Let's Not Be Fooled by Islamist Public Relations Campaigns

This piece also appears at Liberty South Asia

Atif Jalal Ahmad and Michael Kugelman have a new report in The National Interest that examines why the self-described “Islamic State” has been unable to penetrate Bangladesh to the same degree that they have Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their analysis notes a few important factors: “The majority of Bangladesh’s large Muslim population rejects violence, and the nation is more concerned with achieving economic prosperity,” and “increased counterterrorism efforts spearheaded by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.” Unfortunately, the article also contains one critical inaccuracy: A mischaracterization of Jamaat-e-Islami as a moderate political party.

According to the authors:

While the JeI has been described by some as a terror outfit, its activities are in fact more reactions to political decisions made by the ruling party. The JeI’s major protests are always in response to prosecutions of its top figures. The JeI does not protest about Bangladeshi women not wearing burkas, and it does not stage marches that advocate for the strict imposition of sharia law.

While it is true that Jamaat-e-Islami is presently occupied with the defense of its leadership, many of whom are on trial or stand convicted of war crimes for their role in the torture and mass killing of civilians during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of liberation, the party continues to actively organize and agitate for replacing Bangladesh’s secular democracy with an Islamic state of their own imagining.

Jamaat-e-Islami often carries out these efforts in collaboration with other Islamist groups under umbrella organizations like Hefazat-e-Islam, an extremist organization that has demonstrated for a set of 13 demands including the death penalty for maligning Islam or Muslims generally, ending “foreign cultural intrusions including free-mixing of men and women,” removing sculptures, declaring certain sects as “non-Muslims,” and the immediate release of “all the arrested Islamic scholars and madrasa students.”

Far from seeking “to regain its status as a key parliamentary player and influential coalition-builder,” as suggested by the authors, Jamaat-e-Islami has openly endorsed these demands while declaring that “the country’s Islam-loving people have become united against the anti-Islamic government and its patronized atheist people.” Jamaat-e-Islami may envisage itself as a coalition-builder, but it is clearly not looking to build coalitions with mainstream secular democrats.

It’s no surprise that confusion about Jamaat-e-Islami exists in Washington. While the  party agitates in Bangladesh for an Islamist agenda, it is carrying out a sophisticated public relations campaign in Western capitals to convince analysts and lawmakers that it is something other than what it really is. Recently, Jamaat-e-Islami’s army of Western lobbyists have been busily pushing the curious narrative that that the U.S. should support Jamaat-e-Islami in its efforts to expand its political influence, failing which “would only leave them the option of continuing a violent struggle” – a suggestion that sounds remarkably like extortion.

As Atif Jalal Ahmad and Michael Kugelman correctly note, Bangladeshis largely reject violence and religious extremism. This is no accident. Having suffered so severely from the effects of religious extremism during 1971 – in no small part at the hands of Jamaat-e-Islami – Bangladeshis today want no part of it. Jamaat-e-Islami’s actions 44 years ago may have accidentally made Bangladesh more resistant to extremism, but we should not let their well-funded public relations campaigns fool us into believing that they have changed their priorities.