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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bangladesh's 'Pakistani' party Jamaat-e-Islami

Caption: Activist at Shahbagh Square holding a sign which says "Religion is individual, county is ours"


The signs are there all over Dhaka. If it's not blatant demands to "hang the war criminals" in posters and billboards surrounding Shahbagh Square where Bangladesh erupted on February 5, there are murals depicting demonic Islamist fundamentalists on the outside wall of Dhaka Art

Along the main thoroughfare of Panthapath in central Dhaka, across the giant Infinity Mega Mall - where last Friday ambulances zipped by carrying those injured in clashes with the police - a billboard advertising the ATM services of the Islami Bank Bangladesh Ltd carries a marker-scrawl at the bottom: 'Bank of the rajakars' referring to the collaborators with Pakistan in the 1971 liberation war.

There is no doubt that across the country, Jamaat-e-Islami leaders are scared. An overwhelming number of those under trial, accused of war crimes in 1971 are from this party and the Awami League government is only too happy to let 'the people' vent their collective ire against an important ally of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

Conflated with the Shahbagh protestors' demand for a ban on the 'Pakistani party' and their leaders be punished with death for war crimes is their wish that Bangladesh be rid of religious fundamentalism. The past and the present combine in this demand to not become 'another Pakistan'.

So how brittle is the Jamaat today? The Islamist party was banned when Bangladesh was formed in 1971 for opposing the creation of the country. It returned to parliamentary politics in 1978 with little impact. In 2001, it won 18 parliamentary seats riding piggyback on the BNP. Some experts point out that it was the BNP that was doing the piggybacking on the Jamaat. In 2008, it won only two seats.

But the Jamaat, not unlike the Shiv Sena in India, looms disproportionately over Bangladeshi politics. A banner near the Shahid Minar that commemorates those killed during the Bengali Language movement in 1951 lists the number of institutions the Jamaat is allegedly linked with. These include banks, real estate companies, educational and health institutions, transportation companies, coaching centres and even a tourist and travel company, Keari Tourism, with its own cruises and holiday packages. The banner demands the boycott of these 'Islamist-owned' institutions that "provide the Jamaat directly and indirectly" with funds.

Unpleasant truths
Over a plate brimming with rice and what seems like a nursery of hilsa cooked in mustard, I listen to Neamat Imam, playwright and author of The Black Coat, his forthcoming novel that deals with an 'unpleasant truth' of Bangladeshi history dealing with the rule of the country's 'founding father' Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Imam is certainly no apologist of the Jamaat or religion-based politics. Pointing at his Chinese wife sitting next to him, he says, "I certainly don't want her to be covered from head to toe in a hijab and looking out of a slit every time we come to Bangladesh!"

But he explains why the Jamaat is not as universally despised as it may seem from Dhaka's Shahbagh. "Conservative Bangladeshis are certainly not Islamists or Jamaat supporters. But many of them do see organisations such as the Islamist banks and educational institutions as being run by 'good Muslims'," says Imam, an expatriate Bangladeshi in his late-30s, who is visiting 'home' after he left it in 1995 under dire financial and creative conditions.

"Also, apart from being considered clean, unlike the corruption rife in other political parties including in the ruling Awami League, the Jamaat serves an important social function in many parts of Bangladesh that can't be discounted." Only a couple of days before, I had heard Asif Saleh, director with the development organisation BRAC and a strident critic of the Jamaat, compare the Islamist party with the Hamas in Palestine, with its strong roots in social service.

"Frankly, I don't think much will come of it," Imam tells me about the Shahbagh movement. "The demands made are in line with what the government in power wants. What do you think will happen if the government does not agree with some of the people's demands at some point? In China, each year the government supports popular protests against Japanese atrocities in the war. We all know what happens when there are popular protests against the Communist Party of China."

Rifat Munim, in his late-20s, heads the English newspaper Daily Star's book publishing division. His father Abul Khair, a retired college teacher in Bagerhat in Khulna, has always been a secular Muslim and a strong supporter of the 1971 freedom movement. But he conducts business with the Jamaat-affiliated Islami Bank. "I've explained to him - you're providing support to an Islamist party bent on changing the Bangladesh you love. But he's adamant, saying that he wants to put his money in a bank that works according to the tenets of Islam," says Munim shaking his head.

Charred Pages
Last Saturday, I had visited the Dhaka Book Fair. I was taken aback by the utter energy and focus that people had while buying books - novels, non-fiction books and translated works - instead of zoning in on food stalls and buying text books and colouring books for their kids.

Today, I read about a fire breaking out in the fair grounds on late Sunday night, gutting at least 25 stalls. The suspected cause was a short-circuit. The effect, in a churning, electric Dhaka, is nothing short of tragic.

First appeared in the Hindustan Times, February 26, 2013

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