In the final week of February, the largest financial institution of Bangladesh, the Islamic Bank, issued an unusual advertisement in all major newspapers. The private limited company had so far been secretive about its owners and seed capital. Now it declared names of its investors, including JP Morgan and the Bank of Kuwait. The reason for Islamic Bank’s sudden transparency lay in Shahbag Square. Islamic Bank is among the many companies and organisations that the protesters at Shahbag allege are fronts for the Jamaat-e- Islami and help it sustain its religio-political activities.
Janata Bank Chairman Abul Barkat has done a study of the Jamaat’s political economy. According to him, in 2010 alone, the organisations and companies controlled by the Jamaat made a net profit of $250 million. “While the country’s economy grows at the rate of 5-6 percent, Jamaat’s growth rate was 6-8 percent per annum,” he says. The Jamaat controls companies across sectors including financial services, retail, healthcare, education, transport, real estate and the media. It also has a chain of NGOs.
The increase in Jamaat’s financial strength has been directly proportional to its fall in electoral politics. In 2001, with just 17 seats in Parliament, it became a major ally of the Khaleda Zia government. Two of its senior leaders — Motiur Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mohmmad Mojaheed, both standing trial for war crimes during the 1971 liberation war — became federal ministers. Nizami’s role in misusing government authority for Jamaat’s activities came to light in 2004 when it was found that his ministry was trying to smuggle in 10 trucks of arms through Chittagong port.
There was also an increase in militant violence across Bangladesh, with coordinated bombings in various cities and names like Bangla Bhai and Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islam (HUJI) floating about. Nizami called groups like Bangla Bhai and HUJI the media’s creation, till the militants were arrested. Julfikar Ali Manik of The Daily Star remembers interviewing militants of Bangla Bhai. “Many of them admitted they were part of Islamic Chattar Shivir, the students’ union wing of Jamaat,” says Manik. However, he points out the practical difficulty in drawing a direct connection. “The way Jamaat functions,” he says, “none of these militants will directly acknowledge a link.”
After freedom in 1971, the Jamaat was banned and its leaders accused of war crimes. After Sheikh Mujib’s assassination, Zia-ur-Rahman rehabilitated the party and its leaders. Since 1971, when it was the main party opposing independence and was widely hated, Jamaat has reworked its tactics to survive. But its essential strategy of using religion to its benefit has always stayed.
“The way the party has dealt with Shahbag is a classic example of the ‘Islam khatre main hai’ (Islam is in danger) style of working of Jamaat,” says Barkat. Instead of answering charges of war crimes, which some party leaders claimed never took place, the Jamaat brass went on a propaganda offensive, planting false blogs to frame bloggers and leaders of the Shahbag movement. Through newspapers controlled by the party, such information was republished and distributed to create an atmosphere of hate. Ahmed Rajib Haidar was killed as a consequence of such an operation.
Doctoring of images is another mechanism. Photoshop was used to depict an imam being attacked by Shahbag protesters. The image was floating around on Twitter. In truth, no imam has been killed even in police firing.
“It is easy to find out that Jamaat has dedicated bloggers and online users whose only job is to spread information about the party and lies about its opponents,” says a blogger on condition of anonymity. It is not just bloggers who have had to face issues like hacking. The Daily Star’s website was hacked and pro-Jamaat news posted to confuse readers.
Some Shahbag protesters want the Jamaat banned, but there are multiple views on this issue. There is a section that feels banning the party might not solve the problem, as its members would continue to propagate their ideology. Indeed, a halo of persecution and martyrdom may win the Jamaat sympathy, as happened with the Muslim Brotherhood during the dictatorship in Egypt.
Dhaka University professor FH Khan feels it would be easier to negotiate with the cadre if the top leadership is removed. “After all, the cadre are mostly of the same age as the protesters at Shahbag, they will understand what their country needs,” he says.
Barkat disagrees and feels the War Crimes Tribunal and then the protests at Shahbag have pushed the Jamaat to the wall. “The immediate need is to cut the financial sources of Jamaat,” he says.
AFM Bahauddin Nasim, organisational secretary of the Awami League, points out practical problems associated with taking on such a large business conglomerate, which is what the Jamaat is in real terms. “You cannot expect us to nationalise banks overnight,” he says. “There are so many issues involved.”
The fact that the government is very cautious about the developments in Shahbag and the possibility of violent reaction from the Jamaat is confirmed by senior political sources in Dhaka.
“At a Cabinet meeting on 25 February, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was very clear that the government could not work emotionally on the issue of the Jamaat,” a source said. “It had to be tactful to ensure the Jamaat was sidelined but without causing any law and order problems in the country.”
The Jamaat has already warned of a “civil war” if its leaders are prosecuted. Many look at the sentencing of Kader Mollah in the context of this threat. “It is possible that the government didn’t want to give a chance to Jamaat to create more instability,” says a senior journalist. He implies the government dictated the lighter sentence. The young throngs at Shahbag dictated otherwise.