Jamaat-e-Islami: A Shape of Things to Come




Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islam (JI), the country’s largest Islamist party, will remember 2014 for some different reasons. Faced with charges of crimes against humanity and the hanging of one of its prominent leaders, Abdul Quader Molla, in the previous year, the party has consolidated its power and has shown some strength in 2014. This is especially true for the JI’s grassroots, which have been crucial in the victory of its 46 candidates in the last local government body election.

But the party’s history and that of other cadre-based parties that follow a Leninist party structure tells us that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the party to accommodate the huge supporter base that has been created over the last couple of years.

Finding a possible way out is important. But before that, the party has to become open to the idea of a possible change. And change comes only after reflection.

There is no denying that the JI has made strings of mistake in its recent history. This included leaving the Islamic Democratic League, which was formed during President Zia’s regime. It was an umbrella organisation of like-minded right-wing political parties and individuals who fought the general election and had won over a dozen and a half seats. The JI was not involved in it as a political party, but many know JI figures featured in the party rank and file and its influence over the IDL policy making was formidable. JI also persuaded Khaleda Zia to participate in the 2008 general elections. JI’s political activities are punctuated with wrong decisions that have jeopardised the lives of its ordinary workers.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The party’s organisational structure also remains a big hindrance before its growth. History suggests that a party that follows a Leninist party structure needs strong mass organisations to get its regular supply of party members and workers. The JI does not have that—their Shromik Kollan Federation (Worker’s Welfare Federation) is not as strong as Trade Union Centre, the labour front of Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB). The same is true about other front organisations. The only solace is the JI’s student wing, but the situation here is not all rosy either.

Unlike the CPB, which actively recruits party members from its student organisation, the JI does not allow ICS members to join the JI before their studentship expires. Leninist party structures always help the organisation to recruit from its mass organisations, creating an unbreaking supply chain of members and sympathisers. It also helps to generate funds, which comes especially handy at times of crisis.

While the latter might be true for the JI, the opportunity cost is huge. The JI leadership has miserably failed to make use of hundreds and thousands of ex-ICS members who could have been accommodated if the JI leadership had shown more brinkmanship.

The problems are multifaceted and are rooted in the mindset of the JI leaders who refuse to evolve. Take the 2001 general elections. The JI could have nominated two young MPs as its ministers in the Khaleda-led Four-Party Alliance government. A female party member as a minister would have been a part of the surprise package, which would have attracted the urban middle class into the fold of the party.

Another problem that holds the JI back is some of its members’ roles during Bangladesh’s Independence War. Instead of resolving it or getting closure, some in the JI rank and file remain obsessed with defending some of the events surrounding it, defending the action of some or feeling too shy to speak out. The name JI itself has been a problem, a liability almost.

As Muhammad Kamaruzzaman has pointed out in his famous letters, no other Islamist party has been accused of standing against the independence movement of the country, whose Muslim majority population it represents. Not changing the name, which is cloaked with controversy, and not making room for new leadership at the top have brought the inevitable–the party policymaking forum is clogged with faces who are not familiar with the ways of life of a majority of the country’s youth who speak a different language or (literally) dances to a different tune.

It’s not that the JI leadership is dictatorial or power hungry. But its very party structure and recruitment procedure is outdated and is only useful for a political group that wants to overthrow the existing establishment through violent means, which the JI leadership swears it does not want to do.

Experience shows that party whole-timers also feel it rude or disobedient to challenge any organisational policy, which is a recipe for stagnation in the party.

The Future

Unlike other political parties in the country, the JI does not only want to go to power; it wants to establish Islam in this part of the world. It is high time that the young leaders of the party come out and form a new organisation that will create the level playing field for Islamist politics in the country.

The JI should remain as a political entity, and can form an alliance with this new establishment. The new party (NP) needs to be more accommodating on women and minority issues and should work as an umbrella organisation for all the centrist elements of the society. The average age of the NP leaders should not exceed a 45-year threshold.

The NP needs to work on issues that relates to the youth and that too in a language that young people understand. It can have a loose Islamist agenda like the AK Party or Ennahda, but it should not be overt. It must have the sagacity to accommodate non-veiled women and Muslim-born young people who practice religion in a non-serious way.

The NP will in no way harm the JI’s politics; on the contrary, it will work as an auxiliary force for the country’s Islamic movement.

The martyrdom of Abdul Quader Mollah and the anti-Awami League backlash in the country has opened the door to new centrist politics. Added to that is the BNP’s lackadaisical leadership that is creating a vacuum in the country’s right wing politics.

Time perhaps can tell if the JI leaders and workers will be able to rise to the occasion and take Bangladesh’s Islamic movement to a new height.

Source: The Khichuri