Jamaat at a crossroads

Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh may have a future brighter than its Pakistani counterpart, but only after structural and ideological reforms

Jamaat at a crossroads
Anyone who has closely followed the recent political developments in Bangladesh will agree that the Jamaat-e-Islam (JI) has come a long way in the country’spolitics. It was a small entity in pre-independence Bangladesh, when only its student wing – Islami Chhatra Shangstha (ICS) – had some fan following among the erstwhile East Pakistan’s youth, albeit a small one. The province was swept over by the two factions of Marxist East Pakistan Students Union (EPSU) andthe Chhatra League, backed by the Awami League (AL), in the run up to the fateful days of 1971.

The ICS did not have any seat in any of the major student unions in the province. It was even less pleasant for its mother organization. The general election of 1970, the last in united Pakistan, is a case in point. The JI was a distant third or fourth in most of the constituencies it contested. For some of its MLA aspirants, it was even worse.

A majority of the party’s leaders had actively supported the military junta in the gory days of 1971, like the leaders of other pro-Pakistan parties such as the Muslim League, Nejam-e-Islam Party and the Pakistan Democratic Party. After Bangladesh’s independence, most JI activists found themselves on the run. The three parties were given a new lease of life when military dictator Gen Ziaur Rahman lifted a ban on political parties. They made an umbrella organization under the leadership of Maulana Abdur Rahim and the Islamic Democratic League (IDL), and the formation fared rather well in the election held under the military ruler. The JI broke free from the IDL a few months later, and started to use the name Jamaat-e-Islami.

There was no turning back for the party. Its members have set up schools, hospitals, banks and charity organizations, the number of which now stands in hundreds, if not thousands. During the government of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party from 2001 to 2006, the JI even had a share in power – its emir (President) and General Secretary were given two important portfolios in Khaleda Zia’s cabinet – and as far as public perception goes, both the leaders had managed to run the Industries and Social Welfare ministries rather well.

But the JI’s fall from grace in the eyes of ordinary Bangladeshis happened rather quickly. A set of JI leaders are now facing charges of war crimes that they had allegedly committed in 1971. Two of its leaders have been executed, one is on death row, and a few more are facing possible death sentences. The party’s young members, who had taken to the streets to protest against the trial, have been shot at. Many were killed and a few hundreds badly wounded. But the party has not been able to stop the trial, or overthrow the AL regime.
Jamaat-e-Islami is like the Soviet Communist Party under Joseph Stalin

Despite this apparent failure, the party has managed to win more votes than the BNP, its senior partner in the alliance. The JI, to its credit, has even been able to withstand the onslaught of alleged police brutality and highhandedness against its workers. Even though the number of new recruits is not as high as it used to be, there has been a renewed interest in the party, making it an important actor in the future Bangladesh.

The Jamaat, though an Islamist party, is structured around the Leninist principle of democratic centralism. It has a three-tier membership process, whichensures a constant flow of leaders in case of any eventualities. Through its student wing, one of the largest youth bodies in Bangladesh, the JI has been able to inject fresh blood into its folds. The AL-led government’s unpopularity and the main opposition BNP’s failure to launch any sustainable movement to oust Sheikh Hasina have turned out to be a boon to the JI. The Jamaat can now encash anti-incumbency feelings among the masses into a support for its politics. At the same time, it can present itself as the true opposition party through its strong organizational network. A weakening BNP might work as a good recruiting agent for the JI, which will try to fill the vacuum created in Bangladesh’s centre-left politics.

It may not be easy. The JI leadership has inherent weaknesses because of which it will fail to incorporate a wide spectra of opinions. Its organizational structure is like the Soviet Communist Party under Joseph Stalin. In a party like this, it is quite difficult for any dissenting voices to survive.

Following Leninist democratic centralism means it will be a small vanguard party that will lead the workers towards revolution. But the JI is no communist party, and save for its student wing, it does not have any mass organization to speak of. The communists have the workers to lead towards a National Democratic Revolution, but throughout its history the JI, an Islamist party, has always presented itself as an election-centric democratic party. Politics do not like such anomalies.

The party has a separate wing for women – a section where virtually no man can enter. To what extent this policy is Islamic can be a matter of serious extrapolation. But it is certain that the JI has to open its doors to women in large numbers if it wants to become a modern Islamist party. Even though it says it welcomes followers of other faiths, there is no evidence to substantiate this claim.

The biggest stumbling block to the party’s growth is perhaps its past. Some of the party’s leaders had indeed supported Pakistan in 1971, and a large number of its members had actively fought for the junta along with other pro-Pakistan parties.

The more sensible thing to do is to throw away the cross that it bears and start afresh. The JI has so far steadfastly refused to do so. This is strange for a party whose rank and file is full of young people. The Jamaat stands at a crossroads. If it continues going this way, it will hold itself back and not be able to grow.The other path – that of change and reform – comes with its own challenges.

To start afresh, the party will have to change its name, exclude the leaders who were born before 1971, and be more accommodating towards women and members of ethnic and religious minorities. Only then will it be able to capitalize on its growing supporter base. The party’s future lies solely in ideological and structural reform. But time is quickly running out. If it cannot exploit the weakening morale of the BNP leadership, someone else will.

Ahmad bin Abdullah is a journalist

based in Dhaka