Religious Extremism in Bangladesh
Despite all efforts of the present Sheikh Hasina government to contain Islamic militancy, the Bangladesh polity has witnessed a resurgence of radical Islamic groups in the recent period. The Forum for Secular Bangladesh claims that there exist more than 100 Islamist parties and extremist organisations across the country. Another report says that there are about 125 fundamentalist organisations in the country, including village-level Allahar Dal (Team of Allah). Only a few of such organisations have been banned so far but even those continue to operate under different names. The country is often flooded with audio and video propaganda cassettes/ CDs containing the ideology and programmes of the jehadi outfits. In the mean time, innumerable madrassas affiliated to Wahabi school of thought have been imparting radical Islamic teachings for a long time. Local reports indicate that some external forces act as facilitators of radical Islamisation process in Bangladesh. Pakistan is the brain behind such efforts while Saudi Arabia provides necessary funds to sustain the radical agenda.
The largest Islamic party of Bangladesh, Jamaat-e-Islami calls for radical transformation of the society in order to create an Islamic polity in this South Asian nation. A Bangladeshi political analyst maintains that the fundamentalist Jamaat’s ulterior motive is to build a “monolithic Islamic state based on Shariah law and declare jehad against Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and free-thinking Muslims.” A series of violent retaliatory attacks launched in the last one year against religious and ethnic minorities following conviction and execution of noted war criminals consisting of Jamaat’s top leaders, lend credence to the observation made by him. The civil society of Bangladesh is seriously concerned about the radical agenda of Jamaat and other Islamist groups.
The resurgence of radical Islamism is however not new phenomenon. Some of the mainstream political parties recognise the role of the religion in the polity. A tendency has been noticed in Bangladesh where more than 80% of the people practise Islam that various rightist political parties raise religious issues especially during the election period to enlist popular support. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) for example forges electoral ties with religion-based parties and occasionally emphasises the need for a government that protects Islam.
In fact, it was Ziaur Rahman—the first military ruler and the founder of BNP, who co-opted the religious fanatics in the polity while expanding his civilian support base. Zia rehabilitated the anti-liberation forces such as Jamaat and Muslim League which were banned by the Sheikh Mujib government for their anti-people role in the country’s Liberation War in 1971. Prominent personalities of Dhaka’s civil society who had closely observed Zia’s wooing of conservative religious groups mentioned in their memoirs and writings that in the late seventies, the military ruler used to advise his political associates to remind the people about the primary reason of partition of the sub-continent and emphasise their separate religious identity when addressing the martial law administration-sponsored public meetings.
The party that he floated with the active assistance of intelligence agencies was filled with collaborators or Razakars and pro-Beijing communists. The union of divergent and mutually antagonistic ideological persuasions under one platform was possible largely because they were offered state largesse in opulence. Today’s BNP led by Zia’s widow Begum Khaleda, draws its ideological moorings from those formative days. It is one of the many paradoxes of Bangladesh polity that Zia being a freedom fighter, who played a heroic role as a sector commander in the 1971 war, laid the foundation of a state that was quite different from the one the founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujib tried to erect in the immediate post-independence era. Zia was successful in his endeavours as BNP gradually mustered a support base among the cross section of the population.
Zia’s successor, H M Ershad accentuated the pace of Islamisation process that was initiated in the late seventies. The current Awami League (AL) government restored a few secular provisions in the Constitution but while doing so, it persisted with the role of Islam incorporated as a result of repeated amendments during the military rule (1975-90). The AL that once championed the cause of independence and tries to promote secular nationalist values has carefully avoided the Islamic provisions of the Constitution to forestall possible backlash from the far right, reactionary and anti-liberation groups of the country. The party had earlier incurred the wrath of religious bigots and obscurantist forces for “ignoring” the importance of Islam in Bangladesh. The AL under Sheikh Hasina has adopted a pragmatic approach and is treading cautiously in a polity given its volatile nature.
The rise of religious extremist forces poses direct threat to the political stability of Bangladesh. An analyst of Dhaka says, “This has been a country of practising Muslims who are tolerant and pluralistic with a state that is secular. Now this is threatened by these conservative forces”. Bangladesh witnessed a sharp rise in terrorist acts orchestrated by the radical Islamic outfits including the jehadi elements during the BNP-Jamaat coalition rule (2001-06). After a brief lull, Jamaat and its militant student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir organised several violent demonstrations in different parts of the country between November 2012 and December 2013 to register their protest against war crimes trial convictions. The violent attacks claimed more than 300 lives and inflicted huge damage to public properties. Local reports suggest that a section of Shibir activists had actually undergone special training to execute subversive acts. In their bid to throttle the trial proceedings, Jamaat and Shibir activists carried out violent reprisals reminiscent of the August 2005 terrorist attacks when 527 bombs were exploded simultaneously in 63 of the country’s 64 districts in just 30 minutes. This sort of well-coordinated assault of gigantic proportion was meticulously planned and executed to shake the foundation of a state that these religious fanatics violently opposed during its creation four decades back.
The latest resurgence of religious extremism is the direct fallout of war crimes trial convictions. Till the end of October 2013, the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) sentenced six top leaders of the Islamist Jamaat to death for committing heinous crimes during the Liberation War. Besides, more than ten other Jamaat leaders have been detained and facing trial for similar crimes. The Jamaat activists reacted sharply and charged the government of “politically eliminating” its rivals. According to some Bangladeshi reports, Jamaat and Shibir leaders had publicly called their followers to wage a “civil war” if ICT awarded death sentence to Abdul Quader Mollah. The Shahbag movement which had been demanding capital punishment for all the war criminals faced violent counter protests launched by various religious extremist outfits across the country.
A radical Islamic movement called Hefazat-e- Islam (Committee to Protect Islam) sprang up from madrassas to counter the Shahbag activists who were dubbed as “atheists”. The new outfit identified 84 such bloggers and asked the government to publish those names. Hefazat called for immediate punishment of “atheist” bloggers who had been accused of launching slanderous campaign against Islam and its prophet. Junaid Babunagari, a coordinator of the group, said, “The atheist bloggers have been attacking Allah and the prophet in the most obscene language……. As Muslims, we can not allow this”. The Hefazat leaders also claimed that the Islamic clerics and their followers were made object of public derision. A leader of this outfit, Mufti Fayez Ullah, said, “….. the Shahbag people are against Islam. They humiliate men with beards and caps. It can not be tolerated”. The Hasina government in its bid to assuage the sentiments of Islamists soon arrested six bloggers on the charge destabilising communal harmony.
The Islamic group gave an ultimatum to the AL government to fulfill its 13-point demands within May 5, 2013. Some of the demands included introduction of blasphemy law, reinstate pledges to Allah in the Constitution, making Islamic education compulsory and bar women from interacting freely with men. On April 6, Hefazat organised a massive counter rally at central Dhaka drawing an estimated crowd of 100,000 people mostly from rural areas to press for its demands. Bangladeshi political analysts have maintained that the implementation of such a radical Islamic agenda tantamount to “Talibanisation” of the country. However, Hefazat leader Fayez Ullah refuted the allegation. He said, “We have been termed as Taliban, but this is absolutely false, baseless and propaganda against us”.
The leaders of the outfit maintained that Hefazat was a non-political group formed to fight those who wanted to undermine Islam in the country. But many Bangladeshis suspected that the Islamic outfit was a proxy for Jamaat whose leaders had gone into hiding to avoid being arrested by the war crimes tribunal. According to an intelligence report, the Ameer of Hefazat, Shah Ahmed Safi, was one of the members of the banned Islamic terrorist outfit Harkatul-Jehad-al- Islami’s Central Committee-- the highest decision making body. Another leader of Hefazat and head of a madrassa, Habibur Rahman admitted to the local media that he had made a trip to Afghanistan and met former al-Quida supremo Osama bin Laden.
A few Shahbag bloggers also became the target of violent reprisals carried out by the Islamists. On February 15, 2013, a blogger and Shahbag campaigner, Ahmed Rajib Haidar, was brutally killed in the Mirpur area of the capital. He along with several hundreds of young people thronged the Shahbag corner denouncing the crimes against humanity committed by the Islamic fundamentalists in the name of saving religion and unity of a so-called nation. The government acted promptly arresting five students of North South University on March 2. They were suspected to be involved in the killing of Rajib Haidar. Moreover, the Hefazat activists organised two more huge rallies in Dhaka’s busy commercial area Motijheel on May 5 and 6 and indulged in large scale violent acts. The police too came down heavily on the religious extremists. Dhaka Metropolitan Police Commissioner Benazir Ahmed said on May 8 that eleven people, including a policeman, died in May5-6 unrest.
Bangladesh polity got polarised as a result of the confrontation between the Hefazat and Shahbag activists. The antagonism between the secular nationalists and conservative religious groups has been persisting in the polity right from its inception. Unlike other South Asian nations, Bangladesh has a resilient civil society and its members are moderate. They oppose political use of religion. A former Bangladeshi diplomat, Muhammad Zamir, commented, “This is a confrontation between secular and conservative orthodox interpretations of Islam”. The major opposition party BNP was blamed for encouraging the radical Islamic outfits against the Shahbag campaigners. By doing so, the former diplomat added, “…. They now realise they have opened a Pandora’s Box”. The BNP- an ally of Islamist Jamaat rejects such notion. The Vice Chairman of the party Shamsher Mobin Choudhury says, “If you let (the religious conservatives) loose on the streets, they will create mayhem. It is better to bring them inside”. The people of Bangladesh had been engrossed in the debate for quite sometime in search for their national identity.
The radical Islamists have made deep inroads into Bangladesh’s economy and society. Under the names of various trusts and foundations, the Islamists run superspeciality hospitals, banks, educational institutions, transport and pharmaceutical companies with the avowed aim of capturing state power. Professor Abul Barkat of Dhaka University claimed in a study that the net profit of all the fundamentalist-owned organizations stood at $ 280 million in 2012.
The Awami League government had tightened laws against terror financing. The government’s anti-terrorism efforts assumed significance against the backdrop of a report drafted by US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation which had revealed terror financing network in Bangladesh. The report released on July 17, 2012, says that two Bangladeshi banks—Islami Bank Bangladesh Ltd and Social Islami Bank Ltd, have been involved in terror financing. The report has clearly mentioned that both the banks are linked with a number of terrorist and jehadi groups based in Bangladesh.
On February 16, 2012, Bangladesh parliament unanimously passed an amendment to a 2009 law that had legalised capital punishment for domestic acts of terrorism. The 2012 Anti Terrorism Act authorized death penalty for terrorists targeting another country from Bangladesh. After the passage of bill, the then Home Minister Sahara Khatun said in parliament, “Bangladesh does not believe in terrorism and militancy in any form. At the same time, we do not believe (in) allowing anyone to use our territory against other countries”. Bangladeshi analysts observe that the legislation would bolster Dhaka’s image in the international arena, especially in South Asia, as a country committed to fighting terrorism. Professor Imtiaz Ahmed, who teaches International Relations at Dhaka University, noted that the law proved Bangladesh’s commitment to fighting terrorism in all forms, and would help ease tension India and Bangladesh.