaps on the throes of a transition and taming its rabid face may not be too difficult. It is a fact that most of the top level Jamaat leaders having war time criminal backgrounds are too old and they may not live long to fulfill the outfit’s dream of establishing a Sharia state. Moreover, the majority of the first and second level leadership are behind the bars and the third level leaders are on the run seeking covers. Rahaman thinks that the younger elements of the outfit are perhaps looking for shedding its fundamentalist background and a moderate leadership may come up.
Rahaman does not discount the possibility of a ‘business lobby’ within the Jamaat-e-Islami coming forward and taking up the leadership. But the problem lies in the fact there are only two probable faces from this group. One of them is Mir Quasem Ali, a business tycoon and a central executive committee member of the JeI, who is now in jail and is being tried for crimes against humanity during the 1971 liberation war. The other is Abdur Razzak, a barrister. Razzak is on the whole a non controversial person and is acceptable to the business community. But his sober presence is negated by Mir Quasem Ali’s controversial background.
Quasem was the director of the Islami Bank of Bangladesh Ltd. (IBBL), one of the principal arms of the Jamaat-e-Islami. In 2006 the Bangladesh Bank, the country’s apex regulatory institution for the financial sector, had meted out the highest punishment to the IBBL under the Money Laundering Act. It is not difficult to guess for whom the Islami Bank had undertaken such an illegal job. The IBBL was founded in 1975 at the initiative of Fuad Abdullah Alkhatib, the then ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Bangladesh. Interestingly this was the time when Ziaur Rahaman, the late President, had got himself busy in effacing all signs of religious pluralism and instead incorporating fundamentalist Islamic ideas in Bangladeshi politics and society. In course of time the Islami Bank found a place among the top three banks of Bangladesh and came to be associated with the Al Razee Bank of Saudi Arabia. Nearly 60 per cent of IBBL shares are held by Saudi individuals or institutions. Among the rest the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait and Qatar have prominence. Except IBBL Jamaat is in control of fourteen other banks and it has recently tied up with the Far Eastern Islamic Insurance Corporation to make its presence felt in the insurance sector.
Jamaat has another financial arm named the Islamic Bank Foundation (IBF). It oversees IBBL projects. It is said that money from them and interests from foreign donations go to the IBF accounts in IBBL. The relationship between IBBL and IBF was facilitated by the fact that Mir Quasem Ali happened to be the head of IBF too and at the same time he was the country (Bangladesh) director of the Saudi Arabia based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Rabeta-al-alam-al-Islami which finance many projects in Bangladesh. Apart from Rabeta other NGOs like the Kuwait Relief Fund and the Al Nahiyan Trust of the UAE used to fund a good number of projects. It has also been estimated that the IBBL transfers around 8 per cent of corporate zakat to such organizations which are on the suspect list of the government. With such massive financial resources, Jamaat has built up a solid network through which it can operate. Some of them are directly under the Jamaat control while some others may be described as sympathizers. Hasina is therefore faced with an uphill task, thanks to the Khaleda Zia led long interregnum when the Jamaat-e-Islami organised itself as it wished taking advantage of its status of a coalition partner. Ground realties have also helped the growth of fundamentalist Islam. In the last forty years, the number of primary schools has doubled in Bangladesh but the number of religious madrasas has mushroomed by eight times. While enrolment in primary schools has doubled the same in the religious madrasas has leapfrogged by thirteen times. Successive governments could spend only Taka 3,000 per head in government educational institutions. But the madrasas are spending Taka 5,000 per head.
These figures are chilling pointers to the way Bangladesh is moving. In sixty four districts of Bangladesh the Jamaat-e-Islami has established Islamic Training Centres and Darul Islam Coaching Centres which impart low level technical skills to young people coming mostly from lower and middle class families. During recent violent demonstrations Jamaat drew sustenance from these two sections of the society. It is already a known fact that the Islamic Chhatra Shibir, the students’ wing of the Jamaat, has built up good organizations in different universities. Jamaat has also sponsored private universities with foreign funding. Prominent among them is the International Islamic University of Chittagong which received financial assistance from Saudi Arabia’s International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO).
If Hasina Wazed sticks to her resolve to punish the ‘war time criminals’ then it can be said that Bangladesh is again at a crossroads. Till now she has not exhibited fickleness or vacillation which she had evinced on earlier occasions. She must admit to herself that religious fundamentalism in Bangladesh got a definite boost from some of her opportunistic postures. Jamaat has a vested interest in keeping the womenfolk behind a veil of illiteracy and backwardness. Throughout April and May, 2011 Bangladesh had witnessed waves of demonstrations by the fundamentalists who protested against the introduction of the National Women Development Policy which wanted to give women equal share in property and opportunity in employment and business. The plan was basically a brainchild of Hasina Wazed. The previous caretaker government backtracked under pressure from Jamaat and other groups of fundamentalists and formed an ‘ulema committee’ to go into the proposal. This committee opposed the policy as, in its opinion; the idea was against the principles of Quran and Sunna. The following Awami League government under Hasina Wazed agreed to remove the ‘contradictions’ as demanded by the ulema committee and at the same time declared its resolve to stand against vested interests.
By Amitava Mukherjee
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