Today there is widespread disgust and hatred across Bangladesh against the Jamaat-e-Islami, the principal Bangladeshi voice of political Islam. Jamaat stands condemned for its support for Pakistan during 1971 when it embraced a forefront role in collaboration with the genocidal war. Over the years, Jamaat has also been known for attacking its opponents with violent methods, such as cutting people’s tendons.
By Mahmud Rahman – novelist and translator.
Clearly Jamaat stands for taking Bangladesh backward. They would impose Islamic rule that would make Bangladesh a hostile place for people who do not share their faith and for all religious minorities, would force apartheid status on women severely curtailing their rights, enforce draconian laws taking away many individual rights for citizens, and impose a rigid, single-thought regime. They will make the country into one giant madrassa. This will be a disaster for Bangladesh.
Should a party with such a program, a party stained with collaboration with Pakistan’s genocide in 1971, be banned? Will that solve the threat of political Islam?
It’s tempting to believe that a ban on the Jamaat will remove this problem once and for all? Pass such a law and we can rest.
But historical experience suggests that this might not achieve what people expect.
Whether we like it or not, Jamaat or political Islam in broader terms, has a constituency in Bangladesh. They have not received more than 12% of the vote and over time their vote has declined. In the last elections, all the Islamist parties received about 6%. In other areas of society, the Jamaat has expanded its influence and used their substantial financial backing to carry out a ‘long march through the institutions’, extending their network and influence in education, health care, social services, business, government, the armed forces, etc.
What happens when Jamaat is banned?
This is not a purely imaginative exercise. We have the experience of what happens when Islamic parties get banned in other countries. There will be two options before them.
The first option is that they reshuffle and re-organize under a different name. Perhaps there is symbolic meaning in this, that a political party that supported Pakistan in 1971 will not have a legal standing to participate in Bangladeshi politics.
But beyond symbolism, is the scenario of a renamed Jamaat something substantially different? Does this solve the fundamental challenge of political Islam? No, the hard work of combating political Islam will remain.
It could be said that it might be better to have Jamaat as Jamaat carrying the stench of 1971 with them. When it is reborn under a different name, the party will not carry the same stench. As long as the current leaders remain they will carry the shame of their role in 1971, but within another decade or so new leaders will no doubt take their place.
In secular Turkey, they used to repeatedly ban parties that would go on to reorganize under a different name. This happened with the Islamist party that began to win elections. Eventually the Islamic party renamed itself into the party currently in power. In Turkey, for a variety of reasons, some internal, some international, the Islamic party has checks on them preventing them from establishing an Islamic dictatorship but at the same time they have for sure expanded their power through being in government. The so-called secular liberals and conservatives have been reduced to minority status. That of course speaks also to the bankruptcy of the politics of the other parties.
The second option before the Jamaat, especially if the state does not allow Jamaat to revive under any form, is for them to go underground.
Here, we should pay heed to Algeria’s recent experience. In 1991, the Islamist party won the elections but was forced out of power by the state. They were banned and driven underground. The result: an Islamist armed rebellion that led to a civil war with unspeakable brutality on both sides. 100,000 people may have died. The war ended in about ten years but an Islamist terrorist campaign persisted. Who knows how long Algerian society will take to recover from those scars?
Do we want such a civil war? We have still to recover from many of the wounds of our war of forty years ago. Are we really prepared for a civil war? Have we thought about what such a civil war will look like in Bangladesh? This will not be a war against an occupying power, it will be a war where the state, through its army and police, will be forced to fight against a widespread terrorist insurgency. It will be more like Afghanistan than 1971. Do we really want our soldiers and policemen thrust into this role? And the costs of war? Are we ready to live in constant insecurity?
What then is to be done? Do we simply have to live with Islamist politics and have them expand their power and influence? I do not think so. The answer doesn’t lie in the seduction of simple solutions but hard work over years and years. We will need to sustain unrelenting efforts to combat religious politics, to preserve and expand the secular space and ensure Bangladesh as a country with respect for citizen’s rights, women’s rights, minorities’ rights, and the prospects of improved lives, extended social welfare and education. What would this involve?
First, we will need to refute what the Islamists want: our people need to know why it is not a good idea to impose Islamic law or a so-called middle ages Khilafat state. We need to inform people what Islamic states mean in practice for human beings, not in the dream and myth weaving from the Islamists. We have many examples of this already: in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Second, besides the task of criticism, there is the need to remind ourselves why we need a secular, non-communal Bangladesh. Why this is necessary for both religious minorities and the majority. We have gotten used to say that Bangladesh is a Muslim country, our leaders have enshrined Islam as the state religion. With these principles we have immediately declared that our non-Muslim people are not full citizens.
In both cases, we need to go beyond slogans and develop substantial arguments. In books, journals, the media. In our education and culture! Who knows what the state will actually do? All our political parties have shown their tendency to play with religious politics. The hard work of combating Jamaat’s vision, the vision of political Islam, falls in the hands of the rest of the people. We need to have our own counterpart to Jamaat’s long march through the institutions.
Culled from the Association for Communal Harmony in Asiia