Ghosts of Shapla Chattar

Posted in Bangladesh, history, Islamists, politics, Uncategorized by jrahman on November 4, 2018

What is the current status of Jamaat politics in Bangladesh?  The country’s largest Islamist party — at least in terms of parliamentary representation over the past few decades — is denied registration by the Election Commission.  So it can’t participate in the next election under its own name.  Its members can, of course, participate as independent candidates, or under some other party’s ticket.  In either case, they won’t be able to use the party’s traditional electoral symbol of scale.

But Jamaat is not officially banned.  The party still exists.  And is used as a cudgel by every Awami hack to beat up, literally all too often, any opposition voice.

Ironically, the legal status of Jamaat in today’s Bangladesh seems to be pretty much what it was under the bette noir of the current regime.  As Rumi Ahmed describes in detail, Jamaat was denied electoral registration when Ziaur Rahman restored multi-party politics.   ‘Zia rehabilitated Jamaat’ is one of the commonest lie in Bangladesh, and is so successful as a propaganda that even BNPwallahs don’t tend to refute it.  The fact of the matter is, to quote Rumi bhai:

Ziaur Rahman’s assessment was that after their direct opposition to Bangladesh in 1971 and their atrocities – Jamaat brand politics is too toxic and unsuitable for Bangladesh. He was also very aware of Jamaat’s organizational base and 5-10% vote base which he wanted to be used in the joint moderate IDL platform.

To elaborate on this, Zia was acutely aware of the risk of disenfranchising a part of the country that was capable of ruthless, organised violence.  In that regard, allowing a parliamentary party that explicitly drew its politics from Islam was an act of far-sighted statesmanship in 1978 — that is, before the Muslim world was rocked by Ayatollah Khomeini’s triumphant return to Tehran, Soviet tanks in Kabul, and the bloodbath in Mecca’s Grand Mosque.

Anyway, this post is not about Zia’s legacy.  Instead, I want to think through some issues around Islamist politics in Bangladesh as we head to what might be another politically charged winter.

Once upon a time, I used to think that Jamaat’s 1971 baggage would be forgotten as the war receded from people’s memory, and the party would firmly establish itself in the mainstream of Bangladeshi polity.  As Naeem Mohaiemen put it over a decade ago:

Within a decade they will have a brand new leadership, a majority of which will be of the post-71 generation. At last week’s midnight hour at Shaheed Minar, we listened to a litany of names of people giving tribute. First CTG, then (reduced) BNP, then AL, then the rest. My friend turned to me and said: “Any moment, we’ll hear, Jamaat er omuk coming forward with flowers!” A joke right now, but how much longer before they appropriate these symbols as well?

Sharp Islamist minds have already appropriated many icons, while the tired figures of Ghadani, Bangla Academy, et al recycle stale slogans and photo ops. The man who was once “Kafir Nazrul Islam” is now Jamaat’s icon as a Muslim poet. This year, Islamist-aligned newspapers touted a slogan for Ekushey “Matri Bhasha Allahr Sreshtho Daan.” DVDs are being sold on a Jamaat history of the language movement that has the logo with Bengali calligraphy in Arabic style.

It is now clear that like Naeem, I grossly underestimated the toxicity of Jamaat brand.  Let me illustrate with two examples — one private and the other public.  A few weeks ago, I was in a political adda where participants were all decidedly on the anti-Awami side of politics, but not everyone knew each other personally.  Soon enough the discussion got heated, and people started strenuously denying that they were ‘Jamaati’.  As for the public example — evidently it was the accusation of Jamaat-link that offended Mainul Hossain so much in that infamous TV show.

There is no getting around it.  If you want to silence or delegitimise someone, you could do worse than tarring someone with a Jamaat brush.  I was wrong to not predict the continued stigma around Jamaat.  Of course, I too used to get the Jamaat tag, because I used to argue that Jamaat’s political strength was hugely overrated.

Well, as it happens, Hasina Wajed had Jamaat’s true measure, and has mercilessly destroyed the party over the last decade, so much so that as Tasneem Khalil tells us, most people would not be even able to name Jamaat’s leaders without consulting wiki or google.  At this point, it might be useful to check what I thought about Jamaat’s prospects last time I wrote seriously on the party, during the madness between Shahbag and Shapla Chatter.  Towards the end of that piece, I speculated about the reformists within the party wanting to reboot themselves along the line of the Turkish AKP.  Even then the chance of this wasn’t high.  Now it seems well nigh impossible, least of all because the leading reformist voices, Mir Qasim Ali and Quamaruzzaman, were hanged by the current regime.  The hardliners in the party, those whose political beginnings were in the campus violence of the 1980s Rajshahi and Chittagong, also stand discredited — they too have been killed or jailed or otherwise effectively silenced.

So, if Jamaat is effectively a finished force with little scope for revival, what does it mean for secularism in Bangladesh?  Recall, Naeem’s worry was that secularism in Bangladesh has been linked with 1971, and as the case for secularism would wither with the end of the war’s lived memory.  If Jamaat’s wartime record still renders it radioactive, then surely the war-link would see secularism in good shape?

Not quite.  Naeem begun his piece with an anecdote of an anti-Ahmadiyaa march.  As I write this, Hefazot-e-Islam is preparing to formally acknowledge Mrs Wajed’s contribution to their cause, and ask her to declare the sect non-Muslim.  Ali Riaz, perhaps the most published scholar on Islamist politics in Bangladesh, puts it this way:

As in any other Muslim-majority country, there has been different streams if Islamist politics in Bangladesh.  Though many experts have only considered Jamaat when discussing Islamists politics.  The various streams notwithstanding, we can broadly classify this politics into those who are relatively more conservative and the reformists.  In recent years, particularly since 2001, the relatively reformist stream of Bangladeshi Islamists have become weaker; main reasons for this being past political mistakes, wrong organisational decisions, adverse political conditions etc.  Bangladesh’s ruling party has considered these reformists as a challenge, and have sought to, largely successfully, annihilate them.  For this, violence has been deployed, and judicial and extra-judicial killings have occurred, and a section of the civil society and mass media has joined the effort.  While this has effectively set Jamaat back, neither has it reduced the ideological appeal of Islamism, nor has the Islamist power declined.

In the absence of those known to be reformist Islamists in recent years, the conservative Islamists have moved from the margins of the politics to the centrefield.  It’s not just that the conservatives have gained politically in Bangladesh, they are the ones who can now dictate political agenda.  The largest representative of the conservative stream is the Hefazot-e-Islam.  The rise of the Hefazot-e-Islam, their statements, the interest of all political parties to ally with them, their amity with those in power and the regime’s unequivocal acceptance of their demands prove that they are the main representative of the Islamist politics in Bangladesh.  That said, we should remember that they are not the only representative of this stream, and Bangladesh Islamic Movement should also be noted in this space.

The governing party has, over the past two or three years, have directly and indirectly patronised this force.  Political opportunism, pragmatic steps, respecting public opinion, strategy, co-option — whichever way this is explained, the result is that extreme conservative Islam has expanded in Bangladeshi society and polity as a result, and they have increased their political power.

(page 10-11, translation: mine).

To be sure, I don’t necessarily agree with the thesis that increasing Islamisation of Bangladeshi society is a state-driven, top down process.  It could well be a bottom up change in society that is affecting politics.  And more importantly, had Bangladesh retained even a rudimentary electoral politics, the Awami-Hefazot rapprochement might have been a welcome move, comparable to Zia’s overture to Maolana Abdur Rahim four decades ago.  Better to bring in the bearded ones into electoral bodies, lest their madrassahs and orphanages create dangerous suicide bombers — or something like that. Once upon a time, I used to believe that Awami League genuinely wanted a synthesis of sorts.  Mubashar Hasan echoed it more recently.

The thing is, Bangladesh does not have any electoral politics.  What we have is a kleptocratic dictatorship trying to hang on to power by any means available.

We have seen this turn to religiosity elsewhere across the Muslim world.  For example, Allah Akbar appeared in the flag of Iraq’s hitherto staunchly secular Ba’athist regime after Saddam Hussein miscalculated into Kuwait in 1990.  Closer to us in space if not time, faced with strong opposition, boozing Mr Bhutto of Pakistan banned alcohol, moved weekend to Friday, and declared Ahmadiyya’s non-Muslim.

A friend recently told me ‘Man, if Zia-ism fails, alternative to AL will be neo-Jamaat Islamists’.  I am not so sure.  Had Maolana Rahim’s efforts succeeded, Bangladesh might now have had something like the Muslim Brotherhood or the Ennahda with its own Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Anwar Ibrahim.  They would not have been secular, by definition.  And they might not have even been particularly democratic — Erdogan’s record is little better than that of the Bangladeshi prime minister.  But as Riaz points out, these aren’t the Islamists who are left standing.

Those who are gathering to anoint give Mrs Wajed as the Mother of the Qaum, their agenda is not the future.  It’s present.  And right now, the rich and powerful in Dhaka who sustain the current regime seem perfectly okay with this regime.

Why shouldn’t they?  After all, Hefazot is not shutting down their evening soirees, or forcing them to grow a fistful of beard, or cover them in something resembling a pillow cover.

Not yet anyhow.  And let’s not overestimate Hefazot’s power — they can bring a crowd stop Dhaka (not particularly hard), but they are not likely to take over the state.  But they don’t need to threaten a state takeover to cause concern.  Make no mistake, the liberal space in Bangladesh is being squeezed, not by Jamaatis, but actions of the current regime.

That our secular, liberal activists and intellectuals are not vocal about this shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, we have just seen Sultana Kamal, supposedly a human rights activists, demand the arrest of someone under a draconian censorship act for saying something ‘offensive’ on TV (for which he publicly apologised)!  Kafka and Orwell couldn’t write this stuff up.  I look forward to the Awami hacks explaining the coming days using a line often used by dead Jamaat leaders — there is no final word in politics.

Dear reader, this isn’t a good time for liberalism, at home or abroad.  Yet, as an unapologetic liberal, let to mark where I stand.  Naeem was wrong about Jamaat’s power, or the so-called pro-71 commitment to secularism, but he got the big point right:

Many of us are comfortable inside, and speak from, a Muslim identity — either as a religious/cultural identity at home or as ethnicized shorthand for “other” or “immigrant” in western diasporas. But we can be inside that identity and still fight to our dying breath to build a left-progressive, equitable, and secular state.

This is a battle cry for secular Muslims. And we are legion.

Okay, maybe not left-progressive….. but one battle at a time.


(Five and half years ago, scores were killed in Shapla Chattar.   And heated political debates saw years-old friendship fracture.  Let all the ghosts rest.  There really is no final word in politics.)

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