When a Dhaka University political science researcher undertook a massive Bangladesh-wide survey on rumour and rumour control in the middle of 2023, one-third of the respondents said that the 2021 attack on a Hindu place of worship in Comilla district was not the result of any rumour.
In other words, the respondents, almost 80 percent of who were in the 18-30 age group, believed that Hindus did defile the Quran, leading to the attack on Durga puja marquee. Another third of the respondents, when asked what they thought about the communal violence, said “they did not know”.
The survey across 10 sites in Bangladesh, besides a parallel online version, threw up a huge dataset in August-September 2023 and is still being updated, leading several scholars to conclude that “the circle of Islamisation in the country has nearly closed”.
A Dhaka University political science department professor, who insisted anonymity, said that “Bangladesh’s spaces of harmony are being negatively impacted by not only domestic politics but also because of the perceived acts of omission and commission by India. While political Islamists in Bangladesh began gaining strength from the 1970s, this trend picked up momentum after the terror strikes in New York in September 2001. What should be a matter of concern is that the educated, urban youth is being affected by Islamist influences”.
While in post-2008 Bangladesh, the then Awami League government did crack down on the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami (it “asserts that all sovereign power belongs to the Divine and consequently, source of all laws are also derived from such Divine source”) and hanged some of the anti-liberation individuals and war criminals before moving to deregister it as a political party, Islamists of all hues cropped up in the form of political parties and outfits since 2014.
In early September 2023, six Islamic parties banded together under the banner of the Liberal Islamic Alliance and led by the Bangladesh Supreme Party (BSP). It declared its political objective quite clearly: that it would contest the elections to the 12th Jatiya Sangshad across all 300 parliamentary seats and were not in favour of a care-taker regime that would oversee the conduct of the polls.
Besides the BSP, the other parties in the alliance are the Bangladesh Islami Oikya Jote, Aashiqeen-e Awlia Oikya Parishad, Bangladesh Jana Dal, Krishak Sramik Party and the National Awami Party (NAP-Bhasani). The BSP is led by its chairman Shahjada Syed Saifuddin Ahmad Maizbhandari.
Bangladeshi political observers mince no words in saying the Liberal Islamic Alliance is a “creation” of the Awami League which was also instrumental in the past in the swelling of ranks of the Hefazat-e-Islam that has a large following across many parts of the country. The conferring of the title of Qaumi Janani (Nation’s Mother) on Sheikh Hasina by the Hefazat-e-Islami in 2018 was a clear indication of the “closeness” between this outfit and the Awami League.
While the general belief is that allowing the Liberal Islamic Alliance a political-electoral space was Sheikh Hasina’s way of blunting the Jamaat force, a relatively new Islamist group appears to have emerged on Bangladesh’s political landscape – the Islami Andolan or the Chormorai Pir – with its politico-religious foundations in Barisal district.
Although Islami Andolan Bangladesh (IAB) was established in March 1987 and remained a fringe organisation for years before it began to make significant impact in district-level and municipality politics in the first decade of the 21st century, the party has now made deep inroads across some parts of rural Bangladesh with its leaders espousing Islamic law and the regressive practices and beliefs, including the degraded position of women and the use of the hijab, that come with it.
Despite its orthodox beliefs, the Chormonai Pir, led by Syed Muhammad Rezaul Karim, has found fertile recruitment and mobilisation ground across several districts. In the rigged 2018 elections, the Islami Andolan Bangladesh was the third largest party in terms of vote share. It secured 12,36,983 votes across 297 of 300 constituencies. In the 70 seats in the Dhaka division, the IAB bagged 332,230 votes. It garnered 188,884 votes in Barisal, its stronghold.
While some Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leaders dismiss the IAB as a “fringe phenomenon”, political analysts and scholars claim that the outfit has been returning impressive electoral gains in city corporation elections. “When religion-based politics has been near-totally banned on university campuses, the IAB has been quite active in Dhaka University. It holds meetings and some time ago even demanded a separate prayer space for women students who prefer donning the burqa and the hijab,” said the political science professor who did not want to be quoted earlier.
This is echoed by JANIPOP founder chairman and Dhaka University professor Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah, according to whom “Islamisation in Bangladesh is advancing inch by inch, both overtly and covertly. The Chormonai Pir phenomenon is being given the space to operate and propagate its ideology with the Jamaat working quietly alongside”.
With signs that the ruling Sheikh Hasina regime will likely go ahead with the elections, even if the BNP may not take part if its primary demand for a caretaker/interim government is not met, the Liberal Islamic Alliance has begun to make overtures to the minority groups. On October 3, the Liberal Islamic Front held an “ideas exchange” interaction with the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC) to explore the possibilities of an electoral arrangement.
It is another matter that the venue for this ideas exchange meeting was a Chinese restaurant – Sung Wa – but a statement by the BHBCUC said that the two sides discussed the urgent need for restoring “secular democratic values” and “communal harmony” in the weeks leading to the elections. Maizbhandari presided over the meeting which also decided to form a six-member liaison committee that would ease the process of interaction between the two groups.
Critics argue that the flirtation between the Liberal Islamic Front and the BHBCUC exposed the latter’s “endorsement” of the former. Expressing doubts about the BHBCUC’s intent, they questioned the organisation’s double standards – while maintaining a tough stand against the government, it doesn’t shy away from “sitting alongside” an Islamist alliance for a “managed election”. This, the critics said, raised questions on the BHBCUC’s “intentions” and its objective of “realising the demand of minorities”.
What has raised the hackles of secularists and anti-Islamists in Bangladesh is that the Jamaat, on its part, recently began to take steps to squirm out of the legal jam that it continues to be in. While the Jamaat has neither participated in any election nor held any political rallies since 2013, it suddenly held a public meeting on June 16 this year in a bid to reassert itself as a political entity.
However, historian and a commentator on contemporary Islam in Bangladesh, Salimullah Khan, takes a more nuanced approach to the “so-called Islamisation” in the country. “The question of Islamisation in Bangladesh today can best seen as a response to a historical situation, rather unconsciously determined. The phenomenon of Islamisation, mistakenly so-called, is an unconscious expression of a dual despair: the country’s fate as a neo-colonial dependency and its relegation to a regional subaltern,” Khan says.
Khan goes a step further to say that “Islamisation in Bangladesh will remain a chimera until you take into account the flourishing of global racism and the aggressiveness of Hindutva in the neighbouring hegemon of India. It is only an inverse mirror image of the global warming. The Bengali Muslim peasantry is disintegrating, of course. The urban lumpen-proletariat that has come out of it is not a revolutionary working class, it is rather a hotbed, a breeding hatchery, of fascism. So is the petty bourgeoisie or the new middle class of these days. The Bangladeshi bourgeoisie is out and out a compradore class, supine in character and rapine is its real faith. Islamisation is one of its many ways to further exploit the untutored”.
It is this comprador class, which includes the political parties, that seeks to employ and deploy Islamist parties whenever they are in doubt of electoral advantages in Bangladesh’s political cesspool, and especially when elections advance. It is this means that the Awami League seeks to use this time around. Whether it will be successful is another matter.