Jamaat: why worry?
A few months ago, Tiktiki asked:
The debate over the sacking of Golam Azam’s son actually produces a more fundamental debate on the post war crimes trial world – i.e. how to tackle the political Islam minus the war criminals. Can someone who believes in Jamat’s ideology not serve in high ranks in our institutions? Why or why not?
The post generated 103 comments, but except for a handful, I didn’t see anyone address the question raised in the post.
This is not just UV. In the self-styled secular-progressive circle, I see an acute paucity of discussion about Jamaat-e-Islami that doesn’t begin or end with war crimes trial. In a few years, war crimes trial will have no relevance to Tiktiki’s question — hopefully we will have successfully tried the war criminals, or they’ll be dead anyway of natural causes. In fact, anyone serving in high ranks in our institutions would almost certainly be too old to be a war criminal, so the relevance of war crimes is already questionable. And yet, my progressive allies are stuck in a bizarre time warp that refuses to see this.
This post tackles Tiktiki’s question. First, it argues that there is a case, based on Jamaat’s stated political strategy of ‘infiltration’, against its members (not necessarily people believing its ideology) serving in high institutions. Then it analyses how seriously we should take this infiltration threat.
Let’s begin with a definition of infiltration: attempting to enter an institution/sector in a concerted fashion, with the target of eventually having a controlling presence in that institution/sector; have the power to supersede the state during times of crisis in institutions such as the civil service and army; use that power to establish itself in power in times of such crisis, if necessary in extra-constitutional and violent manner.
This infiltration idea is not something invented by Jamaat. It has been around since at least the Bolsheviks, if not earlier. But in modern Bangladesh, it is Jamaat has engaged in the infiltration politics.
Jamaat has, since the 1980s, sought to infiltrate various sectors of the society — civil service and army, but also health, finance, education, women’s issues. It has had spectacular success in health and finance sector. By 2006, there were a dozen or so ‘Islamic financial institutions’ functioning outside the ambit of Bangladesh Bank. The small businessmen around the country owing their business to one of these banks feel a moral obligation to Jamaat. Ibne Sina and Al Razee hospitals where the lower middle class in Dhaka go for healthcare are Jamaat-linked. In 2001, Jamaat insisted that if it got one ministry, it would have to be Social Welfare — the idea was to check the western funded NGOs and promote the petro dollar funded ones. These are examples of Jamaat infiltration.
And its literature clearly lays out its reasonings for such infiltration. It doesn’t much care about democracy. It does want to have enough clout in various sectors so that at an opportune moment, it can capture power through a putsch (which will then be called a revolution). And it fears an Indian invasion to stop such a takeover. It wants to control key border cities so that such an invasion can be resisted — that’s why Jamaat has concentrated on Rajshahi and Chittagong universities, and not on Jahangirnagar.
Therefore, completely independent of the war crimes issue or Jamaat’s role in 1971, inflitration is a reason that should worry us about Jamaat.
The question is, how seriously should we take the threat? The answer depends on how successful do we think it has been, and how much we fear its ability.
Events during the emergency period make me take the threat from them less seriously. If we recall the chain of events, Jamaat was the first ones to raise 1971. Up until 2007, its approach was ‘এই সব পুরান কথা তুলে কি হবে, আমরা সবাই বাংলাদেশি…’ to evade any discussion of 1971. Around the middle of 2007, Jamaat changed tack altogether, and went on an offensive on the issue saying ‘we did nothing wrong…’ Thiswas also the time when the 1/11 regime clearly showed its intention to create a centre-right King’s Party, and the war crimes debate served as a good smokescreen.
Why did Jamaat change tack?
One story is that Jamaat was pressured by the 1/11 regime — you do this, and we’ll make sure that no trial happens. If the generals could exert that kind of pressure on Jamaat, then I don’t think Jamaat was as powerful as we feared.
Another story is that after the August 2007 campus riots, it must have occurred to the generals that our students have had a long history of defying khaki. In the 1980s, Ershad handled this by dispensing arms and money to student leaders. In 2007, Shibir was the only major genuine student organisation in the country. If the generals wanted to control the campus without turning it into a de facto cantonment, it made sense to go with Shibir. And Jamaat just upped the ante, thinking with AL-BNP under threat, its time had come.
If this story is right, then perhaps we do have to be vigilant about Jamaat. But this vigilance has to be based on the Bangladesh of 2010 and beyond, not 1971. To understand why, check out this facebook album of a Shibir student from Rajshahi Medical College:
(You have to be logged on, hat tip: Syeed Ahamed).
What this album shows is that, Jamaat itself has changed from 1971. There is a younger generation who has as much commitment to Bangladesh as any from the progressive-secular camp. This younger generation may well be interested in creating an Islamic democratic party, like those in Turkey or Indonesia, that is committed to constitutional, democratic, electoral politics. Of course, there is no guarantee of this. The younger generation may well be more radical, more committed to Leninist tactics than the war criminal generation. If we take Jamaat seriously, then we have to monitor and engage the discourse within Jamaat and other Islamist circle. This has nothing to do with war crimes trial, and conflating the two only clouds our analysis.
Finally, one oft-forgotten point is that Jamaat is born out of same society as everyone else. They are not from Mars. The same kind of indiscipline and predilection to take short cut, the same level of ineptitude and cronyism, the same culture of decadence that bedevils the rest of us also afflicts Jamaat. So, let’s do monitor and engage Jamaat by all means, but let’s not ascribe to them powers that rest of Bangladesh lacks.