The Jamaat Factor


A train set on fire by activists of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh

Delwar Hossain Sayedee, an Islamic preacher and a senior leader of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, the country’s largest Islam-pasand party, was sentenced to death on 28 February for war crimes committed during the 1971 Liberation War. Within hours, Jamaat cadres and activists clashed violently with police and law enforcement agencies. Scores have been killed in some of the worst political violence the country has experienced in recent years.

Five other senior Jamaat leaders, including its current and former chiefs, are being prosecuted for war crimes committed in 1971. Another leader was sentenced to life imprisonment on 5 February. That sentence triggered what has come to be called the Shahbag Awakening—a month of largely peaceful gathering of tens of thousands of people in the middle of Dhaka. A key demand of the largely government-supported Awakening is to ban Jamaat.

image 2 jamaat logo

Logo of the Jamat-e-Islami Bangladesh

Will the Jamaat be banned? The ruling Awami League has a three-fourths majority in parliament, while the Jamaat is a key ally of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. A general election is expected before the year is over. So there are complex political calculations involved. Meanwhile, even if the party survives, how will it perform if its top leaders are convicted (and possibly executed) for war crimes?

A history of violence

Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, an Islamic scholar from Hyderabad, founded the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind in 1941. The Islamic revivalist organisation opposed the Partition of India as it would leave Indian Muslims divided. Further, Maududi considered MA Jinnah and other Muslim League leaders to be insufficiently Islamic in their personal lives. Nonetheless, when Pakistan came into existence, Maududi moved his party to Lahore to help create an Islamic state, where the party would be the sole arbiter of what counts as Islamic.

Maulana Maudoodi

Maulana Maudoodi

Eschewing mass politics, and rejecting western-style electoral, representative democracy as anything more than a means to an end, the Jamaat’s strategy — in both Pakistan and Bangladesh — has been one of ‘infiltration’: putting party faithfuls in key positions in state institutions, gain a foothold in key non-state sectors, and then use the ‘infiltrated’ to attain state power through a successful putsch when the time is right.

Like many other revolutionary parties of both left and right, the Jamaat is not shy about deploying violence to upset existing political order and advance its agenda. For example, Maududi instigated anti-Ahmadiyya violence in 1953, which led to the imposition of martial law in Lahore. Martial law authorities sentenced him to death, but the sentence was commuted because of public pressure.

The Jamaat’s student wing, Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT) / Islami Chhatra Sangha (ICS) played an active role in the popular uprisings that toppled Field Marshal Ayub Khan‘s regime in 1969. Pakistan held its first democratic election 1970. The story of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s victory on the issue of maximum autonomy for East Pakistan, to the liberation of Dhaka from Pakistani occupation on 16 December 1971, is relatively well known. The role of the Jamaat in 1970 and 1971 is perhaps less so.

The Jamaat emerged as the second largest party in East Pakistan, winning 4-6% of votes, and one seat in the 300-member provincial assembly (against AL’s sweeping over 70% votes tally and 288 seats). After the bloodbath of March-April 1971, the Jamaat’s expectation was that the army would militarily defeat the Mukti Bahini resistance quite comfortably, but would find it hard to fill the political vacuum created by the elimination of the Awami League. It expected to fill that vacuum. Ghulam Azam, its East Pakistan chief, emerged as a key pro-Pakistan politician during the war. Members of IJT/ICS formed the nucleus of pro-Pakistan militias set up by the army.Matiur Rahman Nizami, head of the East Pakistan IJT/ICS, led a particularly fierce group called the Al Badr whose death squads are alleged to have killed several prominent progressive intellectuals and activists during the war.

Of course, Pakistan lost the war.

The killing fields of Rayer Bazaar, 1971

The killing fields of Rayer Bazaar, 1971

The Jamaat faced considerable difficulty in the new country. Even before the war was over, the provisional government of Bangladesh banned religion-based political parties. The prohibition was retained in the constitution that came into effect in December 1972. After the liberation of Dhaka, some of its leaders, including Azam, escaped to Pakistan, the Gulf and the United Kingdom. Others went into hiding. Azam tried to lead a movement to “recover East Pakistan”, which fizzled out when Pakistani prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto received Mujib in Lahore for the 1974 Organization of Islamic Countries summit.

At the local level, party members abstained from direct political activities, concentrating on social work instead. These efforts were co-ordinated by Maolana Abdur Rahim, a senior leader of the provincial party before 1971, who returned to Dhaka in 1974.

Jamaat reloaded

Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

Bangladesh politics was jolted in 1975. Responding to economic dislocation and political instability caused by the war and natural disasters, Mujib imposed a draconian one-party rule, and then was killed in a military coup in August of the same year. This was followed by several counter-coups and mutinies, until Major General Ziaur Rahmanemerged as the country’s de facto ruler.

Zia gradually reintroduced electoral politics, and lifted bans on all parties, including the religion-based ones. However,  the Jamaat remained prohibited because the Election Commission was not convinced of the party’s commitment to Bangladesh’s sovereignty. Nonetheless, six of its members were elected to the 300-member assembly under the banner of the Islamic Democratic League. Azam returned to Bangladesh on a Pakistan passport around this time (his citizenship was revoked by the Bangladesh government in 1973). The IJT/ICS was also re-launched under the name of Islami Chhatra Shibir. The Jamaat formally started operating under its own name in 1982 after Lt. Gen HM Ershad assumed power in a coup.

From then on, the Jamaat has sought to regain the legitimacy it lost because of its violent opposition to the country’s creation.

After several round of internal debates, the party entered electoral politics in the 1980s. It had made tactical alliance with each major political actor in the country in the decades since. It participated in the parliamentary election of 1986, held under martial law, with the Awami League, even though all opposition parties had previously promised to boycott it. In 1990, the Jamaat joined the AL, BNP and the leftists in an urban uprising that toppled the Ershad regime. In 1991, BNP formed a government with the Jamaat’s support. By the mid-1990s, the Jamaat had once again allied with the AL in street protests against the BNP government. It reconciled with BNP ahead of the parliamentary election of 2001. The electoral alliance formed then has survived the intervening years.

Parliamentary activities notwithstanding, the party retains its infiltration strategy. This was pursued most vigorously between 2001 and 2006. When the BNP led alliance (of which  the Jamaat was a key partner) won the 2001 election, the Jamaat demanded two things. First, they wanted a suitable official post for the former Al Badr chief Matiur Rahman Nizami, who had been the party’s parliamentary head in the early 1990s, and had replaced Azam as the party chief by the end of the decade. (The Jamaat is the only major party in Bangladesh where leaders retire for fresh faces.) Second, the party’s number two, Ali Ahsan Mujahid (who was not an MP), had to be made the minister of social welfare. The social welfare ministry was chosen because it was responsible for the country’s massive NGO sector and sociocultural organizations throughout the country. In 1971, the Jamaat had targeted progressive voices with violence. Between 2001-2006, it made things difficult for progressive activities, while generously supporting Islamic institutions that adhered to its interpretation of the religion.

In the quarter century since the party’s relaunch, the Jamaat has made considerable inroads in several non-state sectors as well. Islami Bank, whose management is affiliated with the Jamaat, has become the third largest bank in the country. Jamaat-supported hospitals and coaching centres provide affordable health care and education to urban, working and the lower middle classes. The party has particularly strong financial ties with countries in the Gulf, which helps with these enterprises. Funding and ideological support also comes from the radical Islamic discourse among the diaspora Bangladeshi community in the UK.

The above do not, however, imply that the Jamaat abandoned violence. Quite the contrary. Instead of aiming to become a nationwide mass party, it remained focused on 50 or so seats bordering India. In the Jamaat’s assessment of 1971, Indian intervention was about stopping the Jamaat from coming to power. Thus, according to party literature, the logic behind its geographic concentration is that in the event of another Indian intervention to thwart a Jamaat-led government, these areas will become centers of resistance. Consistent with that strategy, the Islami Chhatra Shibir sought to gain control of two large universities in Chittagong and Rajshahi. They were largely successful in the effort during the 1980s, by using brutality usually not matched by student wings of other parties.

Calculus of consent

By the beginning of the 1990s,  the Jamaat appeared to have been successful in its quest for legitimacy. When President Ershad was forced to resign in December 1990 after several weeks of protests by university students, the then party chief Abbas Ali Khan appeared on national TV with the leaders of AL, BNP and a leftist alliance to appeal for public calm and national unity. In the election held two months later, the Jamaat achieved its best showing ever:


%age of votes

No. of seats (of 300)























(Note: *Provincial assembly, Jamaat failed to win any of 162 East Pakistan seats in the national assembly. **As Islamic Democratic League.  ***In alliance with BNP.)

Why did the other parties consent to Jamaat’s legitimacy?

For Ershad, the answer was his own legitimacy, or lack thereof. Sheikh Mujib was heralded as the country’s founding father. The post-1975 strongman Zia derived his legitimacy at least partly from being a war hero (as a major in Pakistan army, he made an iconic radio speech from Chittagong at the beginning of the Liberation War). In contrast, Ershad was seen as an ambitious general who usurped power illegally. The Jamaat helped him by participating in the election that gave his coup a constitutional cover.

Neither of the two larger parties — AL, led by Mujib’s daughter Hasina Wajed since 1981, and BNP, led by Zia’s widow Khaleda Zia since 1983 — faced a legitimacy problem.  Their deficit was elsewhere: they have never trusted each other (the reasons for which are a subject of another essay). Coming out of the 1991 election, where both parties got less than a third of votes (but because of the vagaries of first-past-the-post electoral system, BNP got 140 seats against AL’s 92), the Jamaat emerged as a potential kingmaker.

In a groundbreaking 2000 analysis of previous election results, the political strategist Nazim Kamran Choudhury showed that if BNP, the Jamaat and other right-wing parties were to enter into an electoral alliance, AL would suffer a massive defeat.  That analysis was the basis of the BNP-Jamaat alliance, which won 45% of votes and 217 seats against AL’s 40% vote and 62 seats in the 2001 election.

There was, however, more than just electoral calculations to Jamaat’s appeal. In fact, voting arithmetic by itself might have hampered a BNP-Jamaat alliance. In 12 of the 18 seats won by the party in 1991, the BNP came in second.  Meanwhile, in the urban seats around Dhaka that usually swings in every election, the Jamaat’s support is virtually non-existent. What it lacked in terms of voting power, however, the party more than made up for through street prowess. By the late 1990s, the Jamaat boasted of the largest and most ideologically motivated cadre base of any party in Bangladesh. Election campaigns in Bangladesh, as elsewhere in South Asia, are feisty affairs, and the utility of its cadre force is self-evident.

By the mid-2000s, the Jamaat appeared to outshine its larger alliance partner. While the BNP was mired in corruption scandals, the Jamaat was seen as relatively clean, and consistent with its mantra: Allah’s law and honest men’s rule. After the quasi-coup of January 2007, the BNP seemed to be in disarray, and many expected Jamaat to emerge as the main alternative to the AL.  But, its role in 1971 continued to shackle the party.

While Azam played down 1971 — evading answers or shifting the discussion whenever the war and the party’s role in it was raised — the newer leaders made a series of confrontational statements in October 2007 that tried to rewrite the history of 1971, erasing any allegation of war crimes, or even denying the very fact of the war or any atrocity.

This provoked a backlash, and the demand for trials of its leaders (and a few individuals in other parties) on war crimes charges gathered momentum.

Crime and punishment

This was not the first time that a citizens’ movement demanded that alleged war criminals of 1971 are brought to justice. While the immediate post-war years might have been the best time to hold to account those who committed war crimes, the 1970s was a decade of death and deluge for Bangladesh, and successive governments were overpowered with existential crises to hold any trial. And yet, there has always been strong social antipathy towards alleged war criminals. Ghulam Azam, for example, faced shoes and sandals at the national mosque in 1981.

Ghulam Azam slapped at Baitul Mukarram

Ghulam Azam slapped at Baitul Mukarram

When President Ershad appointed two alleged war criminals — Maolana Abdul Mannan, now deceased, and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, now being prosecuted — to his cabinet in the 1980s, a series of brave investigative journalism by Shahadat Chowdhury and Lt Col Quazi Nuruzzaman, both Mukti Bahini veterans, brought the horrendous crimes to light.

image 5 of blood and fire by jahanara imamA citizens’ movement for war crimes trial started in the early 1990s, when the Jamaat emerged as a key force in politics and both major parties started courting Ghulam Azam’s blessings. The movement was led by Jahanara Imam, whose memoir about 1971, when she lost her son and husband, is considered to be one of the most vivid descriptions of life in occupied Dhaka.

In each of the above cases, the citizenry tried to hit back after the Jamaat had pushed the envelop just that much further. In each case, the citizens’ outburst fizzled out as major parties stayed put.  Each case until 2008, that is.

In the lead up to the 2008 election, war crimes trial emerged as a key demand among urban, educated youth — an increasingly influential demographics.  It’s hard to say exactly how crucial the war crimes trial issue was for the AL’s landslide victory in the election. Several opinion polls suggested that voters cared about the prices of essentials or law and order more than any other issue.  However, these same polls also suggested that some form of trial had wide public support. Whereas BNP was in a formal electoral alliance with the Jamaat, the AL made war crimes trial a key election promise.

Protest and the past … An activist demands capital punishment for Bangladesh's Jamaat-e-Islami senior leader Abdul Quader Mollah. Photograph: Andrew Biraj/Reuters

Protest and the past … An activist demands capital punishment for Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islami senior leader Abdul Quader Mollah. Photograph: Andrew Biraj/Reuters

The AL government initiated war crimes trial proceedings in 2010. Several Jamaat leaders were arrested and charged, as were two BNP politicians, and most recently an AL member. Three men have been convicted so far. It was the sentencing of one of them that triggered the Shahbag Awakening.

Abdul Quader Mollah was found guilty of involvement in a massacre of several hundred villagers north of Dhaka. A death sentence was expected to follow the verdict.  But this did not happen. Given the history of Jamaat striking backdoor deals and tacit alliances with other parties, Mollah’s sentence was greeted with much cynicism and anger. There was speculation of an AL-Jamaat détente whereby the Jamaat’s leaders’ lives were to be spared in return for Jamaat breaking its alliance with BNP.

It’s against that backdrop that the Shahbag Awakening began.



Whither Jamaat?

Unlike most other recent social media-driven urban protests around the world, the Shahbag Awakening has enjoyed full government backing. And yet, the Awami Leauge has shown little interest in banning the Jamaat-e-Islami. Electoral calculations are obviously at play.  The feasibility of enforcing a ban is another key consideration. Experiences elsewhere — Turkey’s Islamist parties, Thaksin Sinawatra’s supporters in Turkey — suggest that following any ban, the Jamaat will simply resurface in another name.

Regardless of whether the party is formally banned, it has experienced severe restrictions on its ability to function as a political party under the current government. Its top tier leaders are in jail for alleged war crimes, and the second tier are in jail for opposing the war crimes trial process. Much of the third and fourth tier has gone underground to avoid arrest. Its grass-root meetings have been frequently disrupted by local administration.

Meanwhile, independent of the demand for trying alleged war criminals, the Jamaat has been affected by developments in Islam-pasand politics both locally and globally.

Maududi was not the only Islamic scholar calling for an Islamic renaissance in post-British India, nor was the Jamaat the only Islamic revivalist movement. In the Bangladeshi context, the Jamaat has been the largest and most organised political movement inspired by Islam.  But the Deoband-inspired Tabligh Jamaat, a socio-religious and strictly apolitical organisation, has far more adherents. Then there are the qaumi madrassahs and various local pirs who consider Maududi’s interpretation of Islam as heresy.

The Jamaat has always faced competition from other Islamist parties and movements. Whereas it has successfully fended off such competition in the past, its ability to continue to do so is not assured.

Making things more complicated for the Jamaat are global developments. Unlike Islamist organisations in the Middle East, the Jamaat has no ‘resistance myth’ to rely on. There is no foreign military presence in Bangladesh, and the Jamaat has neither the need nor the inclination (recall, it has sought to regain legitimacy through the parliamentary path) for anti-western politics. This has, however, meant that more radical elements of the diaspora (and globalised Islamists at home) have found organisations like Hizbut Tahrir more attractive.

Faced with war crimes charges on the one hand and stiffer competition from newer Islamists on the other, the Jamaat has had significant internal debates recently.

One faction, led by what is understood as the business wing of the party (with significant financial connections in the Gulf), wants to reboot the party along the lines of the Turkish AKP. Mir Quasim Ali, a business tycoon, and Barrister Abdur Razzaq are often touted as potential leaders of such a revamped party. Crucially, Razzaq faces no war crimes allegation, and many younger members prefer not to be burdened with the legacy of 1971.  Some speculate that the ruling AL condones, if not blesses, such a scenario. A revamped Jamaat would draw votes away from the BNP and benefit the AL. The idea has takers in the western (and Indian and Chinese) diplomatic missions too — they would much rather see a ‘mildly Islamist’ party engaged in parliamentary politics than a clandestine militant group.

However, the Shahbag Awakening has made any discernible AL overture to ‘moderate’ Jamaat leaders less likely. In addition to banning the Jamaat, the Awakening calls for social boycott and government actions against banks, businesses and social service providers linked with Jamaat. Since neither Ali nor Razzaq have any significant hold over the party machinery, without access to funds and patronage these businesses and NGOs provide, this faction will have little chance to win over their more hardline party colleagues. It is, in fact, quite possible that these ‘moderates’ will eventually gravitate towards, and strengthen, the BNP.

The hardline faction is led by former Chhatra Shibir men who saw the triumph of violence in university campuses in Chittagong and Rajshahi. They are inspired by various Arab uprisings, and dream of emulating them in Bangladesh. Since November, they have taken to coordinated violence across Dhaka and other cities.

Delawar Hossain Sayedee

Delawar Hossain Sayedee

It is unlikely that Bangladesh will experience anything remotely resembling developments in the Arab world. For one thing, Bangladesh has regular elections, where the incumbent is usually booted out. This provides a major outlet for anti-incumbent frustrations, and rule out a Syria-style civil war. Further, the Jamaat is simply not as popular as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood or the Tunisian An-Nahda. A recent opinion poll in January pegged the Jamaat’s support at 1%.

Violent clashes between the Jamaat and law enforcement agencies may yet have unfortunate consequences for Bangladesh. After he was sentenced to death, a rumour circulated around the country that the convicted war criminal Delawar Hossain Sayedee’s face was visible, only to the faithful, on the moon. Failure to see it was indicative of either personal impiety or the Godless nature of the state and its ruling elite. Angered by the latter possibility, thousands attacked police stations and government buildings in the northern district of Bogra.  The Army had to be deployed to pacify the crowd.

And therein lies the risk. Bangladesh has an unfortunate history of military interventions. Any political instability raises the risk of yet another coup. Indeed, Jamaat supporters have been openly calling for military intervention, with images like this being circulated through Facebook and other social media:

image 7 jamaat calling for the army to topple hasina govt

That said, one must not overstate the possibility of an army intervention, which has demonstrated utmost professionalism in recent years.

Further, the Jamaat does not have an unlimited capacity to instigate violence, which points to another potential source of instability. There are former Jamaat members who found the party too moderate when it was in government in the 2000s and too pusillanimous in opposition since. Some of them joined the Harkatul Jihad and the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh to pursue violent jihad in the mid-2000s. Both groups were effectively suppressed in 2006-2007. If the Jamaat disintegrates under pressure, some of its more radical elements may well return to the ways of the bomb.

The people who lead the Jamaat are all old men. Most of them are being tried for war crimes. Regardless of the way these trials end, these old men will not be with us for much longer.  Their successors will have to make some major choices for the party, with major consequences for Bangladesh.



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