Jamaat: why worry?

Posted in politics by jrahman on December 20, 2009

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.

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14 Responses

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  1. Udayan said, on December 21, 2009 at 1:32 am

    How is Jamaat infiltration – if 1971 actions are the problem as opposed to political Islam in general – any different from, say, BNP-backed SQC supporters in Chittagong infiltrating local institutions, or people like Anwar Zahid being ministers or Shah Aziz being a Prime Minister?

  2. Kamal said, on December 21, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Mr jrahman, you are an excellent writer and I always enjoy reading your pieces in Mukti and UV. I am however having trouble figuring out where you stand yourself regarding Islam as a complete code of life as our Prophet (sm) practised.

    Before I comment on the main theme of your blog let me just say this about the other issue. I hope the Government starts the so-called War Crimes trials soon and let us see this issue finished with. I have done a lot of reading on the events of 1971 and I have seen nothing whatsoever that links Jamat or their leaders with anything that can hold them directly responsible for any of the heinous crimes that were committed in 1971. Of course they have supported the integrity of Pakistan but that does not automatically make them partners in crime. Supporting Pakistan is not the same as supporting their army same as supporting Bangladesh does not mean one supports everything the Bangladesh army does. All the supposed evidence against JI leaders that I can find on various websites are nothing but propaganda materials produced by rabid Islamophobe like Shahriar Kabir. The evidences they produce are the statements and accusations of their cohorts. In the name of War-Crimes Bangladesh is on the brink of a witch-hunt not seen since McCarthy. The real criminals were allowed to get away when Sheikh Mujib made a deal with Bhutto and Dr Kamal signed away our rights to try them. My fear is that some powers are trying to start a civil war in Bangladesh and this government is playing into their hands. When we need to pull together as a nation and society to face the real and grave challenges Bangladesh is facing, this government is hammering at every crack in our national and social structure which will eventually destroy us if they do not change their way soon.

    Let me now give you my comments on your blog.

    You are saying Jamat has been infiltrating various sectors in society. I do not see how you can be sure if they are actually doing it in an organized way. I do not read Jamat literature and therefore would not know the existence of any such material. If they are actually doing anything like that would they really publicize it? If there are any jamat supporters in any of these institutions I would say that is simply a reflection of the society and the percentage is no more than what can be expected given the social background these institutions recruit from.

    As for the suggestion that they are aiming to capture power through a putsch, I think that is quite far-fetched. They have very little public support and while it is not impossible to grab power through a putsch, in today’s world it is impossible to hold onto it unless you can get the public behind you. I think Jamat is a million miles from that public support.

    “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.”

    You can find any story you want to but I think you have to analyze it properly before running with it. I think this whole issue started in 2007 when an ATN reporter asked a question to Mr Mujahid and he replied there was no war criminal in Bangladesh. I therefore fail to see any connection between this issue and the supposed attempts by the generals to create a ‘King’s Party’. The generals behind the CTG were nothing but a bunch of incompetent fools. You just have to look at their records to see that.

    Your ‘another story’ is also similarly flawed. If the army wanted to control the campus I don’t see how Shibir would be the best choice. They have virtually no presence in DU and that’s the institution that really counts as far as BD campus politics is concerned. If they wanted to control the campus they would have used the tried and tested method of buying the leaders of the gangs in the campus.

    You appear to see examples of infiltration in the institutions Jamat supposed to have built up. Is there anything wrong with Jamat organizing the development of such institutions? If they are well run does that not show their efficiency and organisational capability? Why should that be a problem in a country where efficiency is lacking in almost every sector?

    I however think that despite their presence in all these sectors they will remain a minor player in Bangladeshi politics. No matter how well they are organised, as far as politics is concerned they will always be outwitted by the two main parties. They have been used by those parties time and again but they seem to learn no lesson from it.

    In conclusion I would agree with you that Jamat has no real strength in Bangladeshi politics. It is a fringe player and is destined to remain so.

    Kamal Ahmed

  3. jrahman said, on December 21, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    Udayan, abstaining from political Islam in its violent manifestation, there is still a difference between Jamaat/SQC and Shah Aziz insofaras their role in 1971 is concerned. The former participated in atrocities such as murder/raper/arson. The latter took a political stance to support United Pakistan. The difference is non-trivial.

    Kamal, my beliefs — political, economic, and religious — are self-evident from my writing. On Jamaat’s current top leadership’s role in 1971 — most of them were members/leaders of Al Badr and Al Shams militias that perpetrated some of the worst war crimes in 1971. People far better qualified than I have documented this (my writing comrade Mashuqur Rahman is an example: If you can’t find it then I can only suggest looking harder.

  4. Udayan said, on December 22, 2009 at 6:28 am

    Agreed on the difference between SQC and Shah Aziz in 1971, but I chose the example of the latter for a reason. At what point does unequivocal support for what was happening in 1971 – with full knowledge of what was happening, and not just passive endorsement but active defense – cease to be harmless, and when does it become ok for that person or what that person represents to “infiltrate” (again, in this example, at the highest level)?

    • jrahman said, on December 22, 2009 at 1:10 pm

      One can think of Shah Aziz’s 1971 role — part of the Pakistani delegation to the UN — in at least three different ways:

      1. He defends himself by claiming that his 1971 actions were done under gunpoint: he would have been killed if he didn’t go along with it. I personally don’t believe it, but it ought to be noted that unlike Fazlul Quader Chowdhury / Monaem Khan / Sabur Khan etc, all of whom were Muslim Leaguers, Shah Aziz’s pre-1971 politics wouldn’t have predicted his 1971 role. Shah Aziz was in Awami League in the 1960s, and along with Sheikh Mujib, played a key role against communalism after the 1964 riot. He was in Ataur Rahman Khan’s Jatiya League when the war started. Since JL supported the Mujibnagar government, one might have expected Shah Aziz to join the war effort (or at least not oppose it).

      2. An alternative story is that he was an opportunist who thought Pakistan was going to win. Given his subsequent politics — rise to Prime Ministership under Zia, then form a rebel BNP to support Ershad — I think think this is the most plausible explanation. This puts him in the same category as Moudud Ahmed — an active veteran of Mujibnagar whose post-1975 career is full of opportunism — and Mannan Bhuiyan — a bona fide war hero whose role after 1/11 is well known.

      3. Even with full knowledge of what was happening, he genuinely thought that an independent Bangladesh would have been a worse outcome than continuing with Pakistan. This makes him incredibly stupid, but that’s different from being a war criminal. However, I don’t think much of this possibility — he certainly never claimed it.

      Now, your point about the infiltration point only becomes valid if we believe the 3rd story. In this case, we have to ask whether in 1977, when he joined Zia, did he change his mind about Pakistan being the better outcome. If the answer is “no”, that is, if he reconciled to the reality of Bangladesh, then the issue is no longer his role in 1971, but his ideas about Bangladesh (in Jamaat’s case rooted in political Islam, perhaps a Bengali Muslim nationalism in his case). If the answer is “yes”, only then do we have an infiltration problem (ie he infiltrated to the highest level in order to create a situation such that Bangladesh reunites with Pakistan).

      Incidentally, there is a politician who fits the 3rd scenario: Nurul Amin. Mr Amin was one of only 2 people to have defeated Awami League in 1970. He didn’t participate in any war crimes, and his electorate was generally spared the worst of Pakistani atrocities. And after 16 Dec, he chose to stay in Pakistan. When he died in 1973, they buried him next to Jinnah.

  5. […] (cross-posted from Mukti) […]

  6. Syeed said, on December 23, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    For me, “engaging Jamaat” is a very risky business.

    It’s not their role in 1971 that I am worried about (coz their sin and guilt in the 1971 genocide is well documented). But it’s “their path of Islam” that will require much more attention.

    Jamat and other religious outfits (e.g. Tabligh) do not motivate people at the beginning with any agenda other than saying- “be a good muslim” (that is how the Shibir or Tabligh recruitment happens). Like in any organisational mechanism, the foot soldiers don’t necessary have a clear idea about the “hidden agenda” Jamat’s high command probably has. So if one wishes to engage with Jamat or Shibir recruits, s/he will face some dilemma-

    a. For many progressive and pro-liberation people, engagement with jamat will mean “accepting jamat” as a legitimate force. So they will avoid this.

    b. For the pro-Jamat people, one will have to clarify his/her position on Islam first. Jamat will say, “Iman” (belief) and “Proman” (proof) are two different things and before the engagement, you will have to pick up a stance. If one picks up “Iman”, then they will take him/her on a long journey of “nosihot” and preach how to practice Islam properly. If one picks up “proman”, then Jamat will just walk away claiming that “Iman” is a precondition for the engagement.

    c. General people on the other hand are very scared of “sin” and are pious (though may not practice the religion much). As I said, Jamat targets these people with a non-political aim at the beginning (i.e. to make them practitioner muslims). So if one engages with Jamat, s/he will be asked to clarify his/her position on religion once again and lead to the outcome of point “b”.

    d. For non-religious people on the other hand, talking about religion will be pointless (and jamat will use that “atheist attitude” to motivate general people to avoid the “atheist”).

    Then should we engage with Jamat?

    Well, I find Fatemolla’s approach very interesting. Numerous times he has proven how Jamat is NOT good for Islam. See his engagement with Jamat here .

    • jrahman said, on December 23, 2009 at 2:51 pm

      Syeed, yes this is tricky. But the alternative of non-engagement will mean a large section of the population will remain out of mainstream. And that’s the best case scenario. A worse case scenario is that we, the so-called progressives and pro-liberation people, will become the minority that is out-of-touch with mainstream Bangladesh. And the worst case scenario is what Naeem (I believe) describes as us becoming Iranian or Palestinians diaspora who has many stories, but no home.

      Of the four approaches you describe, (a) is trapped in 1971-based thinking. If we say post-war crimes trial Jamaat (or any Islamist party) is not legitimate, then that speaks more about us than about them. As for (d), I think it’s a given that if you’re going to start out saying ‘I am not religious’, Islamists won’t engage you. That’s like saying ‘I don’t believe in Climate Change’ but want to have an input into emission trading.

      That leaves any engagement to (b) and (c). And Fatemolla’s (or indeed your) approach is a very good way of doing this. Within the discourse of Islam there is a great tradition of debate. There is no reason at all why that tradition cannot be used to engage, and eventually neutralise, Jamaat.

      And even if we are unable to engage (perhaps because we are non-religious, or lack the deep understanding to debate), we should still monitor. Can a random progressive person tell us anything about what is Jamaat (or any Islamist party’s) opinion on civil-military relationship, or Dhaka’s traffic problem, or food security? Believe it or not, Jamaat thinks about this stuff, but we don’t know what they think. Even if we don’t engage, we should monitor what they are thinking.

  7. Syeed said, on December 23, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    Engagement with Jamat needs to be a multipronged approach. Given the rise of madrasas, shibir members and religious outfits, it’s hard to deny that our “jamat-policy” is not working. Or, we don’t have a “jamat-policy”, which we should have.

    Yes, the Iranian example would be the worst case scenario for the progressives. However, by “engagement”, I would only mean talking about religious issues.

    You see, Jamat (and other similar groups including Tabligh) aims to establish an Islamic Republic under Shariah Law. I am sure they have detailed plan on food security, traffic situation and what not. There is a risk in engaging with Jamat on traffic problems (just as an example). Since their ultimate goal is elsewhere, they will talk to us about traffic situation ONLY to get legitimacy and continue to fool the pious people with their religious camouflage.
    Hence, I would prefer engaging/debating only on some specific issues such as the following-

    Ijtihad: How Ijtihad played a pivotal role in Islam’s golden age and how the discontinuation caused fall of Islam

    – Shariah Law: How Shariah Law can misinterpret the Quraan and often contradicts with Quran and Hadith.

    – Politics vs Religion: How Islam can be a complete code of life for the individual muslims in a Secular country and how “politics of religion” has only divided the muslims in the past.

    But to engage with them on these issues (and to reveal their true faces to general people) we will have to know the history Islam.

    • jrahman said, on December 24, 2009 at 1:55 am

      Agree with all of it, except one minor correction: Tabligh doesn’t want to establish an Islamic state, in fact it’s extremely anti-political (everything is about akhirat, why worry about petty things like politics in this duniya).

      But on the big point, yes, agree that engagement is best done on ijtihad, shariah law etc.

      • Syeed said, on December 24, 2009 at 5:42 am

        I stay corrected on Tabligh’s political aspiration. The problem with Tabligh is in gender imbalance. They may not seek a Islamic Republic, but they preach the same wrong interpretations to dominate women.

  8. Syeed said, on December 23, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    and here is what Bangladesh is going to face next. Demand for Shariah Tribunal is already in place in Western countries… who knows when they will ask for that in Bangladesh!

  9. Dilbor said, on December 27, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    crossposted in UV:

    Good article with interesting “story” on alleged connection between CTG and JI . If this story was true and relationship was so intimate then we could have expected a better JI election result in 2008 as a gesture of thanks. Media during CTG were relentless in publishing reports of Nizami’s “corruption” during his tenure as Industry Minister but no substantial evidence was found other than he was lumped with whole cabinet in Gatco case. I am not here to defend Jamaat or any other party but any analysis should be based on facts. Lets be honest here – we are talking about “infiltration” of Bangladeshi government and Army by Bangladeshis themselves. What is the difference between infiltration and placing “party supporters’ in key government posts and putting “other party supporters” in mass OSD. If you protest a news article for Mr. Wazed Joy’s alleged corruption for lack of evidence – it should same for anyone else. You went quite far in labeling Jamaat supporters within Government/Army as infiltrators but I hope that you understand that there is a great danger in that type of approach. Where do you draw the line on who is Islamic and muslim vs Jamaati. How will you differentiate a JI supporter vs right wing BNP supporter. Support of the idea of prominence of Islam within state policies is quite high but they do not want to be under Jamaat banner – We are already reeling from “Shadonitar Pokher shokti” vs “bipokher shokti” where we know its meaningless to the generation born on or after 1971. I agree with you that JI comes from our society with all its peculiarities and characteristics. Just below the surface, this party shows similar nature of party politics we see in other larger political parties. Have you wondered why, despite all the controversies of their 1971 role, party leadership still hangs on to those old guards like to Nizami, Mujahid, and Kamrul etc…? Because they have designed the central committee for such status quo. Despite all the crying wolf of secular media and Shushils in BD, JI is still a regional party with support from far flung small towns and mainly consisting of lower and lower middle class of the society ( Have you ever seen someone living Dhaka bubble zone being an active supporter of JI ?) – That is why it is easier to demonize them and open up the possibility of using “infiltrator” label. Its true that JI has experienced reasonable success in healthcare and finance but I think the biggest concern or fear among secular elites is not because it is an Islamic party but because of the fact that they do not have the control of that process or success came from a section of society who are considered to be less educated and destined to failure. So it is also a matter of class struggle. Exact same scenario is played out in Turkey where religious conservatives arose from Turkey’s interior to push out the secular elites in urban areas – economically and politically.

    IMO, JI’s failures ( or lack of success) are of their own makings – mainly because of (a) Lack of clarification of their role in 1971, (b) Controversial leadership, (d) Lack of new thinking and opportunity for any new ideas because of its ideological cadre structure – you have to fit into certain mold to move up the party ladder and hence JI will never be a populist party like BNP.

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