Is Bangladesh heading towards an Islamist takeover?


In a June 2022 report, the United States Institute of Peace said, “Although contemporary narratives of Bangladesh often emphasize its secular founding, Islamist politics and religious violence have a long history that predates its independence”.

It further said, “Contemporary extremism is rooted in historical dynamics of state and national identity formation that have inflamed tensions between secular elites and citizens, on one side, and Islamist social and political movements and religious conservatives, on the other. These issues are exacerbated by narrowing political space for dissent, radicalization of some migrant workers, contentious regional politics, and the COVID-19 pandemic”.

In October 2021, former Indian diplomat Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty in an article in the Hindustan Times wrote: “Bangladesh is known as a moderate Islamic country. There is a strong and committed secular section, but this is dwindling in numbers. Intolerance is the default position of fanatic Islamists who have gained strength over the years, through political patronage, the inflow of Gulf money, indoctrinated expatriates returning home and fed on an anti-India narrative by the Islamist organizations. These outfits have weaponized blasphemy, and have demanded transforming Bangladesh into an Islamic State, ruled as per the Sharia”.

He further wrote: “Islamist organizations are determined to embarrass [Sheikh] Hasina and derail her policies. They are jubilant at the Taliban takeover, and may well have been encouraged by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which has close links with JeI [Jamaat-e-Islami] and the Islamists. Pakistan and the Islamists are extremely unhappy with Hasina’s close ties with India.

In March 2017, Seth Oldmixon, president of Oldmixon Group, a public affairs firm, and the founder of Liberty South Asia, a privately funded campaign dedicated to religious freedom and political pluralism in South Asia in an article in The Diplomat wrote “Unlike Pakistan, which has tried to manufacture a common religious nationalism to replace linguistic and cultural diversity, Bangladesh enjoys a syncretic culture developed over millennia. In 1971, this indigenous culture of tolerance and inclusiveness became the target of the Pakistani Army and their Jamaat-e-Islami militias, who attempted to smear Bengalis as “anti-Islam” for seeking independence. Sadly, while Bangladesh won its independence in 1971, the war on Bengali culture continues”.

He further wrote, “Over time, secularism in Bangladesh has been slowly eroded due to a dangerous combination of political expediency and foreign influence. Military dictators courted Islamist groups in order to bolster their legitimacy, and Islamic states like Saudi Arabia have poured money into building fundamentalist mosques and madrassas. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) has secretly funneled funds to support Islamist politicians and their allies. These investments in undermining Bangladeshi secularism appear to be paying off”.

In April 2021, Subir Bhaumik, a veteran BBC and Reuters journalist in South Asia in an article wrote, “The upsurge in radicalism comes at a time when Hasina is basking in global applause for the country’s economic and human development, which is symbolized by the UN upgrading Bangladesh from “Least Developed Country” to “Developing Nation”.

“Bangladesh and Indian intelligence reports indicate a surge in the Hefazat’s [Hefazta-e-Islam] cadre base, drawn essentially from Qaumi madrassas it controls. The use of weapons during the recent violence suggests the group may resort to increasing armed action in the future.

“Following some intelligence inputs that Hefazat activists might launch armed attacks on police stations in the next stage of their movement, machine guns have been placed in police pickets in key urban locations across the country”.

In July 2022, Siegfried O. Wolf wrote in South Asia Democratic Forum website: “In recent years, the number of terrorist incidents and related casualties have steadily declined in Bangladesh. Yet the problem of Islamist extremism remains, as can be witnessed in the frequent outbursts of massive political violence, increase in religiously motivated illiberalism, and a general shrinking of free, liberal, and secular thinking. At the center stage of this phenomenon stands the Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI). The HeI is the most recent and largest entity in Bangladesh’s complex web of ultra-conservative, radicalized Islamist groupings. It is categorized by a large variety of terms, for instance as a Islamist pressure group, an Islamist advocacy movement, an ultraconservative Islamist group, a socio-political extremist group, or a Islamic social movement.

“There are even demands to designate it as a terrorist group. Each of these terms reflects a certain aspect of the HeI; however, none really describes the whole picture of how the HeI is challenging the secular and democratic foundations of the state – and contributing to the menace of violent Islamism in Bangladesh. During the last 12 years Bangladesh witnessed not only violent mass protests and vandalism stirred by HeI supporters but also a firm counter-reaction by the government – so as to protect the state, citizenry, and law and order more generally speaking. Because many senior members of the HeI were arrested for their role in public unrest, and as the organization also suffered from a leadership crisis, some analysts even concluded that the Islamist organization became much less of a threat. However, such an assessment is short-sighted since it does not consider the facts on the ground. It also fails to understand the Islamist menace in Bangladesh (and beyond) in general – and the HeI organization in particular.

More concretely, who is actually guiding the HeI?

“Here we must consider the links between the HeI and other Islamist groups and political parties, foremost the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The puzzle also requires inquiring on are the relations between the government and the HeI. Further, what is the role of the HeI in the attacks on Hindus and other religious minorities in Bangladesh? How far is HeI undermining democracy, particularly free, liberal, and secular thinking? Must be the HeI recognized as an anti-state as well as terrorist entity?”

International Crisis Group in a report on February 28, 2018 said: “Bangladesh’s recent history of jihadism dates to the late 1990s, when veterans of the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan returned to Bangladesh. A first wave of violence, involving two groups, the Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami (HuJI) Bangladesh and the JMB, peaked on 17 August 2005, when the latter group synchronized bomb blasts in 63 of the country’s 64 districts. Successive governments subsequently took action against the JMB’s leadership, but the group has revived itself, albeit in a new form. Another group, Ansar Al Islam (AAI), has also emerged, while a JMB splinter – dubbed the “neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen” by law enforcement agencies – calls itself the Islamic State-Bangladesh and has funneled fighters into Iraq and Syria.

“AAI portrays itself as the defender of Islam from those who – in its leaders’ view – explicitly attack the religion. The JMB, on the other hand, has named a longer list of enemies: it considers perceived symbols of the secular state and anyone not subscribing to its interpretation of Islam as legitimate targets. The Bangladesh police allege that JMB operatives have played a part in attacks claimed by ISIS on prominent members of minority communities and religious facilities and events, including Ahmadi mosques, Sufi shrines, Buddhist and Hindu temples, and Shia festivals. An attack on a Dhaka café on 1-2 July 2016 that killed over twenty people, mostly foreigners, appears to have involved loose cooperation between different groups, including both rural-based madrasa students and elite urban young men”.

On March 30, 2021, British newspaper The Spectator in a report said: “…Despite abetting Pakistan army’s abuses, Islamist groups like Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) – or, at least, its successor – has continued to thrive in Bangladesh. The Gulf oil boom and the Saudi proliferation of madrassas in the 1970s provided a new lease of life for Islamists. By early 1980s, the Jamaat had aligned with military leader Ziaur Rahman’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

“In 2009, Sheikh Hasina’s government formed an International Crimes Tribunal to try the 1971 war criminals, many of whom were affiliated with the JI. Death sentences for JI leaders between 2012 and 2014 sparked outrage from Islamist groups in Bangladesh, and even in Pakistan, including from the now prime minister Imran Khan.

“In retaliation, Islamist groups took aim at Bangladesh’s pluralistic core. A surge in the killings of secular and atheist bloggers was seen after a hit-list of 84 targets was widely circulated in 2013. Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI) also announced a 13-poing charter demanding the death penalty for blasphemy, excommunication of Ahmadis and a crackdown on ‘foreign culture’. The growing space for Islamist groups in the country allowed global jihadist outfits such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, along with their affiliates, to penetrate Bangladesh”.

Since its independence in 1971, Bangladesh has been facing consistent challenges posed by political Islam and jihadists, while two consecutive military rulers of General Ziaur Rahman and General Hussein Muhammed Ershad had adopted policies favorable to radical Muslims and Islamist groups. Both of these dictators attempted to transform Bangladesh into an Islamist state or a ‘Team-B’ of Pakistan. Things continued to turn worse when General Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) came to power during 1991-1996 and 2001-2006 under the leadership of his wife, Khaleda Zia. BNP formed a coalition government with its ideological ally Jamaat-e-Islami while the ruling party had extended patronization and support of local jihadist and Islamist groups as well as insurgency groups in India’s northeastern region. During the two tenures, BNP made an open proclamation of its solidarity with Lebanese militia group Hezbollah and Palestinian terror outfits such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

As things continued to move towards an alarming situation, counterterrorism experts in the world had predicted Bangladesh becoming another Afghanistan. But things started to move towards a positive direction when a secularist Awami League came to power in 2009 under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina. Onwards Sheikh Hasina’s government declared zero tolerance towards Islamists and jihadists, while Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) elite force of Bangladesh Police exhibited substantial success in combating militancy thus dismantling a large number of hideouts of jihadist outfits as well as anti-India insurgency groups. But, in December 2021, being influenced through frantic lobbyist bids of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami, the US Department of Treasury had imposed sanctions on a number of officers of RAB stating it was violating human rights.

During his recent visit to Bangladesh, Donald Lu, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs in the State Department said, Washington was considering imposing more sanctions on RAB in December 2022, but such actions were not taken as RAB has already shown significant progress in fighting terrorism and militancy and it has not shown signs of violating human rights. What Donald Lu did not say is his government’s ongoing plan of bringing a large number of Bangladesh nationals under fresher sanctions using Global Magnitsky Act on allegations of corruption and money-laundering.

Meanwhile, Islamist in Bangladesh are seeking Washington, London and other Western capital’s blessings and direct intervention into Bangladesh’s next general election. They demand holding the election under an un-elected “caretaker government” or “government of national consensus”, comprising individuals of their choice. They even are openly giving instigation to the members of Bangladesh Armed Forces in staging a coup to unseat Sheikh Hasina from power. Meaning, a deep-rooted Islamist conspiracy is continuing against Bangladesh and the ruling Awami League.

It seems, the Biden administration is under heavy influence of Islamist groups in Bangladesh and is making foul bids in empowering these elements by exerting undue pressure on the ruling Awami League. In my opinion, unless the Biden administration and Western policymakers immediately withdraw from such rogue tendencies, Bangladesh may ultimately witness an Islamist takeover.


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