Bangladesh facing an increasingly violent Islamist ecosystem

Hasina, now basking in the glory of having led Bangladesh to phenomenal economic and human development progress in the golden decade of development, has her task cut out, writes Subir Bhaumik for South Asia Monitor

Subir Bhaumik Apr 08, 2021
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After the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-Jamaat alliance was routed in the last parliament elections in 2019, the Hefazat-e-Islam has emerged as the country's Taliban alternative.  

For the last two years, the Hefazat has led the regime and polity change agenda in Bangladesh by spearheading the violent street protests against the Awami League government, which is now into its third successive term in power.

They have picked up issues one after another - from terming it "un-Islamic" act of installing Bangladesh founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, popularly known as Mujib, statues in Bangabandhu's birth centenary year,  to crack down on radical Muslims in France after the beheadings and finally Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Bangladesh as a guest of honour at the Golden Jubilee of Bangladesh's Independence. Nearly a dozen died in police firings after the Hefazat's countrywide mayhem when the radicals even burnt down a music academy at the birthplace of legendary musician Allauddin Khan.

The Hefazat-e-Islam

A cabal of civil society elements and media/social media activists have supplemented the Hefazat's street violence by apparently 'exposing' the regime's corruption and vote fraud and questioning Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's firm decision to import and receive free gifts of India-made COVID vaccine, partly on quality (dubbed as Gomutra (cow urine) vaccine coming from India) and partly by spreading rumours on India's commitment to supply vaccines.

When India-made vaccines started landing to start a massive vaccination programme, the Hefazat and their silent backers in civil society and media focused on Modi's visit, opposing it by terming him as "butcher of Muslims,” an apparent reference to 2002 communal violence in Gujarat that happened during his tenure as chief minister, in which 2,000 people, mostly Muslims died. 

The Awami League, which has been accused of pampering the Hefazat in the rundown to 2019 parliament polls to counteract the Jamaat-e-Islami's electoral influence has now joined the battle to combat the radical scourge because the Hefazat street violence is linked to a larger plot to bring down the Hasina government by force well before the 2024 elections.

When Awami League workers caught Hefazat top leader and Islamist poster boy Mamunul Huq in a Narayanganj resort with a massage parlour lady in early April, the radicals stormed the resort to rescue him with help from local police.  Awami League woman leader Ayesha Zaman Shimu even posted pictures of radical clergymen abusing children, exposing the 'real face' of the 'soldiers of Allah.'

As an Islamist mass organisation with no apparent democratic political aspirations, the Hefazat is seen by some as the harbinger of an Iran-style Islamist revolution in Muslim-majority secular Bangladesh. In the country's Islamist eco-system, the Hefazat sits smartly between the poll-contesting BNP-Jamaat alliance on one hand and the underground jihadi terror outfits like JMB, HUJI, and Ansarullah Bangla on the other.

The positioning is tactical with some occupying the democratic space to achieve power through elections, some practicing jihadi targeted violence to eliminate 'thought leaders' of  Bangladesh's secular groups and the likes of Hefazat and the smaller Khilafat Majlish emerging as a hybrid politically religious mass organisation using mob violence tactics to demoralise the administration.

Links with Islamist parties

At least one-third of Hefajat leaders, who last month seized control of the new committee of the Qawmi madrasa-based organisation, have direct links with Islamist political parties that took part in elections alone or on the BNP-Jamaat alliance platform.

The inclusion of leaders of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, a component of the 20-party alliance led by the BNP, is the prime example. Thirty-four of its leaders made it to the 151-member new committee of Hefazat. Jamiat is registered with the Election Commission as a political party.

In fact, this is for the first time Hefajat made the general secretary of Jamiat its secretary-general, although there was an understanding that any active political leader would not be able to get top posts in Hefazat. Six top leaders of Khilafat Majlish, another component of the BNP-led alliance, were also included in the new committee.

At least 16 leaders of Bangladesh Khilafat Majlish, four of Islami Oikya Jote and six of Khilafat Andolon was accommodated in the Hifajat's new committee.

Bangladesh Khilafat Majlish and Islami Oikya Jote earlier were in the BNP-led alliance and both are registered with the Election Commission as political parties.

On November 15, Junayed Babunagari was declared Hefazat Ameer at the end of its council held at Al-Jamiatul Ahlia Darul Ulum Moinul Islam, popularly known as Hathazari Madrasa, in Chattogram. Before this committee was announced, Babunagari had served Hefajat as its secretary-general.

The council was held around two months after the death of Hefazat's previous Ameer Ahmed Shafi, who passed away in September.

The formation of the new committee sparked an outcry within the organisation with Moulana Mainuddin Ruhi, joint secretary-general of the previous committee, terming the new committee completely illegal.

He said Hefazat had never had any top leader who had affiliations with any political party.

Soon after the formation of the new committee, Hefazat hogged the headlines by strongly opposing the construction of Bangabandhu's sculpture in the capital.

During a meeting on November 19 in the capital's Mohammadpur, Babunagari vowed that they were ready to sacrifice their lives to establish the "rule of Allah in the land of Allah".

Hasina’s task cut out

Hasina, now basking in the glory of having led Bangladesh to phenomenal economic and human development progress in the golden decade of development, has her task cut out. 

The police and other security forces need cleansing, reforms, and new leadership. With army chief Gen Aziz Ahmed due to retire, his successor has to be a tough secularist competent general with an intelligence background because of internal security, unless intelligence-driven, might cause collateral damage and accompany social unrest. 

The Bangladesh Army, a fine force with ever-increasing UN peacekeeping duties, might be the last line of defence in the battle against Pakistan-style Islamist radicalism.  

Bangladesh and Hasina cannot afford an ambivalent, indecisive army chief who will wilt under radical Islamist pressure. It needs a leader who can face the increasingly violent Islamist ecosystem in Bangladesh.

(The writer is a strategic analyst and editorial director, www.theeasternlink.com.  The views are personal)

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