Wednesday, February 23, 2005

BANGLADESH: Jamaat and Future of Democracy

In the question of serving the western interest, especially of the Americans and British, it seems to me that the west will find a strong Jamaat more helpful and a weaker one. A thriving Jamaat in Bangladesh will prevent creating vacancy for Islamic extremists in the country. As Jamaat gives more importance to its political gain over literal interpretation of Islam, it is less likely that it will harm the west as being in the western side is more politically beneficial than opposing them.

Rise of Jamaat and Future of Bangladesh Democracy
Imtiaz Ahmed

Although some people see Jamaat as a rising and thriving organisation in Bangladesh, I do not see any real basis of their view. It seems to me that it remains in the same position as it was in 40, 20 or 10 years ago. It secured only 17 (5.67% of the total number of seats) seats out of 300 in the last general election despite its alliance with the BNP. If it ran alone, I am doubtful whether it would receive any seat in the parliament. Some people take the inclusion of Jamaat leaders in the cabinet very seriously. Jamaat representation in the cabinet is also very small (3.6%) and insignificant as its ministers lead unimportant ministries like Industries and Social Welfare.

However, it is true that the party is enjoying support of the government mechanism for the first time in Bangladesh. The rest three of the four major political parties of Bangladesh ruled the country in different terms. Time has come to analyse the effect of Jamaat being in power on the future of democracy and our relation with the world as there is a general fear among the international community about the Islamists.

Everyone will agree that Jamaat is benefited of the four party alliance being in power. Although there is no legal barrier on it, the party faces severe resistance from the educated elite of the society - from intellectuals, law enforcers, government officials etc. In many educational institutes, including in Dhaka University, Shibir, the student wing of Jamaat, is unofficially banned by all other student political parties.

One of the main points of election campaign of the Awami League in 2001 was that if the four party alliance were voted, Jamaat would have a share of power and the country would experience a Taliban rule. However, people did not see any change in respect to implementing Islamic rules after the four party alliance was elected. There has been no indication that Jamaat pressed BNP to declare Bangladesh as an Islamic state or to implement Shariah. Sheikh Hasina blamed it many times for not protesting the American invasion in Afghanistan and Iraq wit proper intensity and magnitude.

Being in power for the last three years, Jamaat has been successful to some extent to reduce this type of psychological resistance. I have read some articles of Shafiq Rehman, a leading secular intellectual, praising Jamaat ministers. It is unprecedented. As it is in power, its student wing receives little resistance from the police. The number of deaths of its activists by opponents has been reduced dramatically in the last three years.

However, this contributes very little in gaining public support or expanding its organisation. Our politics is still dominated by money and muscle. People still sell their votes in villages. The urban people are influenced by newspapers and electronic media which are won by the rich. Jamaat leaders and activists come mostly from lower middle class. You will not be able to find very rich people in Jamaat. So, it cannot do very well in the politics of buying votes. The highly praised ongoing operation of RAB against listed criminals shows that it is not also in a very good position in terms of muscle power. While the RAB arrested and killed dozens of BNP criminals who were holding high party positions until their death, it could catch only one or two criminals who reportedly had linkage with Jamaat. It is important to note that neither of these criminals were Jamaat leaders of any level.

The above analysis shows that although Jamaat received some acceptance from the educated elite of the society, it is far from becoming an influential political power.

However, a small fry can sometimes cause problem by becoming extreme and militant. Extremism and militancy can burn the fate of the country because there may be a chance for the international community to act directly against us if they find such element in our politics. We should carefully examine Jamaat to detect whether it has the elements of militancy and extremism.

Jamaat has been in open politics in the country for more than half a century, most of which it spent struggling for democracy along with other mainstream parties like the Awami League. In the last thirty years, some parties took arms in their hands. The leftists started armed struggle against Sheikh Mujib regime. There are allegations that after the assassination of Mujib, a group of Awami League activists received military training from Libya and Palestine to oust Ziaur Rahman (source: Amar Fashi Chai by Motiur Rahman Rentu).

Jamaat has been banned after the independence. Many of its leaders and activists were arrested and killed. Those who survived remained in hiding. However, it did not take arms in its hand. It did not even have a remote linkage with the coups and countercoups of 1975. There are cases where Shibir activists are found in armed clashes with student wings of other political parties. Some people interpret it as militancy. If it is militancy then Chaatra Dal (student wing of BNP) and Chhatra League (student wing of Awami League) are the most dangerous militant organisations in the country as armed activists of these parties not only fight others but also fight themselves. Although undesirable, student politics has become synonymous of politics of arms. It should not be confused with militancy and extremism.

Although Jamaat is considered as an enemy of democracy by many people, it seems to be in a better position with respect to institutionalising democratic norms and values than the rest of the major political parties. While both BNP and Awami League has clearly chosen political dynasty as their ideology and the politics of Jatia Party is an effect of the complex relations and conflicts between the two wives and an unknown number of girlfriends of Ershad, Jamaat has been practising intra-party democracy. Democracy is not only a system; it is a set of norms and values which require practice over generations. Jamaat has done it, at least internally.

In the question of serving the western interest, especially of the Americans and British, it seems to me that the west will find a strong Jamaat more helpful and a weaker one. A thriving Jamaat in Bangladesh will prevent creating vacancy for Islamic extremists in the country. As Jamaat gives more importance to its political gain over literal interpretation of Islam, it is less likely that it will harm the west as being in the western side is more politically beneficial than opposing them.