It was the last week of November 2001. The September Eleven tragedy was still fresh in the collective memory of majority of the Americans. I got a phone call from an associate of a man who carried enough clout in the Republican Party of USA. He asked me if I could spare a few moments with his chief. Initially I felt a little bit apprehensive interacting with somebody whom I hardly knew. Nonetheless, I decided to utilize the opportunity to be face-to-face with somebody who had been a familiar figure in U.S. media for quite sometime.
In a cold winter morning I went to the office of this "well connected" policy analyst. Located in the downtown Washington, the neatly decorated office was not too far from the Capitol Hill. I was greeted at the door and the discussion started in no time. We touched upon such subjects as Islamic fundamentalism and its impact globally. In course of our discussion, the topics of 1971's Pakistani army sponsored Genocide in Bangladesh and the role of Islamic fascist war criminals were covered. The listener appeared to be quite receptive. It was quite obvious that memories of the painful chapter of Bangladesh tragedy were making me a bit emotional. The bygone days of a nation’s struggle for freedom from colonial subjugation, being pawn in a Cold War chess game, Nixon-Kissinger’s wholehearted support for brutal Yahya junta-lots of surreal sequences rushed through my mind. After a while, as our discussion was almost over, I got a friendly gesture from the host. It seemed he could conceive the logical pattern of Islamic fascism in South Asia as it evolved in occupied Bangladesh of 1971. Thus, an untold chapter of Islamic terrorism happened in an obscure Third World country which was brought to the attention of a sympathetic listener belonging to a very influential power base of America.
The genesis of Bangladesh may disclose an unnerving saga. Knowingly or unknowingly, we are carrying a huge burden of history. While US policy makers were making good use of Islamist card whenever the need was acute, many Third World nations suffered miserably at the hand of the blood thirsty Islamic fascists. With historical patronage, a well groomed "pro-West" Islamic fascists' global entity was gradually becoming a Frankenstein's monster. That is why, while the rookie Islamic fascists practiced blood spilling on Bangladeshis in Rayer Bazar killing field of Dhaka in 1971, the final showdown came upon America on September 11, 2001 in a big thunderous way.
What happened in Rayer Bazar in 1971? Who were the killers and who were killed? Weren't the killer’s pioneers of Islamic fascism of twentieth century, members of death squads like Al-Badr and Al-Shams and Jamaat-i-Islami? Weren't those evil forces supported and patronized by Pakistani military junta of 1971?
The following excerpt from a book on genocide in Bangladesh will take us back to a different space and time. To the killing field located in the outskirts of Bangladeshi capital Dhaka in the year 1971.
After the surrender of the Pakistan army on December 16, the mass graves at Mirpur and Mohammadpur were unearthed to reveal the corpses of the dead sons and daughters of Bangladesh. Accounts of the discovery shocked and horrified the entire world.
MASS GRAVES: AN EYEWITTNESS ACCOUNT
Hamida Rahman, in her article "Katasurer Baddhabhumi" (The Mass Grave at Katasur), describes her visit to Rayer Bazar.
I soon came upon two huge bodies the noses had been cut off, the ears too. It seemed as if someone had torn away pieces of flesh from near their mouths. Their hands and feet were tied. The corpses had lain there for two days because they hadn't been identified. I cannot forget the distorted, mutilated faces of those two tall, fair men. Afterwards the people of that area buried the bodies where they lay.
A few steps ahead, at the foot of a mound of earth, lay a woman's corpse. The woman's eyes had been tied. The gamchha (towel) with which her eyes had been tied was still lying there. She was wearing a black Dhakai sari. On one foot she had on a sock. There was nothing left of her face. It seemed as if someone had torn and cut away the flesh so that she would not be recognized. The woman was fair and slightly plump. One breast had been cut off. The corpse was lying on its back. I could not stand the sight of that horrible, featureless face for very long. I could not recognize her. Afterwards she was identified as Selina Parveen, Editor of Shilalipi. When her relatives heard the news, they came in the evening and took her body away.
Proceeding a little farther, I came upon a skeleton with a little flesh still clinging to its legs and to its rib cage. Perhaps crows and vultures had eaten the flesh. The long hair attached to the skull, matted with dirt and mud, bore silent witness that this corpse had once been a woman.
Ahead of me l saw a group of people standing on a raised portion of land, looking down at something. As I reached them, one of them reached out a hand and pulled me up beside them. Looking down at the swamp in front, I saw a horrible sight. There weren't just one or two corpses there; there were twelve or thirteen bodies of what had once been twelve or thirteen healthy, strapping men. They were lying there, one after the other. Next to this group of bodies lay the corpses of two men; the heart had been torn out from one of the bodies. This body was that of Dr. Rabbi.
On a nearby stack were the bodies of Yakub Ali, chairman of the Ramna Union, and Sirajuddin Hossain of the Ittefaq. Someone next to me said that Munier Chowdhury's body had also been found here. Kabir Chowdhury had come in the morning and identified the body.
I was there for about an hour. I could not come away. One by one people kept on coming. Dr. Rabbi's corpse seemed still fresh. His killers had torn away his heart. They knew that he was a cardiologist that is why they had torn out his heart. His eyes had been tied, and he had fallen down. It seemed as if someone had pushed him into the ditch. The legs still seemed to belong to a living man. His face had been scratched and torn by the nails of his killers.
An eye doctor of the calibre of Dr. Aleem Chowdhury will not be produced in one day; a journalist and writer of the calibre of Shahidullah Kaiser will not be created in one day either. That such a brutal killing would be committed on the very day that we got our independence was something no one would ever have believed.
Field after field, mound after mound, marsh after marsh yielded corpse after corpse, silent witnesses to the countless numbers who had been brought here to be killed .
The above gory details are testament to the brutality of Islamic fascists who terrorized the freedom-loving Bangladeshis for most of the nine months of 1971. Incredible as it may sound, today, two of the ring leaders who were directly responsible for committing such heinous crime are notable ministers of Bangladesh government. And as I said already, the war criminals do not pose any direct threat to U.S. interest. So, their presence in Khaleda Zia's cabinet does not seem to be an eyesore to western democracies. But, deeper assessment of Islamist politics in South Asian region may portray a disturbing picture. Khalid Duran in his analytical essay on Islamic terrorist network identified Jamaat-i-Islami of Pakistan as a strong patron of the shadowy forces of Taliban and al-Qaeda. It goes without saying Jamaat-i-Islami parties of Pakistan and Bangladesh are inter-linked on a historical premise. Also, the close connection between Jamaat-i-Islami and most other anti-Western Islamic outfits in Pakistan is an open secret now. As U.S. led coalition started to eradicate terror network from Afghanistan, Jamaat-i-Islami joined all other Islamic fundamentalist forces to indulge in anti-U.S. agitation on the streets. What is good for geese is also good for gender. The same scenario occurred in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Unlike a good number of army strongmen of Arab countries their South Asian counterparts were historically pro-Western in nature. While main power broker army leaders of Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Algeria or Turkey were noticeably secular, army rulers in Pakistan or Bangladesh were significantly non-secular and tended to be appeasers of Islamists. USA and many Western countries became the beneficiaries of army rulers such as General Ayub Khan, General Yahya Khan, General Zia-ul Huq of Pakistan or General Ziaur Rahman and General H.M. Ershad of Bangladesh. It goes without saying all those rulers came to the echelon of power through a mischievous way. And most of their power base depended on the support of Islamists in their respective countries. In most of the sixties, seventies, and eighties the so-called Muslim fundamentalists were the good guys in the eyes of West. So, the concept of "good fundamentalists" evolved during this era.
Jamaat-i-Islami was considered to be the "good fundamentalists" during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Although this party was directly responsible for killing unarmed civilians especially Bangladeshi intellectuals, the party played a pivotal role of enhancing Pak army junta's agenda. The brutal acts of the Bangladeshi Islamic fascists were nothing short of being privy to genocide. But the crime against humanity did not impact the foreign policy direction of most of the Western nations involved in South Asia's geopolitical chess game of 1971. In essence, the Jamaatis were slaughtering Bangladeshi academicians, journalists, artists in droves; but they hardly posed any threat to U.S. interest in any part of the world. At the time the murderer fascists did not plan to harm American civilians at home or abroad. But things have changed dramatically. Today, we are appalled to see the degree of brutality inflicted upon journalist Daniel Pearl. In 1971, Bangladesh nation lost scores of "Bangladeshi Daniel Pearls" at the hands of merciless Islamic fascists. And the whole world especially the powerful west looked the other way.
On December 16, 1971 Bangladesh became independent as a result of political, diplomatic and military support from India and the Soviet bloc countries. It was quite natural the new administration of the new republic got a cold shoulder from most of the Western countries. So it hardly mattered to many key players of world scene as the first Bangladesh administration led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman followed a secular and democratic path of governance.
Sheikh Mujib made overtures to win friends in the West, but his appeal resonated like a voice in the wilderness. The country's entanglement with Indo-Soviet axis made already paranoid West to be distrustful of Sheikh Mujib administration. Those were the early days of the nascent republic. In this particular situation, the Saudi Arabia and a few other Gulf countries, Pakistan and much of the West were cynical of the future of Bangladesh. The assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman along with most of his family members on August 15, 1975, which is widely believed to be the work of Islamists tied to Pakistani intelligence, cleared the path to change the status quo for good. This bloody chapter in Bangladesh history paved the way to bring in the war criminals of Bangladesh liberation war, the Islamic fascist Jamaatis, into country's political arena. It is as if Nazis coming to power in post-Second World War Germany. After 1975, Bangladesh went stage-by-stage in a perpetual motion of Islamisation. To add insult to injury, two army generals, namely Ziaur Rahman and H.M. Ershad were responsible for shattering the country's secular fabric.
On 8th March, 2002, Khaled Ahmed wrote a piece titled "Language and religion in Bangladesh" in The Friday Times of Pakistan. A quotation from the essay may better explain the role of General Ziaur Rahman in leading Bangladesh towards Islamisation.
"Sheikh Mujib gave Bangladesh a secular constitution in 1972 and asked the Hindus to come back, promising them restitution of property. His assassination brought to power the..... General Zia-ur-Rahman who changed Article 12 of the Constitution in 1977 through proclamation and removed secularism as one of the guiding principles. He later regularized it through the 5th Amendment in a parliament dominated by his Bangladesh National Party (BNP). To reflect the faith of the majority of the country he put Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim at the beginning of the Constitution and removed
Sheikh Mujib's ban on religious parties.
General Zia-ur-Rahman was killed after 20 military revolts against him in a year. ... in the army were overpowered by the repatriates led by General Ershad who introduced the 8th Amendment through his Jatiya Party majority, naming Islam as the religion of the state. After 20 years of direct and indirect army rule in Bangladesh, Islamisation has taken root, and religious parties are rapidly spreading their communal message at the grassroots level. Of the four main parties of Bangladesh, three openly defend Islamisation, while Awami League has muted the pledge of its return to secularism. This state of affairs was reversed in 1997 when Awami League came to power again, but its appeal did not last into the new millennium. Today Bangladesh is well set in its destabilising pattern of pendulum swings between language and religious nationalisms.
Yes, once again the pendulum swung in favour of Bangladeshi Islamists as they have won a sizable majority in the nation's last parliamentary election. They have now the constitutional authority to change constitution, national anthem, flag and anything someone may think of. As soon as the result of the election was announced, the first assault came on religious minorities. The ugly face of Islamic fascism was unmasked as the BNP-Jamaat coalition cadres went on a rampage to terrorize country's religious minorities. The minority Hindus were singled out to be a main obstacle to the rapid Islamisation process of the country. As the campaign of harassing and subjugating Bangladeshi Hindus was carried on methodically, torture and rape became a common scene. It was déjà vu all over again! The situation became so much intolerable that many of the Hindu citizens had no other choice but to abandon their property altogether. Human rights organizations have been following the sad saga closely. Recently, a fact sheet on Bangladeshi minority persecution has been compiled. That was produced to U.S. Congressman Joseph Crowley, a leading member of Congressional Bangladesh Caucus.
In the late seventies, a pro-western army ruler, Ziaur Rahman, opened the door to the Islamic terrorists who went underground en masse to avoid the revenge of Bangladeshi victims. Ideologically speaking, these political elements with dangerous mindset were aligned with most pro-western Islamist groups. Soviet invasion in Afghanistan and the floodgate of petro-dollars helped proliferate the cause of Islamism in Bangladesh. During the eventful period of late seventies two incredible political developments were noticed in Bangladesh society. Number one was, gradual diminishing of Bangladesh genocide episode from the collective consciousness of Bangladeshi masses and the number two was, subtle eclipse of secular values in the society.
Islamists are extraordinarily skilful in the art of deception. They could be pathological liars to enhance their agenda. A great percentage of young Bangladeshis who were raised after nineteen seventies do not have any clue about the crime against humanity committed by Bangladeshi Islamists. Similarly, today, the Islamist propaganda machinery favouring the criminals of the September Eleven attack on America is successful in attaining its goal. USA Today on February 27, 2002 provided a front page story on Islamic World's view on 9/11 attack. It covered the result of a Gallup poll where sixty-one percent of the respondents said Arabs were not involved in the September 11 attacks. The poll also disclosed the mindset of the majority of the populations in countries like Kuwait, Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran, Lebanon and Turkey. The poll showed a great majority of the citizens in those countries believed U.S. led campaign against terrorism was morally unjustified.
Getting back to the story of Islamisation in Bangladesh let me resurrect the sad but violent departure of the first military strongman of Bangladesh. General Ziaur Rahman's sudden departure from Bangladesh political scene resulting from a bloody coup left the country's Islamisation process in jeopardy for a while. Enter General Ershad and his regime took the mantle from the predecessor in no time. During the period of 1982 to 1991 the country experienced proliferation of religion-based schools, popularly known as Madrassas. There was no control; mushroom growth of Madrassahs in all the nooks and corners of Bangladesh gave rise to thousands of Islamic zealots of Bangladeshi variety. They were the epitomes of Bangladeshi Talibans.
Like General Ziaur Rahman, General Hussain Mohammad Ershad became a darling of the Oil Sheikhs. The pouring of petro-dollars helped strengthen parties like Jamaat-i-Islami and its student fronts. Chittagong University, historically a secular dominated educational institution soon became a Mecca for the Islamic zealots. Although General Ershad kept an iron grip on power, armed training of the Islamist youth groups were done in almost broad daylight.
According to some reports, financial backers of such "project" were a few Middle Eastern countries that included Libya and Iraq as well. During Ershad era, droves of Bangladeshi holy warriors left their ancestral land to join fighting in Lebanon and Afghanistan. Yossef Bodansky, Director of Congressional Task Force on Terrorism & Unconventional Warfare mentioned Bangladeshi Islamist zealots in one of his essays. I am quoting from Bodansky's "Beijing's surge for the strait of Malacca" which he wrote a few years ago.
That setback did not diminish the promise of Thailand operations. Indeed, Iran and Pakistan soon transformed Thailand into a safe heaven for Islamist terrorists for the entire East Asia. Dozens of networks with members from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Syria are operating in Bangkok alone. Others are based in tourist resorts in predominantly Muslim area, primarily Pattaya, Phuket and Hat Yai (northern and southern Thailand).
Another alarming scenario was presented by Vikram Chobe in his "Osama Bin Laden: Upholding the Tradition of Jihad" essay. I am giving a few lines from this pre 9/11 piece.
The Indian Intelligence recently discovered that Bin Laden is generously donating funds to the Pakistan-based extremist outfit Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, which has contacts with the Dhaka-based Bangladesh Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami. Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami has been assigned the task of recruiting Bangladeshi and Indian Muslims to fight in Kashmir under the command of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. The bureau has also discovered that the Dhaka-based terrorist organization has already recruited 1,000 Muslims who will be trained in the terrorist training camps at Kormi and Kasia in Bangladesh.
The fallout of the terrorist attack on America is being felt among the expatriate South Asian community in USA. While a great majority of the detainees on U.S. mainland are of Arab and Pakistan origin, the presence of a few Bangladeshis has been authenticated by reliable source. The American Taliban John Walker Lindh said in an interview that Afghanistan's Mullah Omar's body guards composed of Bangladeshis also. In a CNN interview, Walker Lindh said that two important languages spoken in al-Qaeda power center were Urdu and Bengali. Bangladesh born U.S. Navy Chaplain, Lt. Abu Hena M. Saiful Islam had joined the Joint Task Force at Guantanamo Bay more than a month ago. In a recent interview with an American news agency, Lt. Islam said his media of communication with the detainees at Camp X-Ray were Urdu and Bengali. It is quite probable that there could be a handful of Taliban or al-Qaeda detainees at the camp who are of Bangladesh descent.
As I was concluding this essay, an important news story in today's Washington Post (March 15, 2002; pp A3) drew my attention. John Mintz's "From Veil of Secrecy, Portraits of U.S. Prisoners Emerge" disclosed national origins of the detainees at Camp X-Ray. I am quoting a few lines from this revealing write-up.
"….According to Arabic newspapers, U.S. forces in Afghanistan are holding nationals from several Central Asian Republics, as well as Jordan, Syria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Morocco, Indonesia and some Kurds from Iraq, although officials of some of those governments say they know nothing about such detention."
The October 1 election in Bangladesh gave a breathing space for Bangladeshi Islamists. Although the conduct of the election was controversial to some extent, most of the foreign observers found "no irregularities" paving the way for the Islamic zealots to share state power with the right of center Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's stubbornness regarding non-commitment of gas sale to India alienated the Clinton White House.
The hard fact of life is, for the sake of enhancement of western free economy, a secular Awami League became less attractive than an Islamic fundamentalist dominated Bangladesh Nationalist Party. In this volatile world, religious zealots and oil politics are intertwined to a great length. For the time being, the presence of Islamists in Bangladesh government may not pose any apparent threat to U.S. foreign policy manoeuvre. However, any covert patronization of global Islamist cause might be detrimental to U.S. interest in the long run. It is about the time American policy makers watch events in Bangladesh more closely and plan on the future course of bilateral relations based upon correct assessment on the ground. We don't want the re-play of post-Soviet Afghan drama in Bangladesh, do we? #
This article was first published on 14 February 2005
Jamal Hasan writes from Washington DC. He could be contacted