Jamaat and the Bangladesh Army: Threat of the fringe?


As the threat of Islamist infiltration into Bangladesh Army is being discussed in the country today, the Army has chosen not to comment on this issue… Looking at the way JeI and Islamist groups are gathering political momentum at the local levels, the possibility of a religious political impulse haunting the country in the near future cannot be brushed away.

Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JeI), the deregistered largest religious political party in Bangladesh, which shares 10-12 % of votes, tasted power after entering an electoral alliance with the Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP) in 2001. As part of the four-party ruling coalition from 2001 to 2006, it claimed and secured important cabinet positions in the ruling coalition. Motiur Rahman Nizami, the then Amir of JeI was the Agriculture Minister and later became Minister for Industry and Abdul Ahsan Mojahedi, the then General Secretary of the JeI held the portfolio of Social Welfare Ministry. Both, however, were convicted of war crimes by the International War Crime Tribunal constituted by the Awami League after it was elected to power in 2008. It was determined to bring to justice those who collaborated with the Pakistan Army and were responsible for the killing of the Bengalis during Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971.

Jamaat in the Coalition Government:

JeI’s occupation of Ministerial positions helped the party to expand its base within the country, especially in rural area. It financial muscle helped it not only to expand its presence but also attracted many youth who benefitted from their membership of the party. A rokan or (primary member) of Jamaat is an extremely dedicated cadre and goes through a long process of training to imbibe Islamic values before he is inducted as a cadre.

The Social welfare Ministry of Bangladesh has allowed Islamic NGO’s to register themselves and carry out social welfare in the country. These NGO’s have played a big role in spreading orthodox Islamic values, especially observance of purdah among women. Some of the organisations, linked to international Islamic NGOs in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, are seen to be propagating values that is contrary to societal culture of Bangladesh. Paradoxically, many of these groups are engaged by the ruling party Awami League. The JeI has also not been critical of their activities and does not consider such Islamic groups as threat to its political presence. JeI regards these Islamist outfits as “fellow travellers” as all of them are working towards the same goal of greater Islamisation of Bangladesh society which would serve JeI’s political agenda of establishing Sharia in the country.

Green Recruitment?

During JeI’s presence in the government, it had played an important role in getting its cadres recruited into the armed forces, police, border guards and also into bureaucracy and universities. These JeI cadres function in a discreet manner and do not participate in any public demonstration. They maintain a simple life and appear to be studious. They were part of what is known as ‘white’ group (sada dol) in the university elections. While it is difficult to ascertain the numbers that were inducted in the police, armed forces and paramilitary forces, some observers in Bangladesh acknowledge that the JeI’s effort to induct Islamic-minded candidates into these security establishment was too obvious to be missed. The impact of such recruitment is yet to be objectively assessed. Some analyst from Bangladesh, on condition of anonymity, would say that these forces are biding their time and awaiting a political transformation in the country to assert themselves. Both the 2009 BDR mutiny and later the reported coup attempt in 2011 by 16 ‘hard line’ military officers and two retired officers having "extreme religious views" point to this disturbing reality that is being ignored in Bangladesh by the ruling dispensation.

It would be wrong, however, to argue that the ruling elite in Bangladesh, firmly in saddle since 2008, is unaware of the threat. In 2008, current Prime Minister’s son and IT adviser Sajeev Wajed Joy along with another author Carl Ciovacco had written that Bangladesh army had been infiltrated by Islamists. According to this article titled, “Stemming the Rise of Islamic Extremism in Bangladesh”, published in Havard International Review:

“High demand for military posts has resulted in an entrance exam designed to limit the number of recruits. Before this madrassa Entrance Exam campaign, only 5 percent of military recruits came from madrassas in 2001. By 2006, at the end of the BNP rule madrassas supplied nearly 35 percent of the Army recruits.”

Earlier another Minister in Sheikh Hasina’s cabinet had said that Islamic extremist elements were also involved in BDR mutiny. Hasina’s decision to bring an end to the mutiny in 2009 is said to have earned the ire of many Army officers. Later, five Army officers were dismissed from service for planting a bomb to kill Fazle Noor Taposh, Hasina’s nephew, who they suspected of having a hand in the mutiny, as he was involved in the negotiation, with the mutineers.

Creeping Islamism

Bangladesh Army has always been mindful of its professional ethos. But at the same time, it is being reported that there is a creeping influence of Islamists within the armed forces. After the government recognised the madrassa degree and made it equivalent of the university degree, it has increased the scope of madrassa students to join government services. Jamaat Islami has several coaching centres that train the students providing coaching to them to enable them to join bureaucracy and military. This helps the party in expanding its network and to achieve its final objective of Islamising the society and bringing in Sharia. This has been the orientation within Jamaat and therefore Jamaat desists from criticising the activities of other Islamic groups. Being a Muslim majority country, the bureaucracy, police, and armed forces are completely dominated by Muslims. It is reported that today many Army officers’ wives tend to cover their head and try to adhere to Islamic way of dressing. Many of them would attend Qurankhani (Quran reading) and discussion on Hadith organised by women preachers in the afternoon, at the home of one of the officer’s wives. This is in clear contrast to the ethnic-Bangali dress women wear in Bangladesh and the way they conduct themselves in public without fear or inhibition.

In all, growing number of recruits coming from the ranks of Islamic outfits targeting these bodies will surely turn the political tide in favour of greater Islamisation of politics, which has adverse consequences for the liberal constituency within the country. Moreover, the Islamist outlook championed by JeI, the soft as well as hardline radical Islamist outfits in Bangladesh militates against minority and women rights. Moreover, JeI and radical Islamist outfits treat India as the enemy of Islam and Muslims and any shift in orientation towards Islamisation of the society and polity in Bangladesh will have a negative impact on India-Bangladesh relations.

The situation has come to such a pass that the Hizbut Tahirir, a banned transnational Islamic organisation, has gone to the extent of putting out posters in public asking “the ‘patriotic’ Army to intervene [in Bangladesh politics] and remove Hasina’s government”.

As the threat of Islamist infiltration into Bangladesh Army is being discussed in the country today, the Army has chosen not to comment on this issue. The threat is either ignored or dismissed as a fringe sentiment being overblown by observers. However, looking at the way JeI and Islamist groups are gathering political momentum at the local levels, the possibility of a religious political impulse haunting the country in the near future cannot be brushed away. It is also difficult to say whether Army can remain immune to such developments within Bangladesh.

Dr Ankita Sanyal is Associate Research Fellow at International Centre for Peace Studies, New Delhi. The views expressed here are her own.