In the ongoing debate over Islam and democracy, Bangladesh, the eighth largest country in the world, with 164 million people—90 percent of them Muslim—is, oddly enough, seldom discussed. Yet Bangladesh has been a democratic, parliamentary republic since 1991. The country will hold new general elections no later than January 2014. The government of female prime minister Shaikha Hasina Wajed and the Bangladesh Awami League has barred the radical Muslim party Jamaat-e Islami (JEI) from participation in the balloting. The Bangladesh government judged the JEI program incompatible with the country’s secular constitution. JEI was founded in British India in 1943 by ideologist Abu’l Ala Mawdudi.
JEI is influential across the Indian subcontinent and is committed to jihad and establishment of a global Islamic state. Its outlook is similar to that of Saudi-financed Wahhabism, the ideology of al Qaeda. Notwithstanding later differences, JEI originated in the education of Mawdudi by the fundamentalist Deobandi sect, inspirers of the Taliban. The JEI’s parliamentary successes have been limited; since elections in 2008 it has held only two out of Bangladesh’s 300 legislative seats. There is a reason for this: the party’s deadly local history.
From the breakup of the former British India into Hindu- and Muslim-majority areas in 1947 until 1971 Bangladesh was identified as “East Pakistan” and was separated by more than 1,000 miles of Indian territory from then-“West Pakistan.” The two wings of Pakistan had no common border or single language. The Bengali culture native to Bangladesh differs significantly from the traditions found in what is now, simply, Pakistan.
In 1971 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League, as it was then called, representing Bengali nationalism, won a majority in elections to the common parliament representing the two Pakistans. But Islamabad-based General Yahya Khan, who had declared martial law the year before, refused to allow “Sheikh Mujib” to form an administration.
An uprising began in East Pakistan, followed by violent repression from Islamabad, and a year-long war ending with pro-Bengali intervention by India and the proclamation of independent Bangladesh. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in 1975, with most of his family. The country suffered a series of coups until the restoration of parliamentary rule in 1991.
Shaikha Hasina, the elder of Sheikh Mujib’s two daughters who avoided murder because they were away from Bangladesh when he was slain, returned to the country in 1981 and assumed leadership of the renamed Bangladesh Awami League. She was elected prime minister from 1996 to 2001 and, escaping an assassination attempt against her in 2004, regained power in 2009. Shaikha Hasina has stood out among Sunni Muslim national leaders in condemning the infiltration of radicals in her country’s affairs. JEI, assisted by Pakistan, has been a crucial channel for such extremist efforts.
In the 1971 Bangladesh independence war, JEI, directed from West Pakistan, organized Islamist contingents that wrought considerable violence against the partisans of Bangladesh’s sovereignty. At that time, the involvement of Muslim fanatics in the war was ignored by the rest of the world. The BBC has noted that the Bangladesh authorities estimate three million civilians were killed in the fighting, while independent observers concede a death toll of 300,000 to half a million.
During the four decades since, Bangladeshis have not forgotten the atrocities inflicted on them by religious radicals. In response, Shaikha Hasina’s government established an “international war crimes tribunal” in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, in 2010. The court initiated charges in 2011 against a group of JEI figures, including its 90-year-old national leader, Ghulam Azam. In July 2013, Azam was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to 90 years in prison.
In January 2013, Abdul Kalam Azad, another JEI figure accused of crimes against humanity in Bangladesh, had been sentenced to death in absentia, since he had decamped, apparently to Pakistan. Bangladesh also seeks to try Chowdhury Mueen Uddin, an organizer of JEI’s militias, for the sadistic murders of 18 independence activists during the war. Mueen Uddin, however, fled to Britain in 1971. Until he was charged by Bangladesh, Mueen Uddin worked as head of Muslim chaplaincies in the UK National Health Service. The UK and Bangladesh do not have an extradition treaty, and Britain will not turn over prisoners who might face capital punishment, as in Mueen Uddin’s case.
In February 2013, the Bangladesh court sent JEI leader Abdul Qader Mollah to jail for life for murder, rape, torture, and arson. The tribunal next sentenced JEI leader Delwar Hossain Sayeedi to death, for murder, torture, and rape. In May 2013, JEI assistant secretary-general Muhammad Kamaruzzaman received a death sentence for organizing a wartime massacre of civilians. JEI secretary-general Ali Ahsan Mohammed Mujahid was condemned to death, also in July of this year, for terrorism in 1971.
The life penalty against A.Q. Mollah provoked widespread reaction among Bangladeshis. JEI members took to the streets in violent demonstrations. Thousands of young supporters of the war crimes trials gathered in Shahbag Square in Dhaka, demanding capital punishment for Mollah and prohibition of JEI. JEI reacted to the Shahbag Square events by new rioting against the government and media, with at least four people killed during an outburst after Friday prayers on February 22.
Next, as reported by the Financial Times, tens of thousands of white-clad marchers, calling themselves Hefazat-e-Islam (Protectors of Islam), descended on Shahbag Square to confront the critics of Islamist zealotry. State security forces drove the Hefazat activists out of Dhaka, with at least 58 deaths, in May, but the Shahbag Square podium was also shut down. On August 13, JEI called a two-day strike across Bangladesh that produced road closures, street fighting, and attacks on police by the organization’s youth organization, employing firebombs and clubs.
Financial Times reporter Victor Mallet affirmed, “Hefazat’s leaders and supporters are based in the madrasas . . . that have proliferated across Bangladesh, often supported by migrant workers returning from Saudi Arabia, and they really do have a Saudi-style, puritanical and anti-western agenda akin to that of the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
A radical Islamist resurgence has been underway for some time in South Asia. When the Obama administration announced the temporary closure of U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia early this month, Dhaka was included on the shutdown roster, as was the embassy in Port Louis, capital of the small Indian Ocean island of Mauritius.
Mauritius, with a population of 1.3 million and a Muslim community of about 16 percent, is of little interest to most Americans, but it is targeted by Wahhabis. Swaleh M.A. Duman, board member of the oldest mosque on the island, warns, “Saudi Arabia has offered many scholarships to our youth to come and study Arabic and Islam in Medina. . . . We will have to do something to save our people from that threat.”
In Sri Lanka, which has a Muslim population of only 7.6 percent out of 21.5 million, a Sufi leader, M.C.A. Hameed, also points out that after Sri Lankan Muslims began to find employment in Saudi Arabia, many young Sri Lankan Muslims were awarded scholarships to Saudi universities. But “those who completed their studies returned to Sri Lanka and… propagat[ed] the ideology” of Wahhabism, Hameed says. Further, “to pursue their goal the Wahhabis resorted to violence and intimidation culminating in death and destruction.”
Moderate Muslim leaders in India have called insistently for resistance to Wahhabi penetration, warning against the regional effect of a fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. At the end of last year, Maulvi Showkat Ahmed Shah, formerly the main Wahhabi leader in Indian-administered Kashmir, a region historically dominated (like Bangladesh) by metaphysical Sufi Islam, was assassinated in a bomb attack after he announced his acceptance of peace with India.
It would be a mistake to denigrate the efforts of Shaikha Hasina to curb Islamist activities in Bangladesh, and especially to deny its people justice for the wide-scale atrocities committed in 1971. The fight against JEI in Bangladesh is not mere politics; it is a struggle for dignity by moderate, conventional, and spiritual Muslims who have been brutalized by jihadists. That the rest of the world has ignored Bangladesh, other “marginal” South Asian lands, and their victims of Islamist subversion and aggression, for so long makes the process of justice and punishment of the Islamist terrorists of 1971 even more urgent.
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