On Jamaat’s changed rhetoric and related issues

Posted in history, politics by jrahman on November 3, 2007

Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, the country’s largest Islamist party and a major factor in the country’s electoral politics, used to maintain a low-key approach about its role in 1971 when it sided with the Pakistan army and carried out war crimes.  This changed last week.  In this post, I analyse the reasons that may be behind Jamaat’s changed rhetoric.  I also discuss how the progressive opinionmakers in Bangladesh should react to this changed rhetoric given the current political realities.  

Let’s start with a bit of history for the uninitiated.  In any war of national liberation or resistance against foreign occupation, there are fifth columnists who join hands with the enemy, and Bangladesh in 1971 was no exception.  Some of those opposing Bangladesh’s liberation did so because of ideological reasons, others were opportunists who thought the Pakistanis would win, and yet others found themselves victim of the circumstances.  Most of the collaborators were exactly that — people collaborating with the Pakistan army.  There was an important exception —Jamaat-e-Islam. 

Jamaat not only collaborated with the Pak army, they formed militias that fought the Mukti Bahini in the battlefield and aided the Pak army in genocide and war crimes.  In December 1971, when the collapse of the Pakistani occupation was imminent, Al-Badr and Al-Shams, the Jamaati militias, murdered a number of key intellectuals in order to leave the new country bereft of thinkers.  That is, there is a qualitative difference between Jamaat and others who supported Pakistan in 1971.

Its role in the war has been a major political drawback for Jamaat, and even among the post-liberation generation of Bangladeshis it has failed to increase its support.  Over the past decades, Jamaat had maintained a low-key approach when it came to 1971.  It wouldn’t usually get drawn into a debate over the war.  When pushed, it would say that it didn’t oppose an independent Bangladesh as such, rather, it opposed the Indian involvement in the war.  In the late 1990s, there were even talks of expressing ‘regrets’ for its role in 1971.  In an interview in August this year, Jamaat’s current leader, and the commander of Al-Badr in 1971, said that:

…(Golam Azam, former head of Jamaat) delivered a speech at the northern gate of Baitul Mukarram mosque. In that speech he expressed regret for his role in 1971. He expressed his respect for the leaders of the independence war. He expressed his respect for the late leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, for Moulana Bhasani, for General Osmani and for Ziaur Rahman.

In the past few days, Jamaat has significantly changed its stance.  It now claims that there was no opposition to the Liberation War.  In fact, according to the new rhetoric, there was no Liberation War, only a civil war.  And those who joined the Mukti Bahini apparently did so for the lure of pretty women, to grab property of the Hindu minority, or to undo partition. 

Predictably, this has set of a furore in the print and electronic media in Bangladesh.  Here is a summary of the controversy.  Given the visceral reaction against the outrageous propaganda Jamaat is trying to peddle, one has to wonder why the changed rhetoric?  As a fellow blogger says:

Jamaat does not act hastily, and they are not given to hyperbole like AL or BNP. Every single statement coming out of their mouths are carefully phrased. So Mujahid’s statements were not made in a vacuum; neither were Mr. Hannan’s.

So why did Jamaat change its stance?

One possibility is that it has cut a deal with the country’s current powers-that-be.  The current regime, ruling under a state of emergency since a de facto coup in January, needs an exit strategy and a political successor once the elections are held in 2008.  That Jamaat has some link with the regime has been suggested before, and with good reasons — here is an example.  

However, Jamaat is simply not strong enough when it comes to electoral arithmetic to give the regime retroactive legitimacy. In 1996, when it last ran on its own, it won 9% of votes (in a turnout of 70%).  In 1991, it won 12% of votes (turnout of about 55%).  One fact often forgotten about the Jamaat-BNP alliance is that without Jamaat’s support BNP might have failed to win a 2/3rd majority in 2001, but without the BNP alliance, Jamaat probably would have failed to win a single seat.  It would require election engineering of massive proportion for the regime to exit relying on Jamaat’s support.  And in any case, if Jamaat could deliver, why would the regime spend so much effort to force a leadership change in BNP (here is more on that saga)?

This leads to the second explanation for Jamaat’s changed rhetoric.  Perhaps Jamaat was signalled by the powers-that-be to create a diversion.  When people are busy talking about Jamaat’s audacity, they’re less likely to notice other political shenanigans.  And what would Jamaat’s pay off be for being the fall guy?

Jamaat does not particularly worry about the lack of electoral strength.  Its strategy — as stated to its members and supporters — is to acquire a critical mass in the key sectors to carry out its ‘revolution’ (read: putsch).  Jamaat may have reasoned that by playing the regime’s wingman, it will get to continue its infiltration of these key sectors.

Alternatively, it may have reasoned that with a new King’s Party replacing BNP, there will be an ideological vacuum in the right end of the political spectrum, and the changed rhetoric is the first step in its attempt to become the default party of all things anti-modern, anti-globalisation, anti-India, anti-NGO, anti-women’s empowerment etc (variations of this argument are here and here). Once it has established itself as the rightwing opposition to the regime, in some future andolon, it may even try to forge an alliance with the Awami League (assuming that there is no regime-AL deal).  

As you can see, there is a number of possibilities.  Which one is right only time will tell.  Here and now, however, all other political parties, with the exception of pro-Khaleda faction of BNP, have condemned Jamaat and asked for banning it.  While anyone professing to be liberal and/or progressive must support all efforts to try the war criminals, calls for banning Jamaat are a different matter. 

Firstly, on what liberal grounds do we ask for banning a political party?  Secondly, if Jamaat is banned, won’t its ideology be taken over by more dangerous fanatics?  Then, suppose Jamaat is indeed banned (or some of its key leaders are jailed) by the regime.  When the regime or its successors are ultimately removed, won’t Jamaat resurface legitimised as victims?  Won’t they join the victory processions?

So what should the liberal or progressive bloggers do?  I’d like to echo the stance taken by this blog — publicise the crimes committed by Jamaat so that tactical alliances with them in future becomes too difficult for any opportunist politician.  Over the past couple of decades, all mainstream political parties made tactical alliance with Jamaat for short-term gain: in the 1980s, pro-democracy parties let Jamaat in their ranks; in the 1990s, AL gave Jamaat a seat at the table in the anti-BNP andolon, and BNP gave Golam Azam a seat at the stage in the anti-AL andolon; and of course Jamaat received two cabinet posts in the last government. 

As we set the record straight, the more the people are informed about Jamaat’s war crimes, the less likely any future tactical alliance with Jamaat is.  And in the meantime, if there is to be any trial of war criminals, let that be through a transparent process so that Al Badr and Al Shams commanders cannot claim to be political prisoners.


11 Responses

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  1. Asif said, on November 3, 2007 at 8:32 pm

    I agree with your conclusion. As a tactical ploy, it is important to mobilize and organize on this. Not only to show that this issue is not only near and dear to the intellectual and shubidhbadi politicians but also among the mass — worldwide. If we can also create sufficient noise along with getting the facts out, it will make it very costly for supporting jamat for those who are thinking that as a strategy.

  2. Rumi said, on November 4, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    One should always be careful in not equating Jamaat with war criminals or collaborators. Jamaat’s senior leadership are collaborators and some of them can be charged as war criminals. But thats the tip of the icebarg. The rest of Jamaat’s mass is formed by a post 71 generation. So Jamaat’s next leadership Kamaruzzamn, ATM Azhar Hossain etc are all post 71 generation of Jamaat leadership. Even if you can implicate them to some extent, the next batch is totaly post 71 generation.
    At that point, the campaign should be solely against religion based politics as there will no longer be any leadership remaining who can be blamed for 71 atrocitis.
    Now the concern is how do you foresee a democratic country where religion based parties are banned? Even if Jamaat is banned for 71 activities, how you will prevent them from regrouping with a different name? Then next question comes how you will handle other Islamic groups like HUT, Khelafat Majlish, IOJ, ISA etc.? Will banning them be that easy?

  3. jrahman said, on November 4, 2007 at 6:48 pm

    Rumi bhai,

    That much of Jamaat’s 2nd tier and middle leadership is post-1971 makes its recent outbursts all the more puzzling. Perhaps this is really about an internal leadership tussle and the Nizami-Mujahid generation trying to assert its control? Our mainstream media (and much of the bhodroloke society) is generally unaware of the internal dynamics of Jamaat. If there are internal fissures in Jamaat, how would we know?

    As long as Islamist parties commit to constitutional politics (assuming we will have constitutional politics soon), there is really no grounds to ban them. No one professing to liberal or progresive politics should be calling for banning anything. How best to interact with Islamist politics is the subject of another post.

  4. abuwardha said, on November 4, 2007 at 11:17 pm

    Good point jrahman. Mojib government mistakes of banning political parties cost secularist dearly and kept them out of power for almost 20 years. Same mistake this time may have no remedy in near future. If secularist failed to understand the nature of ideological war they should give it up all together. This is a war to win hearts and minds of masses.

  5. DhakaShohor said, on November 6, 2007 at 7:02 am

    (Warning: sarcasm and mild sloganeering ahead)

    I had no idea that BAKSHAL banned only religiously-based parties. I suppose the “secularist” Lefty parties were free to operate…. oh wait.

    I also had no idea that the military coups against the “Mojib government” (sic) were done to save Bangladeshi Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians from “secularists”. Military coups usually aren’t done for that reason, but again, I might be mistaken.

    I learn something new from you everyday abuwardha.

    Jrahman bhai, you now see the problem of advocating for the existence of Islamist parties from a progressive POV. While as progressives, we should not ban anyone, especially because they are based on religion. At the same time, we must not lose sight of the fact that some Islamist parties (in fact ALL Bangladeshi Islamist parties) are NOT committed to the pluralism of ideas that progressives are committed to. Until and unless that happens, dealing with Islamists from a progressive standpoint is always going to be a sticky affair.

    My one-line vote in case I’m mistaken as a “secularist” and put on some Jamaat/JMB hitlist: don’t ban political parties based on anything. Pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem applies to Islamists as well as to any other ideology.

    I will add this given abuwardha’s recent comments on a certain thread on UV: just because I don’t support banning Jamaat does not mean I don’t support banning war criminals.

    Down with Rajakars, whichever party they serve!

  6. Unheard Voices » Open thread said, on November 7, 2007 at 3:14 am

    […] Who wins in the jamat debate? – Jrahman takes a look […]

  7. bitterboy said, on November 7, 2007 at 3:54 pm

    I believe, the author of this thread, jrahman is the same Jyoti who I see in DP blogspots. I find objectivity is his writing, although I may not agree with somewhere at some points and it’s quite expected because no two persons on the earth are the same in every respect.

    We make so much of fuss on certain issues and create chaos and cacophanies without avail of anything. Such is the issue of trial of war criminals. We have seen the zero-some game of Ghatak-Dalal-Nirmul Committee led by late Jahanara Imam.

    My question to all who are so hellbent to put war criminals to justice, are any of the so alleged criminals like Nizami, Mujaheed, Kader Mollah, SAKA chowdhury so on, are by any parameters of war criminality, worse criminals than Bhutto, Yahya, Tikka Khan, Niazi, Rao Forman Ali and all 195 who were pardoned by Sheik Mujib? If they could be pardoned for best interest of the country, why relatively less criminals can’t be pardoned? And Zia, indeed, did that. whatever we can critisize Mujib and Zia for those two clemencies were the best decisions by Mujib and Zia. Otherwise, our position could be far worse than now.
    If we could pardon the pakistani planners, killers and rapists why we couldn’t we do it do for people our own blood who were just acomplices by mitake or miscalculations.
    Where is moral stand!

    Think it in other way round. If Pakistani army and its collaborators were victorious and would have killed, persecute or put the FFs and their shelterers behind the bar with the charge of antistate elements and if somebody would have urged to pardon them, would that have been wrong. Men mistakes, not the satans or angels. And sometimes, it is difficult to be sure what is right or wrong and debate continues for years. That’s why for any wrong decision any capital punishement is not justified.

    I believe, this kind of trial is almost impossibe job and even if it’s very remotely possible, what benefit the nation will gain from it. And even though we all focus on the crimes by Nizami-Mujaheed-Kader mollah, when any government dares to take up the matter it would involve not the members of one party like jamat, eventually it has to entail everyone involved be he is Jamat, Nejami islami, Islami Oikko-jote, muslim league, all islamic parties including someones even from BNP, Jatio party etc.

    It is easier said than done. If it’s tried by any government it will further polarize the country and the islamists will be forced to take the blind allay of militant fold.

    We have seen the zerosome game of Jahanara Imam. Then again, we have to see all-minus-some game if there is such attempt. The country can turn into another Iraq, Afganistan, Lebanon, palestine, or Algeria etc.

    The best way to deal with is to try best not to let the islamic groups to the jehadi or militant folds by reckless movement or governmental steps to try them or ban their political participation. As much as they would be assimilited to the mainstream democratic political process, the better for the country. If they feel left out, the more the chance of being recruited by the jehadis. If wrong decision is taken with the line of present demands of scores of name-only-parties it will be suicidal for the entire nation.

    We ran after many illusions and emotive politics. Now is the time for being more pragmatic.


  8. DhakaShohor said, on November 7, 2007 at 8:26 pm

    …. and the long list of befuddling reasons why the CRIMINALS we CAN put on trial but should not continues.

    Coming up next: Shouldn’t Bangladesh’s energies be better put into looking to the future and making a space station around Mars instead of looking to the past and trying these war criminals? Stay tuned.

    Apologies for the derailment jrahman bhai, but couldn’t resist.

  9. Change in Jamaat « Mukti said, on March 12, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    […] of pointed statements about the Liberation War, I asked: why did Jamaat change its stance (see here)?  A recent Shamokal news item may provide some clue.  The article (see here) reports that a […]

  10. On trying the war criminals « Mukti said, on October 10, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    […] of the controversy.  The reasons for Jamaat’s offensive wasn’t clear to me then (see here), and they’re no more clear now.  What is clear to me though is that people like Matiur […]

  11. […] of the controversy. The reasons for Jamaat’s offensive wasn’t clear to me then (see here), and they’re no more clear now. What is clear to me though is that people like Matiur Rahman […]

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