On December 13, the Dhaka metropolitan police’s Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime unit arrested the Jamaat-e-Islami amir (chief), Dr. Shafiqur Rahman, from his house in the capital over his suspected links with extremism. Police said that the Jamaat chief was “involved with the new militant organization Jamatul Ansar Fil Hindal ‘Sharkia.’” Rahman’s son Rafat Sadiq Saifullah was reportedly arrested on December 9. According to the police, Saifullah was active in the banned terror outfit, Ansar-al Islam, before he joined the Sharkia.
The Jamaat-e-Islami, one of Bangladesh’s largest Islamic political parties, issued an official statement condemning the arrest of its chief. It denied that he has links with extremists.
On December 10, when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the country’s main opposition party, held a massive rally in Dhaka and put forward a list of ten demands to the Awami League (AL) government, the Jamaat too announced a list of 10 demands similar to the BNP’s demands. Both have called for the restoration of a neutral government to oversee elections and threatened to protest on the streets if the government fails to accept these demands.
The arrest of the Jamaat chief “is another dirty card being played by the AL government” to get Jamaat activists out on the streets, a leading Bangladeshi political analyst told The Diplomat. A large number of Jamaat activists can be expected to protest against Rahman’s arrest. This will come in handy for the “tyrant [AL] regime to win the support of its Western allies,” he said.
As expected, thousands of Jamaat activists took to the streets of towns across the country demanding the immediate release of their leader.
Jamaat-e-Islami is among Bangladesh’s largest and oldest Islamist political parties. It believes that “Islam is the only complete code of life revealed by Allah,” which “encompasses the whole gamut of human life.” Since Islam covers “all spheres of human activities, both spiritual and material,” Jamaat’s agenda is to bring about “changes in all phases and spheres of human activities on the basis of the guidance revealed by Allah and exemplified by Prophet Muhammad.”
To take forward its agenda, Jamaat initially worked with the Aliya madrassas (religious schools) and mosques to expand its network across Bangladesh. It then targeted secular institutions like universities, colleges, and schools, which soon become hotspots of Jamaat recruitment. The Islami Chattra Shibir, the Jamaat’s student wing, played a key role in its recruitment journey.
The Jamaat then started investing heavily in building and running schools, colleges, madrassas, mosques, banks, hospitals, and even coaching centers to take forward its cause. These efforts resulted in Jamaat getting 7-10 percent of the votes in Bangladesh’s general elections.
Especially in the context of Bangladesh’s main parties failing to secure absolute majorities on their own in parliament, the significant electoral support that the Jamaat won in elections helped it emerge as kingmaker in politics. The rivalry between the BNP and the AL has deeply polarized politics in Bangladesh, contributing to the emergence of political alliances.
In 1995-1996, AL and Jamaat joined hands to force the ruling BNP to set up an election-time neutral government, which paved the way for them to come to power in 1996. In the 2001 general election, however, the Jamaat allied with BNP, which gave their four-party alliance a landslide victory and culminated in several Jamaat leaders securing cabinet posts.
In 2009 too, the Jamaat aligned with the BNP. This time, however, the AL came to power at the head of a 14-party alliance.
Since then, the AL has won all national elections. Importantly, the government has dealt the Jamaat several blows in this period.
The AL led Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971. The Jamaat had opposed Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan and collaborated with Islamabad. Indeed, several of its leaders participated in horrific violence against the secular nationalist forces.
After coming to power in 2009, the AL government set up an International Crimes Tribunal to put on trial those who allegedly participated in genocide and crimes against humanity during the 1971 war. Several of them, including Jamaat chief Maulana Motiur Rahman Nizami, were convicted and sentenced to death.
The procedures adopted by the tribunal were widely criticized for not meeting international standards. The conviction and execution of the Jamaat leaders evoked a strong response from its supporters, and its activists engaged in mass protests to pressure the government to revoke the death sentence. However, the AL government went ahead with the executions.
Then in 2018, just ahead of the general election that year, the Jamaat was stripped of its status as a registered political party. Consequently, it could not contest the general election.
It would have been understandable had the AL’s decision to clamp down on the Jamaat been driven by the latter’s opposition to Bangladesh’s liberation struggle and the conviction of its leaders in war crimes during the 1971 war. It was not.
Rather, hard political considerations and electoral calculations have driven the AL’s strategy toward the Jamaat. Politically, the Jamaat offers the AL advantages on the national and international front.
In Bangladesh’s politics, the independence narrative is extremely popular and heavily used in regular political discourses. The AL has been the biggest beneficiary of this narrative as it has projected itself as the sole force that won Bangladesh’s independence. Targeting the Jamaat strengthens the AL’s claims to being the sole secular party that is keeping the principles of the liberation struggle alive. Therefore, even as it cracks down on the Jamaat, the AL needs to keep it alive for its own political benefit.
Nationally, Jamaat’s participation in politics, coupled with its alignment with the BNP, provides an opportunity for the AL to slam the BNP as an anti-liberation force, thereby de-legitimizing BNP’s politics. Internationally, Jamaat’s activism and street protests strengthen AL’s claims that Islamist fundamentalism is strong in Bangladesh. This legitimizes AL’s crackdowns on the opposition in the eyes of the West.
The AL government is under pressure. The economy is in crisis. Additionally, the BNP has been able to mobilize the masses against the government on issues like the rise in prices of essential commodities. This has prompted the AL government to bring the Jamaat issue into politics to deal with the challenges it is facing.
As for the Jamaat, it is facing multiple challenges too. It has been grappling with rifts in its ranks in recent years. Its anti-independence stance prompted a more Bangladeshi nationalist faction to set up Amar Bangladesh in 2020. Also, a new party named Bangladesh Development Party sought registration with the Election Commission in October 2022. This is believed to be a front of the Jamaat.
The Jamaat appears to be facing internal challenges as well as pressures from the government. It is not able to operate publicly as the government has shut down its offices. Whether the recent arrest of its chief will weaken the morale of its activists or energize them remains to be seen.