Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh and the failure of democracy

Bangladeshi police dumping dead bodies of JI supporters in vehicles.

Dilly Hussain writes that he was not surprised when earlier this week, Bangladesh’s High Court issued a landmark order prohibiting the country’s largest Islamic political party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) from participating in elections because its constitution was rendered “illegal.”

I have always said that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Bangladesh’s JI have more in common besides ideology and methodology, but also the unfortunate political outcome they have found themselves in as a result of gradualist politics.

The legal reasoning of the High Court order was based on laws passed in 2008, when Bangladesh’s former military-backed government set out a new criteria for all registered political parties. JI held back on amending some elements of its constitution, particularly one that stated “sovereignty lay with Allah” rather than the people, through parliament. JI have also been accused of failing to remove “discriminatory” mandates on gender and religion from its constitution, which they strenuously deny.

I will briefly go over some of the events and possible reasons that I believe led to this court order which is currently being appealed by JI.

Shahbag and the Motijheel massacre

When the government-backed Shahbag protest (similar to the military-backed Tamarod movement in Egypt) kicked off earlier this year in February, which pressured the Awami League-led government to issue death sentences on top JI leaders (most notably Abdul Qader Mollah and Mawlana Delwar Hossain Sayeedi) by the “kangaroo” International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) for committing war crimes during the nation’s liberation war against Pakistan, the country witnessed the worst political turmoil since 1971.

The Shahbag protest was followed by the bloodiest massacre of peaceful protestors who were butchered in cold blood in the darkness of night by the police, security service, plain-cloth thugs, border guards and Bangladesh’s elite counter-terrorism squad RAB (Rapid Action battalion) between May 5-6 in the Motijheel area of Dhaka.

The death toll was estimated between 1,000 to 4,000 protestors affiliated with the most influential apolitical religious movement of Bangladesh, Hefazot-e-Islami. They were murdered and their bodies dumped in unknown locations by sunrise because they refused to evacuate Shapla Square upon Sheikh Hasina’s orders.

Islamists vs Secularists

Whilst many have argued that terming the current situation in Bangladesh as one between “Islamists vs secularists” would be too simplistic (like many have regarding Morsi’s ousting by a military coup), in reality the general confliction of ideas is exactly that.

When I visited Bangladesh in January 2012, I spoke to many Sylheti union chairmen who were members of JI, some who were blood relatives. Whilst they admit that they were historically against the independence of Bangladesh which would succumb to India’s influence (which it has) and desired to remain united with Pakistan, their eventual acceptance and embracing of independence was a testimony to the fact that the organisation were not “pro-Pakistani agents.”

Mawlana Delwar Hossain Sayeedi of Jamaat-e-Islami
Mawlana Delwar Hossain Sayeedi of Jamaat-e-Islami

Whilst my personal views of why Bangladesh should have remained Pakistan is irrelevant to this article, I did discuss the ideological teachings of the group’s founder, Abu Ala Maududi (rh) who was also revered by MB’s Hasan al Banna (rh) and Syed Qutb (rh).

In his book “Jihad in the Way of Allah” he concluded “if the Muslim Party commands enough resources, it will eliminate un-lslamic governments and establish the power of Islamic government in their place.” In the words of many Islamic and secular scholars and commentators, Maududi’s teachings and literature weren’t a “hotchpotch of beliefs, prayers and rituals,” rather they were “a revolutionary ideology which seeks to alter the social order of the entire world and rebuild it in conformity with its own tenets.”

Taking that analysis on board, it begs the question how JI and MB have strayed so far from the revolutionary ideas of Maududi, al Banna and Qutb. How over the decades – with such massive grassroots support and trust among Muslims in their countries – they managed to reinterpret “revolutionary” change to a gradualist approach within a political system, which in my view does not facilitate any sincere change regardless of how many compromises a party makes to please the West, domestic secularists and two-faced liberals.

The chairman of my union (Lala Bazaar) said regarding establishing an Islamic government through the democratic system: “Democracy is like a bus, you use the bus to get to your destination and once you’re there, the bus is no longer required.” This was verbatim to what Turkey’s PM Tayyip Erdogan said recently.

I asked him: “how many fuel and mechanical stops is the bus willing to make until the destination itself has become unreachable and its route unclear?” This was typically disregarded by the JI chairman as the views of a young “idealist” who wanted “too much too quick.” I felt it was the ideas of an uncompromising revolutionary who was willing to wait for the right opportunity to gain power, uproot the current system without making fundamental compromises in order to appease those who in reality could never be appeased.

Egypt and Bangladesh

Both Egypt and Bangladesh are going through very difficult times. Recent events in both countries have also revived the theory of “failure of political Islam” argument. But in reality, neither MB nor JI were given an opportunity to make radical changes to the state apparatus in line with Islamic Shariah. Rather, further compromises which don’t allow such radical changes to occur were made.

The supreme commander of Egypt’s armed forces (SCAF), General Sisi, said in a recent interview with The Washington Post: “The dilemma between the former president and the people originated from the Muslim Brotherhood’s concept of the state, the ideology that they adopted for building a country, which is based on restoring the Islamic religious empire.” Sheikh Hasina has also echoed similar unsubstantiated jargon and both have referred to their Islamist opponents as “terrorists” to rally support amongst the masses.

Secular liberals and pro-regime religious institutions in both countries have not thought twice about sharing a bed with brutal dictators, be it Sisi or Hasina. The same political power-brokers which removed democratically elected Morsi and banned pro-democracy JI can easily remove secular liberal leaders as and when they please.

It would be interesting to see how MB and JI respond to these landmark decisions made by the staunch opponents of Islam in general. Both movements have millions of supporters not only in Egypt and Bangladesh, but regionally in neighbouring countries too.

Let’s be absolutely honest, democracy has failed both movements. The political system which they relied upon and propagated to be viable to make an Islamic change hardly gave them an opportunity to even utter the word “Shariah.” Not necessarily because the people didn’t desire it, but because of the major compromises that were made to appease domestic secular liberals and Western powers who would in turn financially assist them (with conditions attached of course).

The MB were stabbed in the back by the Salafi Al-Nur Party and Al Azhar who backed the military coup, and I think the “unholy” alliance between JI and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) who are also notorious for “double-faced” politics will disintegrate to one of isolation, unless both veteran movements review their strategies for political change.

You can follow Dilly Hussain on Twitter @DillyHussain88

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