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Dhaka Tribune

Who does lionizing Jamaat serve?

Resources depleted and key leaders dead, Jamaat faces an existential threat in an unforgiving political climate

Update : 22 Sep 2023, 09:13 AM

Last June, the Awami League government allowed Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) to hold a meeting in the capital -- a first of its kind in over 10 years. JI’s supposed return to mainstream politics has left people speculating about the party’s strength after a decade-long crackdown.

It was followed by a newspaper report, titled “Jamaat regroups by stealth,” citing an unnamed intelligence report which claimed the number of JI supporters to be in the north of 2.25 crore. A recent The Diplomat piece echoes this sentiment -- JI is flourishing despite persecution. 

However appealing it may be to JI leaders and their followers, the narrative is indeed misleading -- and fundamentally a dangerous one. 

With the hope of the country’s return to electoral politics on the horizon, this lionization of the group caters to Indian anxiety, and New Delhi finds itself compelled to side with the ruling party.

On the contrary, JI is on the brink of extinction -- the message has run its course. The fall of Morsi in Egypt in 2013 has left all mainstream Islamist parties, including but not limited to Bangladesh’s JI, without a vision. 

Morsi did everything by the book -- with a few minor exceptions -- and yet, he was ousted from power. If it did not work, what else would be the question Islamists across the globe are now asking?

This general loss of purpose and direction has dealt a severe blow to the party’s recruitment. Once a powerful force on university campuses, Shibir, JI’s student wing, is relying on the offspring of JI leaders, and the lower middle class for new recruits. 

Even then, the stream runs thin, as JI’s social and economic network has shrunk. There remains no prospect of landing a job at Islami Bank by joining Shibir. Even the educational institutions that Jamaat once controlled are in the hands of the regime loyalists.

The matter is further aggravated by a severe leadership crisis. The existing batch of Jamaat leadership is incapable of replacing the decimated batch. An uninspiring leadership has led a sizeable number of Jamaatis to openly criticize and break away from the party. 

A handful of key resource persons are behind the break-away AB Party, now eating away at Jamaat’s supporter base. The leadership’s inability to create a myth of moral authority has generated fierce debates on social networks -- fingers have been pointed to many JI leaders for their alleged financial corruption, among many other vices.

It is unlikely that Jamaat’s run of ill fortune will change soon. Even with the “War on Terror” over, the party lacks the conducive environment of the cold war, in which the US and other foreign backers helped it to prosper. Saudi Arabia, once a major supporter of Jamaat, has abandoned it. Given the direction that Turkey and Qatar have recently taken, it is unlikely that Jamaat will find its backers in them either.

No individual from the existing batch of Jamaat leaders is as connected as Ghulam Azam was. And a small leader like JI’s current amir, Shafiqur Rahman, falls way short of replacing Motiur Rahman Nizami, the last prominent JI chief. The material and ideological repertoire exploiting with which Jamaat made its place in Bangladeshi politics in the 80s and 90s are absent in Bangladesh in 2023.

The claim that Jamaat’s supporters number around 2.25 crore, in a country with a voting population of just about 12 crore, is hard to believe, since Jamaat’s best electoral performance was in 1991, when it received 12.13% votes. 

Since then, its share of votes hovers around 5%. The likelihood of sympathy votes Jamaat could hope to get in the light of the government crackdown is dim. To the degree the voters are willing to support a party that is only good at playing victim remains to be seen. 

Since JI does not disclose the identity of its activists as a countermeasure against crackdown, some individuals may be secretly reaping benefits from JI by being in contact with it, even as they hold other loyalties.

The fundamental problem still remains. JI does not have any ideological vision and a capable leadership that can inspire confidence in the party and its message. Even if JI wins a few seats in the parliament, it is unlikely to exert any policy influence.

Lionizing JI is unhelpful for the party itself. It is a self-gratifying narrative that stops the party from asking the right questions and seeking answers to them. 

Md Ashraf Aziz Ishrak Fahim is a Graduate student of Social and Political Thought at the University of Leeds. He can be reached at [email protected].

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