The headquarters of Al-Markazul Islami, an Islamic organization in Bangladesh, is a single tower whose frosted green windows rise several stories above the coconut trees and rooftops of Muhammadpur, a neighborhood in central Dhaka. Below, in the streets of this capital city of seven million, bicycle rickshaws with handlebar tassels, tin wheel covers, and carriages painted with faces of Bengali film stars ding-ding-ding along. Car, dump-truck, and bus horns blast four- and five-note jingles, and ambulance sirens wail. But none of the commotion reaches Mufti Shahidul Islam, the founder and director of Al-Markazul Islami, through the thick windows of his fifth-story office.
Al-Markazul Islami provides free healthcare and ambulance services. Many Bangladeshi journalists, analysts, and politicians think it is just a cover, and that Shahidul’s real business is jihad. “Mufti Shahidul is a very dangerous man,” the owner of my
Before I left my home in
“Assalaamu alaikum,” peace be unto you, he said as I opened the door. Shahidul is in his 40s. His face is framed by a scraggly, henna-died beard, and his forehead boasts a puffy, nickel-sized mehrab, a bruise that pious Muslims acquire from intense and regular prayer. He wore a white dishdasha and a diamond wristwatch. We exchanged greetings and made small talk in Urdu. Shahidul wore a wide, comic-book grin the whole time.
Local newspapers describe Shahidul as a former mujahideen who fought against the Soviet Union in
Last December, Shahidul sparked a nationwide furor and reinvigorated a long-standing debate in
The Western media had been predicting similar things for years. In January The New Republic suggested that, “Left unchecked,
But the prospects for
For the most part, Islamic militancy or anti-American sentiment is not what draws support to politicians like Shahidul. While voters in
Three days after our meeting, I went to Itna, a village near Narail, where I met a teacher, Rajib Asmad, at a local girls’ school. “Mufti Shahidul Islam has helped a lot of poor people—Muslims and Hindus,” Asmad said. “He’s not only built mosques. He also drilled a lot of tube wells and distributed a lot of money. So everyone will vote for him again.” A local journalist later told me that Shahidul has funded at least 40 mosques, 13 madrasas, and 350 wells. Of course, this phenomenon, where Islamist parties gain support by providing basic services, is not specific to
“Do local people support his vision of an Islamic state?” I asked.
“Most people don’t understand what he really wants,” Asmad said. “They think, ‘Mufti gave us so much money.’ ”
Tagore composed both poems during the first partition of
From early on, the founders of
Decades of economic and cultural neglect took their toll on the Bengali masses. Between 1965 and 1970, the West Wing of Pakistan was allotted a budget of 52 billion rupees (about $865 million), while the East Wing, despite its larger population, received 21 billion. Then, in the 1970 parliamentary elections, Bengalis voted almost unanimously in support of the Awami League, which, because of the Bengalis’ numerical advantage, gained an overall majority in the national assembly. Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the head of the party, should have been named prime minister, but the leaders in the West Wing delayed the opening session. On March 25, 1971, Bengali leaders declared their independence and the Bangladesh Liberation War began. The Pakistani Army sent soldiers into the streets to crush the Bengali nationalists, an effort code-named Operation Searchlight.
Shahriar Kabir was one of hundreds of thousands of mukhti bahini, Bengali nationalists who took up arms. “It was total guerrilla warfare,” he told me. Today, Kabir is a squat man in his late fifties with a comb-over and a hand-broom mustache. On the night I visited him in his Dhaka home, Nag Champa, a type of incense from
During the Liberation War the mukhti bahini faced volunteer brigades of Bangladeshi Islamists who were collaborating with the more than 100,000 Pakistani army troops stationed in the East Wing. The brigades, known as razakars, came from Jamaat-e-Islami, a fundamentalist political party formed in 1941. “They were a killing squad, like the Gestapo in Nazi Germany,” Kabir said. The razakars lurked in places where uniformed soldiers could never go. They targeted intellectuals, whom they considered, according to Kabir, “the root of all evil for promoting the ideas of Bengali nationalism and identity.” In December 1971, in the final days of the war, they murdered hundreds of prominent doctors, engineers, journalists, and lawyers.
On December 16, 1971, the Pakistani army surrendered at Dhaka’s Ramna Racecourse, and
Most of Jamaat-e-Islami’s top leaders, says Kabir, are former razakars and “enemies of
A few days later, I made an appointment with Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, the assistant secretary general of Jamaat-e-Islami, whom the Nirmul Committee has accused of war crimes. According to the committee, Kamaruzzaman was “the principal organizer” of one of the most ruthless razakar brigades. Their pamphlet alleges that in 1971 Kamaruzzaman dragged a professor naked through the streets of Sherpur, a city in central
Kamaruzzaman wears nice suits and gold-framed glasses, and his mustache and goatee are so finely kempt they look stencilled. Critics sneer at him for being “all suited and booted,” which they say reflects Jamaat-e-Islami’s aims to dupe the masses. We snacked on two plates of potato chips, which he ate with his pinky askance.
Despite Jamaat-e-Islami’s advances in recent elections, Kamaruzzaman admits that there are numerous barriers to its growth. Its role in the 1971 war, he told me, “can be an obstacle. But we are addressing it. We have accepted reality and are now working for
But what about the “Hindu factor”? If Jamaat-e-Islami ever hopes to enact its Islamic revolution, then it will have to undo centuries of cross-pollination between Hindu and Muslim cultures in
“We don’t want to impose anything. Of course, there should be a law that, in public places, someone should not be ill-dressed or undressed. But sense should prevail.” He paused a moment before reaching in my direction, palm upturned as if to present his next idea on a silver platter: “You know, self-censorship.”
Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh may not be the biggest of the Islamist groups, but its activities provide a terrifying example of how even the tiniest outfits can shake—or destabilize—a society. On the morning of August 17, 2005, JMB simultaneously detonated 459 bombs in 63 of
The irony of the leaflets was that just a year earlier the government and its man-made law had built up Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh in order to fend off a menace from the left. Bands of Communist rebels known as Sarbaharas had been growing stronger near the northwest city of
Meanwhile, just across the border in
The government initially treated JMB with respect. At least eight members of the national assembly bankrolled the group, according to a report in the January 30, 2007, edition of the Bengali daily Prothom Alo. In a phone interview, a member of JMB recalled police officers publicly saluting the JMB operations chief, Siddiqul Islam, or “Bangla Bhai”—Bengali Brother. At the time, Bangla Bhai was torturing and terrorizing anyone who he thought was even remotely sympathetic to the Sarbahara’s.
Gradually, as the Sarbahara’s were defeated, the government withdrew its support for Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh and had several of its members arrested. Bangla Bhai felt betrayed and used. JMB resolved to send the government a message. “We wanted to frighten everyone about our strength,” the JMB member told me. The organization trained in camps alongside remote riverbanks and in jungle clearings. Maulana Abdur Rahman, the group’s spiritual guide, would stand in front of the blackboard, sketching out tactics and strategy. Both Rahman and Bangla Bhai carried gym bags filled with grenades wherever they went and clutched field-hockey sticks to use in the event of an ambush. In a Daily Star interview, Rahman warned, “We don’t believe in the present political trend,” which is to say in democracy and elections.
The bombings in 2005 stunned the nation. Parents rushed to pull their kids out of school and offices closed early. But for Swapan Bhuiyan, it was a call to action. For years, people like him and Shahriar Kabir had been warning people about the threat militant Islamic groups posed to
Bhuiyan, a gentle-seeming middle-aged man with dark skin and a grey beard, represents a growing class of militant secularists. Many of them are former socialists or communists who have refashioned their ideology to oppose everything that the Islamists stand for. Bhuiyan told me, “I know you shouldn’t kill other humans, but these Islamic fundamentalists are like wild dogs. The Islamists have been destroying our values since 1971. They killed our golden sons in the last days before liberation.” I had met Bhuiyan about a year earlier in
Bhuiyan has fought for a secular
When the lights in the Revolutionary Unity Front’s office eventually powered on, I could make out the faces of the other six people in the room. Most of them were in their 30s, born after the 1971 war. “We are all anti-fundamentalists,” Bhuiyan said, gesturing around the room. The others nodded. Although their brothers, sisters, and cousins weren’t killed by razakars, their generation is no less militantly secular. “The secular culture of the common people is strong enough to defeat Islamic fundamentalism here,” Manabendra Dev, the 25-year-old president of the Bangladesh Students Union at
I asked Bhuiyan how he viewed the contest of ideologies in modern
The boom of NGOs is indicative of Bangladeshis’ inclination to act in the name of some greater calling. Perhaps more than in any other country, protests and strikes are seen as legitimate avenues of political discourse here.
“The history of our country is one of sacrifice and struggle,” Manabendra Dev said to me one afternoon in the “second parliament.” People’s movements have defeated foreign armies, overthrown a military government, and forced concessions from a multinational energy giant. (In August 2006, Asia Energy Corporation abandoned a lucrative open-pit coal-mining project in Fulbari, a city in the northwest, after months of demonstrations against their shady dealings and environmentally damaging work.) With this kind of track record, people are optimistic that society will be able to repel the forces of fundamentalism.
As part of their efforts, Shahriar Kabir’s Nirmul Committee has built 80 private libraries around the country, targeting places where the Islamist parties are strongest. Each library doubles as a museum for the Liberation War; while Jamaat-e-Islami is trying to put 1971 behind them, Kabir’s libraries are keeping the narrative alive. In
Later that night, Kamran Hasan Badal, the president of Nirmul’s
The longer we spoke, the more I sensed Badal’s animosity toward anyone who wore a headscarf or beard. I asked how he differentiated between symbols of religious revivalism and so-called “Talibanization.” There seemed little room for compromise in his mind. “We are against anyone who capitalizes on religion for political gains,” he said.
After our conversation I left the quiet alley where the bookstore was located and stepped into the frenetic streets of
On the night of January 11, 2007, after three months of violent protests, President Iajuddin Ahmed declared a state of emergency. The move dashed the hopes of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami, whose alliance was heading for a landslide victory in the January 22 elections; in early January, the Awami League–led opposition bloc had announced its intention to boycott the polls. The decision to boycott convinced the international community that January elections could be neither free nor fair. By the time I arrived in
In the following weeks, army and police units launched an aggressive anticorruption drive. Scheduling an interview in
Mustafizur Rahman, the research director at the Center for Policy Dialogue, a think tank in Dhaka, said, “Jamaat-e-Islami has handled things very tactfully. They just aren’t into the business of extortion like the other two parties,” he added, referring to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League. A top army general, who asked not to be identified, said, “Every devil has its pluses and minuses. And at least Jamaat is relatively honest.” Their party workers, the general added, are the only people in the country who show up for anything on time, “pencils sharpened and ready to take notes.”
Even Harry K. Thomas, the former American ambassador to
Jamaat-e-Islami’s commitment to elections puts voters in an awkward situation. What constitutes democracy? Is it elections? Or liberalism? Should voters back a liberal, one-woman party like the Bangladesh Nationalist Party or the Awami League? Or the democratic but illiberal Jamaat-e-Islami? Who is a liberal, democratic Bangladeshi to support?
In light of the mainstream parties’ autocratic ways and backroom deals with Islamist parties, Abul Barkat is relying on civil-society groups to build and sustain a convincing model of secularism. Though the Islamists are strong, he is confident that they aren’t going to win. “Jamaat-e-Islami can only succeed if we, as civil society, fail,” he said. He rehashed his days as a freedom fighter and nodded slowly, as if impressed by his own strength of character. “The burden is on us.”
After our first meeting at Al-Markazul Islami, Mufti Shahidul Islam and I stayed in frequent contact. I think he liked having an American friend; perhaps he thought our relationship would shield him from allegations of being pro-Taliban. But on the first Friday in February he didn’t show up for a planned meeting at the headquarters of Al-Markazul Islami. When I inquired into his whereabouts, a colleague of his told me that he was in bed. “High blood pressure,” he added. Four days later, Shahidul was arrested for having links to militant Islamist organizations.
The following morning, I visited Kamal Hossain, the former law minister, who wrote the 1972 constitution. Hossain has a deep voice and modest bulges of fat around his cheeks and knuckles. He heads a political party known as the People’s Forum. I met him at his house, where we sat in a room with towering ceilings, Turkmen carpets, and glass coffee tables.
“I see that the army arrested a political ally of yours yesterday.”
“Mine? No, no, no,” Hossain said. His party belonged to the Awami League’s electoral alliance that Khelafat Majlish had joined. He glared at me. “I feel insulted and offended and outraged that I should be called an ally of this man. The signing of the deal with Khelafat Majlish was about rank opportunism and totally unprincipled politics,” he said. Spittle collected on his lips. “Some of us are still guided by principle.”
Hossain describes himself as faithful Muslim, but he is also a militant secularist. He admires the way that the U.S. Constitution framed secularism. The rise of groups like Khelafat Majlish and Jamaat-e-Islami, he believes, is totally anathema to that style of secularism. “I go into the Jamaat areas and tell them, ‘You have completed misinterpreted Islam. The Prophet didn’t summon you as guides. We had Islam in
As the author of the 1972 constitution, Hossain played as pivotal a role as anyone in deciding the nature of secularism in
Hossain struggles to determine a proper course of action. Immediately after the Awami League signed the memorandum of understanding with Khelafat Majlish, many secular-minded people experienced near paralysis. Hossain cautions that, especially now, society should be vigilant not to be “psychologically blackmailed” into inaction.
But inaction is only one possibility. Overreaction is another.
One evening, near his hometown of Dinajpur, Swapan Bhuiyan and I were sitting on a flat-bed trolley being pulled by a bicycle when we passed a one-room madrasa standing in the middle of a rice patty. Banana and coconut trees leaned over the ramshackle structure. “They are training terrorists there,” Bhuiyan said.
The madrasa sign was written in Bengali and Urdu, and I could see that the seminary was for young women memorizing the Quran. “Swapan, it’s a girl’s madrasa,” I chuckled. “Not all madrasas and mosques are training terrorists.”
He jerked his head side to side. Then he shared a short Bengali parable with me. In it, a cow gets burned by fire. The rest of its life, the cow is too afraid to even look at the sunset.
Bhuiyan paused. “We are thinking like that,” he said. “When we hear about a new madrasa we get frightened.” #
This article was first published in Boston Review, May/June 2007
Nicholas Schmidle is a writer and fellow at the