New Playground of Jihad

Bangladeshi members of Jamaat-e-Islami wave to their party's leader during a rally in Dhaka in December. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

While Bangladesh's drift toward fundamentalist Islam is broached on and off as a new bother in the South Asian security environment, no systematic compilation of evidence to this effect exists. Veteran Indian editor-cum-journalist Hiranmay Karlekar sets out to fill the lacuna by analyzing how and why India's eastern neighbor is alarmingly "Talibanizing."

The author begins with a theological exposition on Islam to lay out the ideological context of the marriage of mosque and state. "While some passages in the Quran and the words of Prophet Muhammad suggest sanction for violence and intolerance, the Quran also rules out hate" (p.17). Military expansion through barbaric atrocities was not exclusive to Islam because the Goths, Visigoths, Huns, Christians and others did the same.

A socially reactionary and repressive stream of Islam began as a reaction to the humiliation of Arabs by Mongols and Turks, reaching its apogee in the venomous anti-Sufi and anti-Shia doctrines of Ibn Taimiya (13th century) and Abd Al Wahhab (18th century). In the Indian subcontinent, Shah Waliullah of Delhi (1703-1764) expounded that the terminal decline of the Mughal Empire could be halted only by returning to a "pure Islam" cleansed of Hindu influences. His heir, Syed Ahmed Barelvi formed the Tariq-i-Muhammadiya movement and declared jihad on the Sikh community.

Karlekar traces the origins of fanaticism in undivided Bengal to British-era Wahhabi preachers like Titumir, Haji Shariatullah and Dudu Mian, revivalist mullahs who mobilized poor rural Muslims against Hindu Zamindars with the cry, "Islam in danger." As early as 1890, labor protests in urban areas began taking on a communal rather than class overtone. By 1947, when India was partitioned on grounds of religion, East Bengal (renamed East Pakistan in 1955) had a strongly entrenched tradition of Islamism that was partially mitigated by the liberal humanist language movement of the 1950's and the corollary liberation struggle.

When Bangladesh came into being in 1971, leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami, who had collaborated with the Pakistani army in genocidal violence, raised colossal sums of money in the Middle East to "defend Islam" and returned with a bang. They were particularly welcomed back by state authorities after the assassination of Bangladesh's founding father, Sheik Mujibur Rahman. Islamization deepened under the reign of Ziaur Rahman and went into overdrive during Hussain Muhammad Ershad's dictatorship, which promulgated the concept of "mosque-based society." The Jamaat spread its tentacles deep into Bangladesh with Saudi and Pakistani funds, setting up madrassas and Sharia courts and launching campaigns of intimidation against women and secular intellectuals.

After the return of democracy in 1991, Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh National Party (B.N.P.) government facilitated countrywide Islamist persecution of liberals like Taslima Nasreen, Shamsur Rahman, Ahmed Sharif, Humayun Azad and Shahriar Kabir. B.N.P. leaders worked in tandem with the clerical class in conducting brutal assaults on nongovernmental organizations and social workers.

Bangladesh: The Next Afghanistan? by Hiranmay Karlekar. New Delhi: Sage India. 311 pages. $26.99.

Karlekar considers the August 2004 grenade attack that killed almost the entire top brass of the opposition Awami League party a landmark omen. The official Justice Abedin enquiry exonerated Islamists and blamed it on an unnamed "foreign power" (India, by innuendo) to divert attention from the Jamaat and its cohorts, the real perpetrators. Many previous terrorist outrages since October 2001 have ended up in similar governmental eyewash, bowing to the dictates of the Jamaat, which enjoys veto power in vital administrative spheres by virtue of being the main coalition partner of the B.N.P.

The arrest of Syed Abu Nasir in Delhi in January 1999 and the killings outside the American Center in Kolkata in 2002 stand testimony to the fact that Bangladesh is now a launching pad for Al Qaeda operations. The plethora of armed, organized and lavishly funded Islamist militias, abetted by a paralyzed government, make the country a natural choice for Osama bin Laden's designs. The Jamaat, Ahl-e-Hadis, Islami Oikya Jote and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (Hujib) dominate and easily bend the soft state and inefficient police force to their will. Bangladesh's geo-strategic location, severe unemployment, endemic lawlessness and unrivalled corruption offer the perfect advertising backdrop for a terrorist hub. The proliferation of illegal migrants, madrassas and mosques in the Indian border states of West Bengal and Assam provides the additional incentive of a safe haven.

Karlekar finds striking resemblances in the puritanical worldviews and agendas of the Jamaat, the Islamic Chhatra Shibir and the Taliban, all of which are offshoots of Maulana Abul Ala Maududi's (1903-1979) philosophy. Inherently anti-democratic, the Bangladeshi Islamists are "scripted for violence." The Jamaat has a detailed blueprint for capturing power, an "undeclared war" on minorities and apostates. Intelligence reports reveal that the plan is well underway, with sophisticated military training of over 50,000 zealots in 50 secret locations throughout Bangladesh. Islamists have a strong financial footing, with an annual profit of 12 billion Bangladeshi takas. The growth rate of the "fundamentalist sector of the economy averages 7.5-9 percent per annum, while the mainstream national sector averages 4.5-5 percent" (p.172).

The Hujib is the most important component of Bangladesh's jihad infrastructure, with close links to Burmese Rohingya militants and Al Qaeda. Its motto reads: "All of us will become Taliban / Bangladesh will become Afghanistan." Another dreaded outfit, Jagrata Muslim Janata, imposes veils and beards, and bombs music, theatre and dance performances across northwestern Bangladesh. It publicly executes leftists and dissenters in the name of "Allah's law." It enjoys backing in the highest echelons of the B.N.P. government, which translates into the police standing by mutely during its heinous acts. Court documents implicating its cadres disappear mysteriously and investigations stall under duress.

An Islamist state within the parliamentary democratic state is ascendant in Bangladesh. The B.N.P. is a vicious vindictive party with marked Fascist tendencies. Fearful of losing the October 2006 elections, it is packing the higher judiciary and the Election Commission with pliable candidates. The Jamaat too is installing its own men in crucial positions and taking over institutions. University faculties are being crammed with its loyalists to spread bilious thinking. By escalating minority cleansing against Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Ahmadiyyas, the Jamaat is fanning a wave of bigotry that lays the ground for a final takeover. Recent recoveries of massive arms caches destined for Islamists hold prospects of a civil war in Bangladesh. The August 2005 series of 500 synchronized bomb blasts in 63 districts is a frightful portent of the capabilities that the jihadis possess.

Karlekar makes an impassioned appeal for neutralizing the Jamaat menace through stern administrative action and lauds the courageous resistance by Bangladeshi civil society and the press. If the secular Awami League wins the upcoming elections, "Jamaatification" can be disrupted. However, this depends on how free and fair the polls turn out to be. If the B.N.P. is not dislodged, a de facto Wahhabi-Salafi state will be dumped on to a South Asia that already suffers from a serious democratic deficit.

Karlekar's fact-loaded book manages to remain free of polemic and broad brushing. It sends a convincing warning that an obscurantist tragedy is unfolding in Bangladesh. The world, especially international donors who sustain this least developed country with copious aid, must wake up to the calamity before it is too late.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Sreeram Chaulia.