Whither Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami?
In June, a new party, the Bangladesh Development Party, applied for registration with the Election Commission of Bangladesh. It has been known for some time that the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami – which was deregistered as a political party in 2013 since its constitution contradicts the Bangladesh Constitution – has been contemplating its political future by forming a new party.
There has been a debate since 2016 regarding whether the party should reincarnate itself as a new party since all its top leaders had been convicted of war crimes. In 2018, the EC decided not to ban the party, but to cancel their registration following a 2013 High Court order that declared the party's registration illegal. The party would have probably preferred a ban so as to justify the formation of a new party, and also because, if Jamaat is dissolved without a ban, it would essentially be confirming its negative role in the Liberation War.
The War Crimes Tribunal and the hanging of several top leaders of Jamaat after they were convicted has been contested by the party. After 2008, it decided not to participate in the 2014 election following the decision of its alliance partner, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). It participated in the 2018 election under the BNP symbol, as part of the 20-party alliance. Though there was reluctance to include Jamaat in the electoral alliance, given its role in the Liberation War, political expediency prevailed in the end.
Jamaat and BNP: Tactical separation?
Prior to the 2018 election, several leaders within BNP had urged the party to end its alliance with Jamaat. This call for separation was also made by the European Union in 2015, as it was widely believed that Jamaat cadres were involved in widespread violence that had resulted in more than 100 people being killed. Though there was some debate within BNP about its association with Jamaat, in the end it was decided it would not to cut off ties.
Jamaat-e-Islami head Dr Shafiqur Rahman, in a meeting held in August 2022, said, "The alliance has become ineffective." In January this year, BNP and Jamaat held separate programmes. Though some leaders within the BNP attributed Jamaat's decision to go separate ways as "good riddance," the fact remains that the BNP did not have the political courage to de-link with Jamaat. Therefore, this separation appears to be tactical.
After a decade, Jamaat was allowed to hold a rally in Dhaka on June 10. The permission to hold the rally at the Institution of Engineers, Bangladesh (IEB) was granted by overriding another request made by Jatiya Party's youth wing, Jatiyo Jubo Sanghati. Some even speculate a possible understanding between Jamaat and the Awami League, as it has been stated from the government's end that the permission was granted due to "a political decision.
As of now, the two erstwhile allies are holding rallies separately while keeping their options open. Jamaat has always been close to BNP, but seems to have realised that a tactical separation would help it to survive the political turmoil, as Awami League remains focused on discrediting BNP.
Jamaat and the West
Jamaat-e-Islami remains the largest Islamic fundamentalist party in Bangladesh. But it shares an interesting relationship with the Western countries, especially with the US and those in the European Union. At one point of time, Jamaat was even promoted as a moderate Islamic party. Yet, the US Department of State Country Report on Terrorism 2006 had indicted the Islami Bank, which had several board members belonging to Jamaat, for funding the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen (JMB), a terrorist organisation. Similarly, it is also known that one of the former JMB leaders, previously Habiganj district head of Jamaat-e-Islami, Saidur Rahman was a rokan of Jamaat. However, Jamaat immediately distanced itself from him and argued that Saidur did not belong to the party and had left it a long time back. In 2014, its student organisation was involved in violence against minorities. Though Jamaat in the past has distanced itself from Bangladesh Islami Chhatra Shibir, which many believe is the armed wing of the party, most Jamaat leaders in their student days have engaged in politics through Chhatra Shibir. The party has also been at the forefront of a campaign to declare the Ahmadiyya as non-Muslims.
While the EU has been vocal in the past about Jamaat in several of its resolutions, asking the BNP to sever its ties with Jamaat, the US has kept rather quiet regarding the party. In a confidential note, as revealed by Wikileaks, the US Embassy in Dhaka in January 2010 wrote, "Mission Dhaka will continue to engage with Jamaat and Shabbir [Chhatra Shibir] and track their efforts to transform Bangladesh into a more Islamic state." On July 24, the US ambassador met with the main party functionaries of Jamaat. Meanwhile, the European Union Parliament, following the 2007 violence, had urged the BNP to unequivocally distance itself from Jamaat-e-Islami and Hafezat-e-Islam, which are regarded as the main instigators of the violence, stressing that parties which turn to terrorist acts should be banned.
Jamaat-e-Islami as a party insists on Islamic values and maintenance of purdah. Some of the writings that appear in the newspaper that is controlled by the party discourages mingling between opposite sexes, discourages women from working with men as it would lead to fitna, and argues that the prime responsibilities of women are taking care of their husbands, children, and doing household chores.
However, the question is, while the Bangladesh Development Party (BDP) – which many think is a front organisation of Jamaat – is waiting for registration as a new political party, why does Jamaat want to display its political strength by organising rallies, instead of allowing the BDP to emerge? This brings us to another question: is Jamaat expecting the restoration of its registration by the EC? Since it is an established political party, receiving votes in its name would rehabilitate the party in the country's politics, especially post the war crime trials.
Another relatively new party, Amar Bangladesh Party, which is headed by former Jamaat activist Mujibur Rahman Manju, has been denied registration by the EC. AB Party projects itself as a reformist party that does not want to burden itself with the history that Jamaat inherited due to their role in supporting the Pakistan Army during the Liberation War. In 2019, Barrister Abdur Razzak resigned from Jamaat, citing the party's role in 1971. Such reformist moves within Jamaat are not new.
The party has so far dodged this issue by expelling those who have raised such questions and has survived as a prominent Islamist political party with ideological and monetary strength. Not surprisingly, Jamaat has managed to surface, with its cadres intact, to take the opportunity that the upcoming national election provides. For now, it does not seem in a hurry to implement its larger Islamisation project. But in its hurry to have a multiparty election minus BNP, the AL's flirtation with Jamaat may have serious implications for Bangladeshi society and politics.
Author Ankita Sanyal is working as an Associate Research Fellow at International Centre for Peace Studies (ICPS) in New Delhi.