Think Again: Islamism and Militancy in Bangladesh

August 13, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: IslamJihadBangladesh

Think Again: Islamism and Militancy in Bangladesh

"It is easy to get Bangladesh very wrong. Dangerously wrong."

The current Awami League government has sustained criticism for prosecuting a long-standing Awami League demand: A war crimes tribunal to prosecute those members of the Jamaat-e-Islami who participated in war crimes.  Part of these criticisms stemmed from the process of the tribunals and its compliance with domestic and international law. However, the criticism was also due in part to the revivification of Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladeshi politics and the important pockets of support that the party enjoys. A 2009 national poll (discussed below) revealed that 40 percent of Bangladeshis had a positive view of JI in contrast to 41 percent who had negative feelings. (Nearly one in five surveyed had “mixed feelings” about the group.)

However, to say that Jamaat-e-Islami shenanigans only take place in response to recent government policies and persecution of leadership is simply wrong. Incidentally, fifty percent of those surveyed believed that Jamaat Islami “believes democracy is the best type of political system.”  While that half of the sample does not seem aware of JI’s agenda, 46 percent were, and asserted that JI does not embrace this view of democracy.

Certainly Jamaat-e-Islami has devoted significant resources to the defense of its leadership, but its efforts to transform Bangladesh into its vision of an Islamic state are ongoing. In 2010, the head of a fundamentalist Deobandi madrassa in Bangladesh, Shah Ahmad Shafi, and the chairman of the Islamist party Islami Oikya Jote, Mufti Izharul Islam, came together to form a new organization they named Hefazat-e-Islam (Protection of Islam). Almost immediately, the group began organizing madrasah students to carry out violent street protests in opposition to the government's secular education policy and women's empowerment programs. In 2013, Hefazat organized a massive demonstration in Dhaka during which they released a set of 13 demands including the death penalty for maligning Islam or Muslims generally, ending “foreign cultural intrusions including free-mixing of men and women,” removing sculptures, declaring certain sects as “non-Muslims,” and the immediate release of “all the arrested Islamic scholars and madrasa students.”  Jamaat-e-Islami openly endorsed these demands in an official statement that declared, “the country’s Islam-loving people have become united against the anti-Islamic government and its patronized atheist people.”

Support for Militancy in Bangladesh by the Numbers

Finally, Ahmad and Kugelman made fundamentally erroneous claims about the tolerance for Islamist politics and Islamist militancy in Bangladesh.  In part because there is so little interest in these issues in Bangladesh, there have been few systematic polls of Bangladeshis. However, according to a national sample of 1,000 Bangladeshis conducted by PIPA in 2009 as a part of a multi-country study on global warming, there are many reasons to be concerned that we are overlooking a growing problem.

First, while Bangladeshis overwhelmingly support democracy, there is disagreement about what this means. Some 38 percent believed that democracy is compatible with Islam while 59 percent disagreed with the contention.  A majority (66 percent) believed that if laws are passed by democratically-elected officials and are in accordance with the constitution, these laws should not be subject to a veto by religious scholars. However, 31 percent believed that there “should be a body of senior religious scholars that has the power to overturn laws when it believes they are contrary to the Quran.”

Only 19 percent of surveyed Bangladeshis believed that Islam should not be the official religion of the country out of fairness to non-Muslims (who still comprise about 10 percent of the population) and an overwhelming majority (82 percent) believed that Islam should play a central role in the government.  Nearly the same percentage (81 percent) believed that Islam should be the official religion of the country.  When asked whether or not they agree that “The Caliphate is a better system of government than” the present Bangladeshi government, a troubling majority (52 percent) agreed with the statement.  This is pretty extraordinary: In 1971 Bangladesh came into being as a secular state after suffering the horrors of religious extremism at the hands of the Pakistani Army and their Jamaat-e-Islami supporters. It was subsequent military dictators who introduced Islamist politics into the Bangladeshi mainstream.

Although Ahmad and Kugelman make much of Bangladeshis partaking in various communities’ religious festivals, sizeable minorities of Bangladeshis reject religious freedom: While 67 percent said that those in their country should have the right to change their religion, 32 percent disagreed.  Consistent with that figure, 38 percent believed the government should punish those who convert away from Islam compared to 60 percent who did not support such punishment. This is actually disconcerting because religious minorities (Ahmedis, Hindus, as well as secular Bangladeshi) have been brutally killed in recent years, and Islamist groups like Jamaat-e-Islami and Hefazat-e-Islam are actively lobbying to follow Pakistan's example and officially declare certain sects as "non-Muslims," a clear prelude to systematic sectarian oppression.

Not only are these figures cause for concern, many Bangladeshis also explicitly stated support for terrorist groups who attack Americans. When asked to think about “groups in the Muslim world that attack Americans,” 40 percent of surveyed Bangladeshi approved of some but disapproved of others and another 9 percent approved of them all.

When asked whether or not they approve of “attacks on US military troops based in the Persian Gulf States,” 56 percent of Bangladeshi respondents approved, 19 percent said they had mixed feelings, and 20 percent disapproved.  It is useful to compare this result to Pakistan. In 2009, when PIPA asked the same question in a national survey of Pakistanis: 59 percent approved of such attacks. (Bangladeshis overwhelmingly disapproved of attacks against U.S. civilians either in the United States or working for U.S. companies in Islamic countries.) While only 16 percent of Bangladeshis had a “mostly positive” view of the governmental system that al Qaeda favors and had positive feelings towards al Qaeda, 47 percent of Bangladeshis had a positive view of its now deceased leader, Osama bin Laden.

Recent events demonstrate that this support for militancy is more than hypothetical. Last month, a dozen alleged members of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent were arrested in Dhaka with a large array of jihadi propaganda along with explosives and other weapons. Other raids have captured militants associated with various jihadi groups including Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).

Despite these arrests, terrorists continue to carry out attacks with disturbing frequency. On August 7th, Niloy Neely, a secular Bangladeshi blogger was murdered—the fourth attack on secular bloggers in Bangladesh this year alone. Ansar-al-Islam, the Bangladesh chapter of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, claimed responsibility in an email to local media houses. Attacks against secular or anti-Islamist writers in Bangladesh are not a new phenomenon. Neely is actually one of many Bangladeshi writers who have been attacked or killed by Islamist militants. Others, like author Taslima Nasreen, have been forced into exile due to death threats. In fact, Niloy Neel himself wrote on Facebook earlier this year that when he sought help from authorities after being followed, the police advised him to leave the country.

Bangladesh In the Crosshairs

Bangladesh merits greater concern and more serious scrutiny than it has received to date.  The country’s political landscape exhibits important fissures that threaten the political stability of the world's third-largest Muslim country. These are exacerbated by the role of Islamism and Islamist polities in the government and evolving attitudes about the legitimacy of Islamist terrorism. In addition to these deep structural concerns, Pakistan has actively sought to cultivate Bangladesh as a sanctuary and staging ground for the various Islamist terror groups it has sought to use in India, especially Lashkar-e-Taiba. As the Rohingya crisis continues to deepen, Bangladesh will become ever more attractive to an array of Islamist militant groups seeking to recruit the hapless victims of the Burmese government.  Simply focusing upon the Islamic State is to miss the big picture entirely.

In short, it is easy to get Bangladesh very wrong. Dangerously wrong.

C. Christine Fair is an associate professor at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. She is the co-editor, along with Ali Riaz, of Political Islam and Governance in Bangladesh (Routledge 2010) and Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (Oxford University Press 2014).

Seth Oldmixon is a DC-based political communications consultant who served in rural Bangladesh as a Peace Corp Volunteer. He is the founder of Liberty South Asia, an independent, privately funded campaign dedicated to supporting religious freedom and political pluralism in South Asia.