In June 2023, the Jamaat-e-Islami held a rally in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka. News footage shows that hundreds of thousands of people participated in the event, the first rally held by the party in over a decade.
The rally sent out a strong signal. The Jamaat has survived the pressure and persecution it suffered over the past 15 years or so at the hands of Bangladesh’s Awami League government.
The Jamaat is Bangladesh’s largest and most organized Islamist party. During the 1971 liberation war, it collaborated with Pakistan. Several of its leaders were allegedly involved in war crimes and genocide during the war.
A former electoral ally of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), it was part of the BNP-led government between 2002 and 2006. After the AL came to power in 2009, opposition parties and the Jamaat in particular have been put under immense pressure from the government.
In 2009, the AL government set up a domestic court called the International Crimes Tribunal to put on trial people who participated in the horrific violence unleashed on civilians during the 1971 war. Several Jamaat leaders were found by the ICT to have actively supported the Pakistan military to carry out genocidal crimes against Bengalis of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The ICT convicted Jamaat leaders and handed them life sentences or death penalties. The trial was criticized by major international human rights organizations for procedural flaws.
The ICT trials and convictions hit the Jamaat hard. It lost several top leaders.
In addition, the sons of two Jamaat leaders who were convicted by the ICT were “forcibly disappeared.” These included Mir Ahmad Bin Quasem, son of late Jamaat leader Mir Quasem Ali, who was convicted by the ICT and later hanged, and former Brigadier General of the Bangladesh military Abdullahil Amaan Azmi, son of Jamaat’s former head Ghulam Azam, who was also convicted by ICT, handed life imprisonment, and later died. Their whereabouts are still unknown, although their families allege that government forces picked them up from their homes.
The Jamaat and its student wing, the Islamic Chatro Shibir, also lost many cadres in clashes with police, when it violently protested against the ICT trials and the verdicts against their leaders.
According to Jamaat sources, around 240 of its activists were killed by law enforcement agencies over the past 15 years. Over 14,000 cases were filed against Jamaat leaders and activists and 9,500 cases against the Chatro Shibir, and over 90,000 activists and leaders, including women are in jail. The Diplomat could not independently verify these figures.
Many Jamaat activists went into hiding locally while many more went into exile in countries such as Malaysia, Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia.
Additionally, the Jamaat was dealt a severe blow when the Bangladesh High Court ordered the cancelation of the party’s registration. The verdict came in response to a writ petition filed by an AL ally, the Tariqat Federation, which stated that “Jamaat was a religion-based political party and it did not believe in the independence and sovereignty of Bangladesh.” The Jamaat was barred from participating in elections.
The Jamaat appears to have survived the array of assaults on the party and its functioning. Its June 2023 rally shows it still has the capacity to organize massive rallies and protests.
A Daily Star report citing a police intelligence source claimed that the Jamaat’s permanent membership has increased threefold in the past 15 years, from 23,863 to 73,046. In other words, the Jamaat thrived amid persecution.
“Jamaat is an ideology-based party. Therefore, it is not going to vanish against the backdrop of persistent persecution,” Nakibur Rahman, a U.S.-based scholar, who is a rukon or permanent member of the party, told The Diplomat. Rahman is the son of former Jamaat Chief Motiur Rahman Nizami and holds deep ties with the party.
Researchers on the Jamaat have drawn attention to the party’s survival strategies. The party has sought to downplay its political activities, preferring to extend Dawah or inviting people to take the religious path rather than calling on them to join the party for political work. To stay alive electorally, it has fielded candidates as independents in local elections. Its activists are constantly on the move to avoid arrest.
On its website, the Jamaat says that it is working “to implement the Islamic code of life, prescribed by Allah and shown by Prophet Muhammad, with a view to turning Bangladesh into an Islamic welfare state, consequently, achieving the pleasure of Allah and salvation in the life hereafter.” In its constitution, it states that “it will create disciplinary and democratic measures and … carry effort to create public opinion in its favor.”
Many Bangladeshis have not forgotten the Jamaat’s role in the 1971 war. Critics allege that the party is anti-minority and promotes violence, including violence against Hindu minorities. The Jamaat is accused of being regressive in its outlook. At present, only Muslims can become members of the party, and the party holds the view that a woman cannot be head of the state.
The Jamaat denies it is anti-minority. “As Muslims we believe it is our religious duty to protect the minorities,” Nakibur said. Its current leaders are trying to distance themselves from previous positions taken by the party, especially with regard to the 1971 war.
In an interview to DW, Jamaat Vice President Abdullah Muhammed Taher said that Jamaat in 2023 is different from what it was in the past. “1971 is an issue of pride for the whole nation including Hindu, Muslims, Christian, Jamaat, Awami League, BNP… for everyone,” Taher said. However, he stopped short of apologizing for the Jamaat’s collaboration with Pakistan in the 1971 war, which is a long-standing demand of Jamaat’s critics.
It is likely that the change in the Jamaat’s rhetoric about the 1971 liberation war is strategic.
In 2020, several activists broke away to form the Amar Bangladesh (AB) party. According to Asaduzzaman Fuad, who is in charge of the AB party’s international affairs, the Jamaat’s role in the 1971 war was a key issue underlying the split. Those who left the Jamaat to form the AB felt it is necessary to apologize to the nation, make the party inclusive by encouraging women and minorities to take on prominent positions, and separate religion from politics, he told The Diplomat.
Although the Jamaat has not lost much ground support due to the AB split, its changing rhetoric on the 1971 war could be aimed at pre-empting further divisions.
Regionally, the Jamaat is strongly opposed by India. As veteran Indian journalist S.N.M. Abdi pointed out, “Successive Indian governments have characterized the Jamaat as nothing but a proxy of Pakistan — and more specifically an ISI puppet.” (The ISI, or Inter-Services Intelligence, is Pakistan’s intelligence agency.)
Avinash Paliwal, a senior lecturer in International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told The Diplomat that “New Delhi views the Jamaat’s conservative underpinnings and ideological succor it offers to Islamists in Bangladesh as a security threat. For India, it’s critical to contain such forces for both ideological and security-related reasons.”
“This often means offering partisan support to the AL, even at the cost of Bangladesh’s electoral integrity,” Paliwal added.
The Jamaat’s acting Secretary General Maulana ATM Masum recently slammed India’s “dominance attempt” in Bangladesh and accused the AL of appeasing India over the country’s interest.
Ahead of the general election, which is scheduled for January 2024, observers of the Bangladesh political scene are speculating about the nature of the engagement between the BNP and Jamaat. The two have long been allies. Sources in both parties say that there are doubts over further collaboration, although both agree to persist with anti-government protests, even if separately.
The BNP has been organizing massive countrywide rallies without the Jamaat, thus disproving critics who claim that it is dependent on the Jamaat’s street power. Its student wing, the Jatiyatabadi Chatro Dal (JCD), recently formed a coalition of 19 student organizations for anti-government demonstrations. The Chatro Shibir was not invited.
How the Jamaat will evolve from this point on is difficult to predict. But it is evident that the party is still organizationally strong. The party may have been hit hard by the AL’s crackdowns, but it has also benefited from the anti-AL mood in the country.
The Jamaat has appealed in the Supreme Court against its de-registration. However, it is not optimistic about getting a favorable verdict. Party sources told The Diplomat that they are considering changing the party’s name to contest the upcoming elections.