Bangladesh: A new haven for reactionary Islam

Trade unionists and left activists under threat

When the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by out-going Prime Minister Khalida Zia formed an alliance and coalition government with the reactionary Islamic Jamat-e-Islami (Party of Islam) in 2001, very few people raised their eyebrows.

After 5 years of Jamat-BNP coalition rule, many in the west and across Asia have raised concerns about the increased influence of reactionary Islam in Bangladesh. Jamat-e-Islami has used its influence as coalition partner to penetrate state institutions and in doing so has seen many of its key figures and sympathizers appointed to high official posts. The army has been the prime target of this penetration. Two senior army officers linked with Jamat-e-Islami have been appointed to the key positions: Major General Muhammad Aminul Karim recently became military secretary to the President and Brigadier General ATM Amin as director of the Armed Forces Intelligence anti-terrorism bureau.

This same process has happened in the judiciary, education institutions, police and other government departments. Now Jamat-e-Islami enjoy support from senior state officials and right wing politicians of the BNP. Jamat has fully utilised the opportunity it got in last 5 years to increase its political and social influence. This process has similarities with the rise in influence of reactionary Islam in Pakistan in the 1980s, during the military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq.

Jamat-e-Islami in Pakistan supported the military coup against the Pakistan Peoples Party government in 1977 and became a political ally of the Zia dictatorship. JI leaders were made ministers in the federal cabinet and used their influence to gain positions in the armed forces, police, judiciary, educational institutions and other government departments. JI then used these positions to attack left wing students, political activists and trade union leaders, many of whom were killed. They also used state resources to finance and provide weapons for its armed wing. A similar process has developed in Bangladesh in the last five years.

The only difference was that it took place in a more concealed manner until last year. Things changed when some 500 bombs exploded simultaneously in 60 of the country’s 64 districts. Since then, more than 54 people, mostly left wing activists and intellectuals have been killed and 183 injured in religiously motivated violence and targeted killings. There are at least 10 active armed Islamic groups operating in Bangladesh.

The coalition government tried to conceal this penetration of state institutions by the reactionary Islamic parties but the bombings brought the issue very much into the open and the government was forced to take some action amongst the more extreme Islamic groups.

Many extremist groups are directly linked to Jamat-e-Islami, which used them to eliminate and intimidate their opponents. JI provides financial resources – which has increased significantly over the last few years – and political support to these groups. Jamat-e-Islami fully utilised the portfolio of Minister of Industry to enhance its business interests. The JI economic empire embraces banking, insurance, trucking, pharmaceutical manufacturing, department stores, newspapers and TV stations. The businesses run and owned by the reactionary Islamic parties including JI earn profits of some $1.2 billion annually.

There is also one other resemblance between this process and what happened in Pakistan in the late 1970s and early 1980s, where large amounts of money were provided by the Gulf States to these organisations. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar are the main contributors to these organisations. In public this money is paid to so-called Islamic charities to build religious schools, mosques and the teaching of Islam, but this money went to extremist groups and religious parties to finance their activities.

The BNP argues that coalition rule helps moderates in the Jamat-e-Islami to combat Islamic extremist factions. But the reality is that Jamat inroads into the government security apparatus at all levels, starting with Home Secretary Muhammad Omar Farooq, widely regarded as close to Jamat, have opened the way for suicide bombings, political assassinations, harassment of the Hindu minority and an unchecked inflow of funds from Islamic charities in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf to Jamat-oriented religious schools.

One arrested leader of Wahabi group, Asdullah Ghalib disclosed to investigator that “the main task of his group was to kill and harass left wing journalists and radical left wing teachers and university professors”. He also confessed to attacking several secular organisations and cultural centers. A few other arrested leaders and activists of several extremist groups have categorically said “we want to kill everybody who talks about secularism and especially Socialism. We will not allow such things in this country”. They also confessed that they have killed many radical left wing students, political workers and journalists.

This rise of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism is a real danger for the working class and left activists. Jamat-e-Islami has a long history of violence against radical workers and the left. During the liberation struggle of Bangladesh in 1971, the JI supported the Pakistani military and killed hundreds of left wing activists, Awami League members and radical poets and intellectuals. JI was significantly weakened after these events, but it has strengthened itself in last decade. The fundamentalist organisations are not really a direct threat to the US imperialism, as western media propaganda tries to portray. It is a direct threat to the trade union movement, leftwing radical student organizations, women’s rights activists, radical intellectuals, poets, writers and left organisations. Islamic fundamentalism is a tool of repression in the hands of the reactionary rightwing ruling class, which uses these reactionary forces to crush working class movements and organisations.

This extremist danger needs to be met by a decisive response by left activists, trade unionists and the working class as a whole. It is necessary for the movement to be united around a genuine socialist and revolutionary programme and for defence committees to be set up in working class communities and in the factories to face the threat posed by the reactionary Islamic organisations.

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