In an important development for Islam in South Asia and around the world, the government of Bangladesh, a country with a population of almost 160 million, of whom 90% are Muslim, has banned the books of Abu'l Ala Maududi (1903-79).
Maududi was the most notorious advocate of radical Muslim ideology in modern South Asian history. He was born under British rule; and founded Jama'at e-Islami (JI – Community for Islam), which remains the most influential radical party in Pakistan and Bangladesh today. JI is the main support for the spread of radical doctrines from Afghanistan to Bangladesh – in which it is allied with the Deobandis, who inspire the Taliban, as well as Saudi-financed Wahhabis. Further, the acolytes of Maududi are now active in the large community of Bangladeshi Muslims in Britain, and JI has assumed a major role in American Muslim affairs, through their front group, the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA).
Although flattered by his followers with the honorific "maulana," or teacher – as well as the military title of "emir," or commander – Maududi was originally a journalist and had little training as a theologian. His first published book, Jihad in Islam, was issued in 1927. It contained a phrase that has become famous, or infamous, as a summary of Muslim extremism: "Islam is a revolutionary doctrine and system that overturns governments. It seeks to overturn the whole universal social order… and establish its structure anew… Islam seeks the world. It is not satisfied by a piece of land but demands the whole universe… Jihad is at the same time offensive and defensive… The Islamic party does not hesitate to utilize the means of war to implement its goal."
The works of Maududi are destructive of peaceful and traditional interpretations of Islam, and it is therefore "not correct to keep books of Mr. Maududi in mosques," Shamim Mohammad Afjal, director-general of the Islamic Foundation in Bangladesh told the British Broadcasting Corporation. Nearly 24,000 mosque libraries have begun removal of his books.
The Bangladesh government's order that the works of Maududi be removed from all mosques and libraries reflects the extent of the crisis sweeping South Asia and, to emphasize, the recent reappearance of extremism in Bangladesh itself. JI was prominent in committing frightful atrocities against local Muslims during the Bangladesh independence war of 1971, when the people of what had been East Pakistan separated politically from their then-rulers, who were separated physically from them by the breadth of India. Then as now, JI terrorists were inspired by Maududi; then, they were armed and financed by the Pakistan military government of Yahya Khan. Massacres by JI members against innocent Bangladeshis caused thousands to flee into India. Today, the government of Pakistan treats JI with deference.
Although JI remains the largest Islamist party in Bangladesh, five of its senior leaders have been arrested and charged with crimes in the 1971 campaign; and at the end of June 2010, the government detained 65 JI leaders and activists on grounds that their radicalism is seditious and harmful to Islam. Motiur Rahman Nizami, the head of JI in Bangladesh, was ordered held in custody by a prosecutor in Dhaka, the national capital. Nizami is one of several JI leaders that the current government of the Awami League, under female Prime Minister Sheikha Hasina Wajed, has said it will show committed "crimes against humanity" in 1971.
Bangladeshis have called on the government of Pakistan to acknowledge and make amends for the terrorism suffered during the 1971 war, but the Pakistani authorities have rejected any responsibility or accounting for it: The Pakistan that continues to arm radicals to fight against India in Kashmir, and that cooperates with Taliban elements in Afghanistan, will not face up to its historic guilt in Bangladesh almost 40 years ago. At a meeting held in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in 2008, I added the support of the Centre for Islamic Pluralism to the demand for a Pakistani apology to the people of Bangladesh.
I pointed out then, and continue to argue today, that the trail of terrorism reaches into Pakistan and across South Asia to Bangladesh, thanks to support from rich Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia. When Saudi Arabia established the Muslim World League in 1962 to spread fundamentalist doctrines among Muslims, Maududi was among its founders.
JI representative in Bangladesh, Abu Torab Muhammad Azharul Islam, denounced the official prohibition of Maududi's works as a measure against Islam and claimed that Maududi's books are "published in many countries and there have been no complaints against his writings." While it is true that radical money has placed editions of Maududi almost everywhere Muslims are found, it is hardly accurate to say there have been no complaints about the tone and content of his writings. Traditional Sunni scholars in many countries have denounced Maududi as a factor in recruitment of terrorists and a threat to the security of all Muslims. The Tariqat Council, which groups the spiritual Sufis who are a powerful element in Bangladesh, have accused JI of endangering Islam.
Bangladesh faces a very real danger from radical infiltration and incitement, as one of the several fronts on which Pakistani jihadis are active. Banning Maududi's books is an elementary act of public self-defense. But much more extensive and consequential action is needed to mobilize moderate Muslims in South Asia to turn back the radical offensive.