As Bangladesh, a nation that is majority Muslim, prepares for January elections, its secular government has come under increasing pressure from Islamists.
The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), and their allies are holding rallies regarding a single demand: the resignation of the secular government. They insist that the prime minister step aside for an "impartial caretaker administration" to oversee January's polls.
Bangladesh has witnessed in recent years the alarming rise of Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist political movement whose ideology mirrors that of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
Both Jamaat and the Muslim Brotherhood advocate for implementing strict Islamic law in their respective countries, Bangladesh and Egypt. They share a common goal of transforming their nations into Islamic states governed by Sharia law, which traditionally includes the severe persecution of religious minorities and women.
The roots of Jamaat-e-Islami can be traced back to Muslim theologian Abul Ala al-Maududi and his vision of an Islamic state governed by strict Sharia law. For Maududi, the universal character of jihad is unambiguous:
"It must be evident to you from this discussion that the objective of the Islamic 'Jihād' is to eliminate the rule of an un-Islamic system and establish in its stead an Islamic system of state rule. Islam does not intend to confine this revolution to a single state or a few countries; the aim of Islam is to bring about a universal revolution. Although in the initial stages it is incumbent upon members of the party of Islam to carry out a revolution in the State system of the countries to which they belong, but their ultimate objective is no other than to affect a world revolution."
According to the South Asia Democratic Forum,
"Many leaders of Jihadist organizations replicated this text, with variations, throughout history. Most notably, the Muslim Brotherhood network and its splinter factions – such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS – and, within Shia Islam, the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Iran faithfully transposed Maududi principles on Jihad. While the profound influence of his doctrines on Hassan Al-Banna, Syed Qutub and other fanatic Sunni leaders and organisations is well known, their effect on Shia Islam and the events that led to the Islamic Revolution and the constitution of an Islamic State in Iran are less well-known."
Islamist politics and violence in Bangladesh also have a long history that predates its 1971 independence from Pakistan. Jamaat-e-Islami is Bangladesh's largest Islamist movement. They have steadily grown in Bangladesh, while wielding significant political influence, so that now, the threat of jihad and Islamism is once again targeting the secular government of Bangladesh.
In June 2023, Jamaat held a rally in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka. News footage show hundreds of thousands of supporters participating. This was the first rally held by the movement in over a decade.
Their core agenda, a strict Islamic rule, has garnered a considerable following. A report in the Daily Star cited a police intelligence source which claimed that the Jamaat's permanent membership has increased threefold in the past 15 years: from 23,863 to 73,046 out of Bangladesh's total population of roughly 174 million.
Although their presence might seem small, the movement, because it is so aggressive, has a massive potential for the radicalization of large sections of Bangladeshi society, potentially further destabilizing the country.
Only Muslims can become members of the party, which stipulates that that a woman cannot be head of the state. Bangladesh's current prime minister, Hasina Wazed, happens to be a woman, and a member of the ruling secular center-left Awami League party.
The rise of Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist groups in Bangladesh has led to the suppression of dissenting voices and freedom of speech. Jamaat uses Islamist education to promote their political aspirations as well as their religious and social goals.
Secular bloggers, activists, publishers, university lecturers, members of minority communities and foreign nationals in Bangladesh are systematically targeted by Islamist extremists. Ananta Bijoy Das, a blogger on the secularist platform Mukto-Mona, was murdered in 2015. Mukto-Mona was once moderated by US citizen Avijit Roy, who was himself hacked to death in February 2015. The same year, publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan was stabbed to death. Islamists published a list of 84 secular writers whom they have accused of blasphemy and demanded that they be punished, which has often meant murdered (here, here and here).
The Islamization of present-day Bangladesh (the historic Bengal) took place after the 14th century Muslim invasion and takeover. Before then, Bengal was majority-Buddhist and Hindu. The Buddhists and Hindus were swamped by the flood of Muslim conquerors and the massive forced conversions to Islam prior to the 18th century.
In 1947, the Indian subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan. Present-day Bangladesh became East Pakistan, and within a couple of years, because of linguistic and cultural differences as well as the economic disparity between West and East Pakistan, a movement for autonomy for East Pakistan began. Pakistan was predominantly an Islamic, Urdu-speaking region; meanwhile East Pakistan was a Hindu and Islamic, Bangla-speaking region. In the 1970 elections, even though the Awami League emerged as the largest party in Pakistan's Parliament, the country's ruling military junta prevented it from forming a government. Pakistan's military then responded to Bengali efforts for autonomy or independence by initiating a genocide, at the center of which was Jamaat-e-Islami and its collaboration with the Pakistani Army.
On March 25, 1971, the Pakistan military began a 10-month campaign of genocide against the ethnic Bengali and Hindu communities in East Pakistan, Approximately three million people were killed and at least 200,000 women were raped by Pakistani forces. By November 1971, ten million Bengalis (the majority of whom were Hindu) had fled to India. India then intervened militarily in what came to be called the Bangladesh Liberation War, and after a 13-day India-Pakistan war, Pakistan surrendered, and the genocide came to a halt.
Jamaat-e-Islami's involvement in the genocide can be traced back to their unwavering loyalty to the Islamic government of Pakistan. The party, rooted in Islamist ideology and a vision of a united Muslim state, found common cause with Pakistan's military junta in suppressing the Bengali nationalist movement, which sought autonomy and independence.
Jamaat's leaders and members actively collaborated with the Pakistani Army in identifying and targeting Bengali nationalists, intellectuals, and anyone perceived as a threat to their vision of a "united Pakistan," by perpetrating mass murder, torture and other barbaric acts.
In 2009, the Bangladeshi government set up a domestic court called the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) to put on trial people who participated in the atrocities committed during the 1971 genocide. Several Jamaat-e-Islami leaders were found by the ICT to have actively supported the Pakistan military in carrying out genocidal crimes against Bengalis. The ICT convicted Jamaat leaders and gave them life sentences or death penalties.
Many Jamaat activists went into hiding locally while others moved to Europe, Malaysia, the United States, Canada and Australia.
The clash between secular and Islamist forces of Bangladesh has largely shaped the country's political history. Bangladesh's first constitution, adopted in 1972, the year after the war for independence, created the legal foundation for secular governance. Secularism was declared one of the fundamental principles of the state, and the use of religion for political ends was prohibited.
Jamaat-e-Islami, therefore, lost its platform to operate as a political party in Bangladesh. By 2013, the group was again banned from taking part in any further political party when Bangladesh's High Court declared that the registration of Jamaat-e-Islami was illegal, thus banning it from contesting the general election.
Professor Ali Riaz, Chair of the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, notes:
"Although Bangladesh was founded in 1971 on the basis of secularist principles, in the past four decades Islam has emerged as a political ideology and the Islamists as formidable political force. A series of constitutional amendments have allowed Islamist parties to be a part of the political landscape and made Islam the state religion.... Despite reinstating secularism as a state principle, the fifteenth amendment of the Constitution has reaffirmed the influence of Islamism.
"The BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party), a right-of-center party, and the JI (Jamaat-i-Islami), the largest Islamist party in Bangladesh, ruled the country between 2001 and 2006. The rise of the JI [Jamaat] to power in 2001 was a historic moment in the sense that the party opposed the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 and insisted on establishing an Islamic state. The reign of the BNP-JI combine was marked by the heightened role of... Islam in politics and social life, and the rise of clandestine Islamist militant groups, with tacit support from the state machinery. The AL [the currently ruling Awami League] criticized the BNP-JI alliance for taking the country in a direction contrary to the secularist spirit of the war of independence which cost millions of lives."
Islamists have for decades been violently targeting the religious minorities in Bangladesh. The number of Hindus, for instance, has continued to dwindle due to persecution and oppression by Islamists. The Hindu community has faced large-scale brutal attacks, including murder, rape, land-theft and the destruction of Hindu temples by Islamist fanatics in 1991-1992 and 2001-2002.
When UK MP Bob Blackman, the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Hindus, participated in a debate at the House of Commons on September 8, 2016, he observed:
"Islamic radicalization has been on the rise in Bangladesh and has caused a mass migration of Bangladeshi minority communities, including Hindus, Christians and Buddhists, who believe their lives are in danger if they do not convert to Islam. It is a huge challenge that the Government of Bangladesh are battling every day, as the unfortunate incidents of persecution continue to be on the rise. The UN special rapporteur attributes the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the country to the growing influence of ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam stemming from the Gulf region."
The European Bangladesh Forum submitted a report to The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) regarding protecting minority communities and secular activists of Bangladesh:
"The rise of violent extremism and militancy not only in Bangladesh, but also in the South Asia region and the worldwide phenomenon of religious extremism is one of the greatest contemporary threats to global security that can lead to violence and terrorism, and which can permeate all sovereign borders.
"In recent years, Bangladesh too has been subjected to increased threats from these dangers. Jamaat-e-Islami and other religion-based fundamentalist groups are responsible for radicalizing youth both in Bangladesh and abroad. Different countries from the Middle East are also involved in financing these radical elements and organizations to destroy secularism."
The report also notes how the 2001-2006 Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government's coalition with the Jamaat have empowered jihadist terrorism:
"During the tenure of BNP-Jamaat-e-Islam led coalition government in 2001-2006 there was a mushroom growth of terrorism in Bangladesh. At least 125 Islamic militant outfits that we know are more or less active were linked with Jamaat.
"During that period, there was unprecedented persecution of religious minorities, mostly the Hindus. In order to convert Bangladesh into a monolithic Muslim country BNP-Jamaat-e-Islam alliance forced more than quarter million hapless Hindus to leave Bangladesh and take shelter in neighbouring India."
In 2017, the South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF) issued a report entitled "Facing Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh: A global threat in need of a global response," which said that Jamaat-e-Islami is the "visible face of radical Islam in Bangladesh":
"The rise of JeI is connected – directly, through individual members, or indirectly, through its affiliates – with the rise of violence and terrorism in Bangladesh, including its cross-border components. The organization cultivates an anti-democratic notion of 'demos' and its rhetoric indicates that the only people that belong to the 'demos' of Bangladesh are those who fit their fanatic definition of a Muslim. JeI tries to replace parliamentary democracy with a theocratic Islamic state.
"Despite recent electoral and political setbacks, JeI is already so deeply entrenched into the institutional system of governance and public sphere that it can continue to function – even without being in power – and build-up its fanatic Islamist network.
"It risks turning Bangladesh into a major hub of terrorist activities. JeI's connection to Western based Jihadist organizations – namely in the UK – shows that it is not just a regional phenomenon, but also an important international player.
The report further notes how the former BNP- Jamaat-e-Islami coalition government empowered jihadists:
"Jihadist groups assumed a high profile during the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islam alliance government. The BNP Jamaat-e-Islam government downplayed the existence of Islamist violence in the country and organizations – in particular those under the direct control of Jamaat – silenced reports of such violence and undermined the work of law enforcement agencies. BNP-Jamaat-e-Islam government support for jihadist violence also took the form of material and financial support and there was a veritable surge of foreign Jihadist NGOs registered in Bangladesh. Financial support to these organizations is well-documented."
Regarding attacks on the religious minorities in Bangladesh, the SADF report says:
"Members of Jamaat and Islami Chatra Shibir are conducting 'large-scale orchestrated attacks on the homes, businesses, and places of worship of minorities, as well as engaging in the abductions and forced conversions of Hindu girls'. The violence also targets Christians and Buddhists. The Takfiri ideology of Jamaat founder Maududi explicitly permits and encourages the use of 'extreme violence' to stigmatise (and subsequently eliminate) people, states, and religious-cultural elements which are blacklisted as un-Islamic."
Human Rights Watch in its "World Report 2015: Bangladesh" stated:
"Supporters of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami party threw petrol bombs to enforce strikes and economic blockades. Before and after the election [the 2014 elections], attackers also vandalized homes and shops owned by members of Bangladesh's Hindu and Christian communities."
The erosion of secularism, suppression of dissent, and its destructive impacts on women's rights, religious minorities and foreign policy make it imperative for the Bangladeshi government and the international community to monitor and contain the rising Islamist threat in the country.
Jamaat has a stained legacy of militancy and genocide in Bangladesh. They pose a security threat not only to Bangladesh, but also to the entire region. Once radical Islamists take over a region or gain substantial political power, violence, terrorism, instability, and systematic human rights abuses (particularly against women and minorities) become the norm. It is thus critical to neutralize such radical Islamist forces, as Israel is now doing to Hamas, for both ideological and security-related reasons.
The 1971 Bengali genocide is an urgent reminder of the depths to which political ideologies can lead, and why, if one wants to preserve freedom in the West, it is essential to confront them.
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, a research fellow for the Philos Project, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.