It seems in modern times that the post-colonial history of Muslim societies has been over-determined by violence in the name of religion.

Bangladeshis, despite significant internal opposition from militant Muslims supported from the outside, have shown a preference for their secular culture, based on language and not religion.

Islamic solidarity, then as now, meant support for the architects of genocide, not for the victims.

Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, is in the news. Forty-two years after the country won its freedom, the nation witnessed the first of several convicted war criminals executed. The death by hanging of Abdul Quader Molla, a senior member of the Jamaat-i-Islami [JI], on December 12, 2013 was a cathartic moment for the long-suffering people of Bangladesh, and an event almost unique in the annals of Muslim history.

Since 9/11, there seems genuine concern in the West and among non-Muslims about the nature of Islam and of Muslim history. Violence is neither unique to Islam nor among Muslims, but it seems in modern times that the post-colonial history of Muslim societies has been over-determined – again not uniquely – by violence in the name of religion.

There also seems genuine concern in the West about the role of religion in politics. World history, as Hegel noted, is a world court; and the evidence in this court discloses that the fusion of religion and politics has held for the longest time. As politics is about power, religion has undeniably been used as the most potent instrument of power.

Abdul Quader Molla, arrested in August 2010, was one among several members of the JI, including its chief, Professor Ghulam Azam, indicted for crimes against humanity, and for aiding and complicity in committing such crimes, during 1971. This period in Bangladesh is referred to as the year of the "liberation war" against the armed forces of Pakistan, among whom members of the JI were notorious. The indictments were made under the provisions of the 1973 International Crimes Tribunal Act [ICTA], voted and passed by the first elected parliament of an independent Bangladesh. Those indicted were tried in special courts, known as the International Crimes Tribunals (ICT), set up under the Act.

Ghulam Azam, who was convicted in 2013 for conspiring, planning, incitement to and complicity in committing genocide during the 1971 war in Bangladesh, is pictured in this 2009 photo. (Image source: Wikipedia)

In bringing to trial these Muslim collaborators and in making them confront their past – among the charges against Molla was the cruelty with which he beat a two-year old child to death after killing his father, mother and two sisters inside their home – a democratically elected government in a Muslim majority country for the first time in fourteen centuries of Arab-Muslim history arranged for, and brought to trial, Muslims charged with crimes against humanity.

The decision by the opposition party, the BNP, to undermine the legitimacy of the trials emboldened the JI and its supporters to turn violent. Their effort to intimidate the government and the majority of the people who supported the trials has exposed even further the authoritarian nature of their politics and their agenda of "Islamization" that most Bangladeshis reject. The trials have brought Bangladeshis not only to relive their torments of 1971, but also to take a stand for their secular culture against the intimidation and intense pressure of Muslim fundamentalists.

The Bangladesh story of genocide and struggle for justice has a wider significance. The manner in which the ruling elite in Pakistan unleashed the military to commit genocide against its own people, although physically removed in a territorially divided country, is revealing of the "not so secret anymore" history of Muslims and how Islam has been wilfully abused by those in power. It is the story of Muslim-on-Muslim violence from the outset of Islam; of the wars waged by Arab-Muslim caliphs beginning with the first, Abu Bakr, against dissident Muslims; of the cruelty that peaked, within fifty years of the Prophet Muhammad's demise, with the brutal murder of his grandson, Husayn, and his companions, by Muslim Arabs in Kerbala, Iraq; and of the silence thereafter among Muslims in general regarding crimes against humanity committed in their name wherever the flag of Islam was raised – as in Pakistan.

Unlike Bangladesh's story of genocide, war and liberation, tyrants in Muslim history have either been removed by equally tyrannical rivals, occasionally with outside help, or through fratricides – while the abuse of ordinary Muslims continues unabated.

In Iraq, for instance, the trial of Saddam Hussein was only made possible because of regime change brought about by the Americans. The Iraqi tyrant was pulled out of a hole by American soldiers, and his trial and execution took place behind the security wall provided by American forces.

But in Bangladesh, Bengali Muslims fought back against their Muslim oppressors. They eventually succeeded with the help of India in defeating the Pakistani military and its fanatical Muslim collaborators of the East Pakistani wing of the Pakistani JI.

There is a profound lesson in this aspect of Bangladesh history for Muslims everywhere. If Muslims truly want freedom and wish to write a new history of reform of Islam, they have to fight for it. They have not merely to defeat the fanatics of Islam, but, as a free people, bring them to justice; and as evidence of their freedom, demonstrate they can arrange fair trials for their oppressors in an open court, with rules of evidence, while maintaining the principle that those indicted are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

In modern times, even though the West has striven to distance politics from religion, the wall between the two remains porous. Nevertheless, the West holds itself as a mirror to the rest of the world, and especially to Muslims, of what modernity means in terms of separating politics and religion, and why such separation might be essential for cultures wanting to make the transition into the modern world of science and liberal democracy.

Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country, and it has a great distance to go in building a modern society. Its tormented birth made its journey, confronting poverty and paucity of resources, even more difficult. But in its relatively short history as an independent state, Bangladeshis, despite significant internal opposition from militant Muslims supported from outside, have shown a rare preference for their secular culture, based on language and not religion. Bangladeshi (or Bengali) nationalism in its origin was secular, and the struggle for liberation was a defense of this secular nationalism for which the people paid a horrendous price.

The war crimes trials rekindled the memory of this secular nationalism, especially for the generation born after 1971; the war crimes trials reminded them that when religion is abused, as Muslim fanatics have abused it so egregiously, genocide comes perilously close. This is the lesson that Bangladeshis have taken to heart, and for this reason they might well be better positioned to make the journey into modernity than any other Muslim society, irrespective of how well some of them are endowed with wealth from natural resources. And this is the lesson of history that Bangladeshi Muslims, ironically as victims of genocide and of Muslim-on-Muslim violence, are well positioned to instruct others in the Arab-Muslim world.

There is a complex history here with a chain of actors and events; they turned the horrors unleashed by the military regime of a united Pakistan under General Yahya Khan against a defenseless civilian population in then-East Pakistan into an international crisis that included genocide, war and the break up of the largest Muslim country at that time.[1]

In 1971, when Molla was a twenty-three year old activist in the student wing of the JI, he participated in the formation of a pro-Pakistani militia known as "al-Badr," a reference to Islamic history's first battle in which the Prophet Muhammad fought against his Meccan enemies. This newer al-Badr militia would be as notoriously violent and bloody-minded as were the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Molla came to be known as "Mirpurer Koshai," or the "Butcher of Mirpur," a township in the vicinity of Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital. Molla was charged with the responsibility for a list of murders that included: Meherunnesa, a poetess, her mother and two brothers; Hazrat Ali Laskar, his wife, two daughters and a two-year old son, while his third daughter brutally raped and left for dead survived and was called upon as a witness during the trial; Pallab, a student in Bangla College, Mirpur; Khandokar Abu Taleb, a journalist; and the mass killings of 344 people in Alubdi village in Mirpur.

Three justices of the Bangladesh High Court oversaw Molla's trial held by the ICT-2. The hearings took place in open court and under the provisions required by the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Bangladesh is a signatory of the Covenant, has ratified it, and the ICTA of 1973 with the Rules for the ICT were prescribed in accordance with the requirements of Article 14 of the ICCPR, ensuring that universally recognized safeguards be provided to the accused. The ICT also reminded the accused that while his rights to a fair trial were fully protected, the court was mindful, as is the ICCPR, of the rights of the victims to receive justice.

Molla's trial took place in an open court, his rights were fully accorded and he was represented by six lawyers. His defense was given ample time and opportunity to cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses, to challenge and test the evidence, and to call upon a list of defense witnesses to refute the charges. In the verdict of the ICT-2, Molla was found guilty as accused and sentenced to life imprisonment. This judgment was appealed by the prosecution, and the Supreme Court, in overruling the ICT verdict, sentenced the accused to death. Molla's lawyers sought a review of the Supreme Court decision, but once the process was exhausted, he was sent to the gallows. Molla remained until the end defiant, displayed no remorse, mocked the court, denied any wrongdoing, and refused to ask for clemency by appealing to the president for leniency or forgiveness after the final verdict against him was handed down.

Bangladesh, despite economic gains in recent years by the private sector through the export of garments, remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Politically, the country remains unstable due to the extra-parliamentary activities of opposition parties, punctuated regularly with nationwide strikes and organized violence against the ruling Awami League [AL] government, led by the Prime Minister Sheikha Hasina Wajed, which is viewed by the opposition as corrupt, highly partisan and vindictive.[2]

It was predictable that the execution of Molla would spark violence in Bangladesh, and deepen the existing political divide between supporters of the AL and those of the BNP. Apart from the personal animus between the two leaders, the political stance of the two parties towards the history and legacy of 1971 has, ironically, turned into a major point of contention and partisan hostility.

Most Bangladeshis, irrespective of their differences, recall the traumatic events of 1971 with horror and grief. The memory of the genocide perpetrated by the Pakistani army and its local collaborators continues to haunt the memory of the nation. In a comparative study of twentieth century crimes against humanity, Death By Government (1994), R.J. Rummel, one of the leading authorities on the subject, wrote:

"In 1971, the self-appointed president of Pakistan and commander-in-chief of the army General Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan and his top generals prepared a careful and systematic military, economic, and political operation against East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). They planned to murder that country's Bengali intellectual, cultural, and political elite. They planned to indiscriminately murder hundreds of thousands of its Hindus and drive the rest into India. And they planned to destroy its economic base to insure that it would be subordinate to West Pakistan for at least a generation to come. This despicable and cutthroat plan was outright genocide."

In a world grown weary with mass killings and brutalities since the end of the Second World War, the dark, blood-soaked history of Bangladesh stands as one of the most gruesome between the Holocaust and the madness of Khmer Rouge killers in Cambodia during the years 1975-79. The official estimate of people killed in the genocide is around three million, of nearly a quarter million women raped, and some ten million people driven into India as refugees.[3]

For more than two decades after 1971, politics in Bangladesh was greatly unsettled by the after effects of the genocide and war. A poor, liberated country was driven to famine and endemic violence resulting from the legacy of destruction wrought on the economy, infrastructure, institutions, and the social fabric of the country. The situation was made even more grievous by the self-inflicted wound of political leaders unprepared and unsure on how to handle the escalating challenges of poverty, annual floods and public despair. As the country was reduced to surviving on international aid, corruption mushroomed. Henry Kissinger had contemptuously dubbed Bangladesh, upon its liberation, as a "basket case;" and the ineptness of its leaders, including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, deepened the trauma of the people.

Eventually however, despite the immensity of the problems, the country began to turn around. The military regimes that followed the killings of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and General Ziaur Rahman gave way to democratic rule.[4]

It was to the chagrin of the Bangladesh government that 195 Pakistani war criminals whom it had named and asked the Indian government to hand over for trial, were instead repatriated to Pakistan with the rest of nearly 100,000 prisoners of war whom India held after the surrender of the Pakistan army in December 1971. The repatriation took place under guarantees negotiated among the foreign ministers of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan in what is known as the Delhi Agreement of 1974, which stipulated that the government of Pakistan would prosecute them. Pakistan not only reneged on the Delhi Agreement, it refused to acknowledge the role of its military-political elite and its armed forces in planning and committing genocide in Bangladesh. As of this date, Pakistan has not made any gesture of official remorse, nor has it offered any apology to the people of Bangladesh.

The lapse of time between the end of the liberation war and the setting up of the ICT after the December 2008 election – during which the AL under Sheikha Hasina won a two-thirds majority in the parliament – was due to the turbulent and unsettled history of the country. In the 2008 election, the AL committed itself to bring to justice those responsible for what had occurred in 1971. This commitment should have received an all-party support in the parliament, representing the united will of the country, and providing closure to the wounds still open and raw in the living memory of the nation.

But the years since 1971 had muddied the political scene, as the BNP under Ziaur Rahman sought to bring about national unity after the murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, as well as several attempts at coups and counter-coups hatched within the Bangladeshi army.

Zia's efforts at unity led to the policy of allowing pro-Pakistani elements from the pre-1971 period in the country to enter politics. It also meant, in accommodating the religious sentiment of the majority Muslim population, to permit the JI and other similar Muslim fundamentalist parties once again to organize openly and press their agenda for the "Islamization" of the country.

Bangladesh's economic vulnerability had led it to seek closer ties with the Arab middle east. Increasing numbers of Bangladeshis went to the Persian Gulf region as foreign workers; their income sent home became a major source of foreign exchange earnings for the country. This emigration, however, led to a new sort of dependency in which the mostly secular politics of the period that had peaked in 1971 during the liberation war gradually eroded under the mounting influence of Islamist politics that the BNP had encouraged, and to which the AL and its secular allies were required for electoral purposes to adjust. The JI, with its conservative or orthodox connections in the Arab and Muslim world, emerged aggressively as the big winner in national politics – and with the confidence that its past collaboration with the Pakistani army and Pakistan's ruling elite would no longer be held against it.

When Shiekha Hasina, in keeping with her election promise, moved to set up the ICT and prepare to bring to trial those alleged to have participated in the genocide, she and her party were accused by the BNP and its allies of being vindictive. Instead of standing together with the AL in making the effort to bring to justice the alleged war criminals a matter of national priority and unity, the BNP attacked the AL decision as a witch-hunt against its political foes.

The unanimous judgment delivered in the trial of Molla was prepared by the three presiding judges and is documented in over 130 pages, available online (see [pdf] ICT-BD Case No. 02 of 2012). It deserves to be read widely, and at once it puts the lie to the smear circulated in the West that the verdict against Molla was judicial murder.[5]

Begum Khaleda's decision, as the BNP chief, to oppose the AL gave the opening to Islamist parties outside the country to speak out against the trials. The president of Turkey wrote to the president of Bangladesh expressing concerns about the trials and the verdicts that might be handed out; and there were indications that, privately, some of the Arab governments expressed strong reservations. These were, ironically, a reminder to the people of Bangladesh that, during the 1971 period, Muslim countries had maintained strong support for Pakistan, despite knowing of the carnage taking place there at that time.

Islamic solidarity, then as now, meant support for the architects of genocide, not for the victims.


[1] Gary Bass has narrated this sorry saga in his well-documented book on the subject, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide (2013), about Bangladesh and its terrible blood-sodden birth in 1971. Bass writes, "In the dark annals of modern cruelty, it ranks as bloodier than Bosnia and by some accounts in the same rough league as Rwanda." The rest of the world largely forgot this history, and without some knowledge of this history the context of the trials and judgments delivered will likely be poorly understood by people outside of Bangladesh.

[2] The main opposition party is the Bangladesh National Party [BNP] led by Begum Khaleda Zia, widow of General Ziaur Rahman, the founder of the party. There is apparently deep personal animosity between the two women. Sheikha Hasina is one of the two surviving daughters of the immediate family of the assassinated AL leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, remembered as the "Father of the Nation." Begum Khaleda's husband was a commander in the liberation war of 1971, and, after the killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, emerged as military leader and president; General Ziaur Rahman was killed by a disgruntled group of officers and soldiers in 1981.

[3] ICT-BD Case No. 02 of 2012. Judgment of the ICT-2 re Abdul Quader Molla, pp. 4-5. Date of delivery of Judgment, 5 February 2013.

[4] Under a constitution that had been enacted in November 1972, a multiparty political system took hold. It was under the authority of this constitution that the ICTA of 1973 was voted and passed to bring to trial members of the Pakistan's armed forces responsible for the genocide, and those civilians, organizations and political parties that collaborated with the Pakistani military in crimes against humanity.

[5] An instance of judicial murder in Pakistan's history is the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in April 1979, a former president and prime minister, who was forcefully removed from office and tried in camera by the military regime of the dictator General Ziaul Haque. Another example of judicial murder was the secret trial and execution of Colonel Taher inside the Dhaka Central Jail in July 1976 on the authority of the army chief General Ziaur Rahman. In May 2013 the Bangladesh High Court in reviewing this secretly held trial exonerated the victim declaring Taher was innocent of charges without any legal sanction brought against him, and that a genuine war hero of the 1971 liberation war was murdered by an illegally constituted tribunal of a military regime.

Related Topics:  Bangladesh  |  Salim Mansur receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free gatestone institute mailing list

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