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News Analysis: Is Jamaat dying?

  • Published at 11:08 am May 26th, 2020
web-Jamaat-e-Islami - ATM Azharul Islam
Jamaat-e-Islami leader ATM Azharul Islam

The Islamist group is facing an existential crisis and riven with division

“Religion-based politics creates division in the society.” 

This is how a former senior Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami leader evaluates the political ideology he spent most of his life to win. Mujibur Rahman Manju, who was the chief of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami student wing and the main driving force of the Islamist group Bangladesh Islami Chattra Shibir, became the spokeperson and the member secretary of the newly formed political party Amar Bangladesh Party.

Most of the leaders and members of this new party are former leaders and activists of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, the Bangladeshi chapter of Jamaat-e-Islami which was once one of the world’s pre-eminent Islamist movements. 

In a recent interview with BBC Bangla, Manju said that their new party will give equal opportunity to women and religious and ethnic minorities, a system which was absent in his former party. 

The convenor of the party, AFM Solaiman Chowdhury, while speaking to the Daily Prothom Alo on May 14, said that the main difference between Jamaat and their new party would be: Inclusive and exclusive. The party will be open for all kinds of people in terms of religion, ethnicity, and ideology. 

That is, the party will go for secular politics which is just the opposite of what Jamaat-e-Islami founder Abul Ala Maududi and his party advocated for since its inception in 1941. Maududi was extremely critical of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s idea of a secular Pakistan and his party played a significant role in Pakistan’s Islamization, especially during military ruler General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s regime when it served as the “regime’s ideological and political arm” with party officials holding key cabinet positions. By forming a new party that advocates for secularism, the former Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami leaders are in fact challenging Maududi’s idea of Islamization.       

Jamaat activists responded to the idea on social media sites by labelling the new political group as a conspirator and “Kharizi” -- an Arabic term used to describe those who deviate from ideal norms of behaviour. Former Bangladesh government secretary and commentator on Jamaat Shah Abdul Hannan reportedly said that he believes the newly formed party has no future. He said there are all types of political parties in Bangladesh and there is no gap that a new party can fill in.  

It is too early to comment on the success of the new party but the decision of some Jamaat leaders and activists to leave the party and form a new one, and criticize the political ideology which used to be sacred to them, tells us that Jamaat is in crisis. 

The Islamist group is spending its worst time in history. The party is losing influence both on the streets and in the electoral process in Pakistan. The JI could secure only one National Assembly and two provincial assembly seats in Pakistan’s 2018 election. Moreover, a good number of Jamaat leaders and activists have left the party and joined Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. It is said that the current President of Pakistan, Arif Alvi, and several other ministers, were associated with either Jamaat or its student wing at some point of their political career. 

In Bangladesh, most of its senior leaders were hanged for their crimes during Bangladesh’s Liberation War and the party is facing an existential threat.  

In India, Jamaat-e-Islami Hind has no significant political program. In 2011, it launched the Welfare Party of India where it also included some Christian priests in the leadership. Jamaat-e-Islami Kashmir was banned by the Indian government last year and its leaders and activists are facing a crackdown and are in hiding.

Jamaat is one of the two most popular Islamist movements of political Islam. The other one -- Muslim Brotherhood -- is also facing existential challenges in Egypt, Tunisia, and the Arab world. The last decade was its best and worst time. Muslim Brotherhood or its affiliated parties climbed to power in Egypt and Tunisia after the Arab Spring but did not last long. 

Scholars argue that political Islam has two kinds of challenges. First, they have an identity crisis -- the Muslim identity and the national identity. Second, the division among party activists based on conservative and liberal courses of action. Political Islam and parties based on its ideology always struggle with whether they will take part in the electoral process or go for an arm struggle to capture power. 

Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 in Egypt, was an advocate for gradual reform while Sayyid Qutb, who was an influential figure in the Islamist group in 1950s and 1960s, favoured taking up arms against impious rulers. 

Pakistan Jamaat had also faced an ideological split in 1957 when some key leaders, including Maulana Amin Ahsan Islahi, left the party as they thought the party should not have taken part in parliamentary politics. 

It is too early to say if Jamaat is dying. But when some former Jamaat leaders are preaching against religion-based politics, the Islamist group must be in transition from Islamism to moderate Islamism or Muslim Democrats or post-Islamism. 

Mushfique Wadud is a journalist currently pursuing his PhD in Media Studies in the United States.