Bangladesh’s largest Islamist political party faces an existential crisis as its leaders split and resign over reforms and rebranding of the party. Jamaat-e-Islami, a long-time ally of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the country’s second-largest party, has seen a series of resignations of leaders amid infighting over the party’s course of action. Jamaat jointly ruled the country with the BNP from 2001-06, but it has been in tatters since 2010 when Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League party set up a war crimes tribunal
to prosecute politicians, mostly from Jamaat, for their crimes against humanity during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.
Jamaat opposed Bangladeshi independence from Pakistan and was accused of collaborating with Pakistan’s army to carry out a genocidal crackdown against Bengali civilians that saw about three million killed and tens of thousands of women raped during the nine-month war. The tribunal found dozens of Jamaat leaders guilty of war crimes and handed down death and life sentences. Five top leaders have been hanged since 2013.
Terming the tribunal a tool for “political vengeance” and sentences “politically motivated”, Jamaat supporters held violent protests that saw hundreds killed and injured across the country. In response, the government sued and arrested thousands of Jamaat leaders and activists. Jamaat’s offices across Bangladesh have been largely shut down. In 2013, the Supreme Court banned Jamaat from contesting elections after describing the party’s Islamist charter as “conflicting” to Bangladesh’s secular constitution. Last year the Election Commission cancelled the registration of Jamaat, disqualifying the party from using its weighing scale logo for any political purpose. However, dozens of Jamaat leaders contested the Dec. 30 national election in 2018 using the BNP’s “sheaf of paddy” logo. The election saw the Awami League win by a landslide, while the opposition alliance led by the BNP won only eight out of 300 parliamentary seats. All Jamaat candidates were defeated. A file image of Bangladeshi police guarding the Supreme Court in Dhaka on May 11, 2016. Thousands of police were deployed on that day after Jamaat-e-Islami president Motiur Rahman Nizami was hanged at Dhaka's Central Jail on May 10 after the top court upheld his death sentence for the massacre of intellectuals during the 1971 war of independence with Pakistan. (Photo by AFP)
The latest blow came when barrister Abdur Razzaq, an assistant secretary general of Jamaat now living in London, resigned from the party on Feb. 15 citing its failure to apologize for its role in the 1971 war and bring reforms to its charter. Razzaq joined the party about 30 years ago and was the chief defense counsel for Jamaat leaders facing war crime trials
. “I appealed to bring fundamental changes to Jamaat’s objectives, plans and programs in view of the change in world politics, and particularly, the upheavals in Muslim countries. As usual, there was no response,” Razzaq was quoted as saying by the Dhaka Tribune
on Feb. 17. In the following days, five leaders from district units of Jamaat also resigned. On Feb. 16, Jamaat expelled a senior party leader for his alleged anti-party activities. Local media reported that Jamaat has formed a five-member committee to make reforms. It will work on the formation of a new party, its constitution and other strategies to make them acceptable to the country's people, the Daily Star
reported on Feb. 17. Rasheda Rownak Khan, a political analyst in Dhaka, said Jamaat must change to survive. “The political landscape of Bangladesh has changed over the years and Jamaat’s so-called Islamist politics has lost its appeal to people. Whether it forms a new party and re-emerges, it cannot attract wider society unless it apologizes for its mistakes and changes the party’s charter to a truly democratic party. It’s a long way for the party,” Khan told ucanews.com. Father Anthony Sen, a member of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, echoed those sentiments. “I think Jamaat leaders are realizing that people won’t accept them anymore unless they change. Most people believe in progressive and democratic politics, so Jamaat’s politics based on religion and communalism makes no appeal to them,” Father Sen told ucanews.com.
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