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How deep is the economic reach of Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh

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By Amitava Mukherjee

Bangladesh is now at the crossroads. The war crimes tribunals, set up to punish those who had committed crimes against humanity during Bangladesh’s liberation war of 1971, have already sent to gallows three leading lights of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) — Abdul Quader Mollah, Mohammed Qamruzzaman and Ali Ahsan Mujahid — while death penalties have been awarded to Motiur Rahman Nizami, the chief of the JeI in Bangladesh. However, the Jamaat’s enormous financial clout has created a dangerous situation for the Awami League-led government.

While the election commission barred the Jamaat from the polls on Bangladesh Supreme Court orders in 2013, several front-ranking Awami League leaders are now demanding its outright ban. But Jamaat has so much financial clout that any attempt to uproot it altogether at this moment may lead to social unrest.

According to Abul Barkat, a professor of economics at the Dhaka University, the Jamaat-e-Islami has created a ‘state within a state’ and an ‘economy within an economy’ in Bangladesh. Barkat’s study paints a frightening picture. The JeI is now almost everywhere in Bangladeshi society like large financial institutions, household-level micro-credit organizations, madrasas, mass media, information technology, big trading houses, and non governmental organizations.

Barkat has calculated that Jamaat’s net annual profits from such ventures amounts to about $278 million and the largest chunk – 27.5 percent – of this comes from banks, insurances, and leasing companies. The NGOs contribute 18.7 percent, 10.5 percent comes from trade and commerce, 10.1 percent from pharmaceutical industries and healthcare institutions, 9.4 percent from the education sector, 8.8 percent from real estate business, 7.3 percent from transport, and 7.7 percent from the media and information technology business.

Bangladesh Culture Minister Asaduzzaman Nur has recently alluded to Islamic fundamentalists’ involvement behind a collection of huge funds from mosques and Bangladeshi establishments in London. But the fundamentalists perhaps do not need such collections as nearly 10 percent of Jamaat’s annual profit in Bangladesh goes towards funding the party’s political activities. It has also been calculated that this 10 percent can sustain nearly 600,000 cadres. As the Jamaat controlled economy is showing a higher growth rate – 9 percent per annum – than the mainstream’s growth figure of 6 percent, the fundamentalist bloc can remain assured of a continuous flow of money.

Abul Barkat has calculated that from 1975 to 2012, the Jamaat has earned a profit of $11 billion.

Jamaat’s principal financial arm in the country is the Islami Bank of Bangladesh Ltd. (IBBL), an organization which was once penalized for money laundering by the Bank of Bangladesh, the country’s apex regulatory institution for the financial sector.

Mir Quasem Ali, a Jamaat central executive committee member now awarded the death sentence, was once the IBBL director. The beneficiary of IBBL’s alleged illegal acts was no doubt the Jamaat-e-Islami. It is interesting to note that the IBBL was founded in 1975 at the initiative of Fuad Abdullah Al Khatib, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Bangladesh.

The JeI’s penetration into the political economy of Bangladesh is astounding. Apart from the IBBL, Jamaat is in control of 14 other banks which are working mostly in the country’s rural sector. In addition, the IBBL is now widely linked with other powerful financial institutions of the Islamic world. Notable among them is the Al Razee Bank of Saudi Arabia.

The IBBL has now become one of the three largest banks in South Asia, with 60 percent of its shares held by Saudi individuals and institutions. Among the rest Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar have prominence. Moreover, Jamaat has its presence in the insurance sector also and has entered into a collaboration agreement with the Far Eastern Islamic Insurance Corporation.

If information from across the border is to be believed, the Jamaat has already started taking steps to safeguard its financial interests in the event of a crackdown by the Bangladesh government and line-up the next generation of leaders if Matiur Rahaman Nizami and Mir Quasem Ali are really hung. For over 40 years, Mir Quasem was Saudi Arabia’s ‘money man’ in Bangladesh and it is quite probable that pressures will be mounted by the Islamic world of West Asia and the Middle East to stop his execution. He had taken refuge in Saudi Arabia after the birth of Bangladesh. After coming back in 1974 he immediately got a job in the IBBL and soon became its director.

Mir Quasem Ali is a crucial man in the Jamaat chain of commands that extends up to the Middle East and West Asia. He happened to be the chief of the Islamic Bank Foundation (IBF) too, an affiliate of the IBBL. The IBF acts as the custodian of Jamaat’s money accruing from various projects and foreign donations. Mir Quasem was also the country director of a Saudi Arabia-based NGO named Rabeta-al-alam-al-Islami. Rabeta, along with other NGOs like the Kuwait Relief Fund and the Al-Nahiyan Trust of Saudi Arabia, used to run many projects in Bangladesh.

Economics professor Abul Barkat has calculated that the Islamic fundamentalism controlled economy in Bangladesh amounts to 8.62 percent of the nation’s developmental budget and 1.54 percent of the national exports earning.

In such a situation, the JeI-led Islamic fundamentalist bloc is a reality in Bangladesh and mere hangings of some Jamaat bigwigs may not be enough to wipe it out. (IANS)

(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator)

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Rohingya Camp Refugees face Challenges in Family Planning Brought up by Bangladesh Officials

The Bangladesh Govt is promoting the use of contraceptives to promote family planning among Rohingya Muslims but there are still challenges to be faced

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One of the Rohingya Refugees settled in the hut with their fifth child
One of the Rohingya Refugees settled in the hut with their fifth child . BENAR.

Bangladesh, November 14: As Bangladesh’s government struggled this week to persuade residents of overcrowded refugee camps to use contraceptives as part of a new push to promote family planning among Rohingya Muslims, Nurul Islam’s wife gave birth to their fifth child.

Three-day-old Ayesha was born Tuesday in a tiny, one-room hut in Teknaf upazila (sub-district) in Cox’s Bazar district that her parents and four brothers have called home for the past two months since they fled a fresh cycle of violence and atrocities allegedly committed against the Rohingya minority by the military in neighboring Myanmar.

Islam was elated at what he described as his “latest achievement.”

“Having a child shows that you are a strong man. I now have five of them,” the 32-year-old told BenarNews proudly. “And I will try for more,” he added with an air of confidence.

Unlike most other members of his community, Islam said, he was aware of birth control procedures but wasn’t interested because the practice was “considered a sin.”

“I know what a condom is… but have never used one,” he said – a telling statement uttered by a majority of Rohingya that prompted the family planning office of Cox’s Bazar to introduce birth control steps in about 15 refugee camps sheltering nearly 1 million members of the displaced group.

More than 600,000 of them, including about 20,000 pregnant women, have arrived in southeastern Bangladesh from Buddhist-majority Myanmar since its military launched a counter-offensive in response to insurgent attacks in Rakhine state on Aug. 25, according to the latest estimates from the United Nations.

Rohingya Refugee Camps set up by Bangladesh Government
Rohingya Refugee Camps set up by Bangladesh Government. Wikimedia.

‘Deep-rooted problem’

Officials with the Directorate of Family Planning, which is connected to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, launched the birth control program in Rohingya camps in September.

But soon after, they realized they were “only scratching the surface of a deep-rooted problem,” Pintu Kanti Bhattacharjee, the department’s deputy director, told BenarNews.

“A majority of Rohingya, who are largely uneducated, are not aware of birth control measures. The ones who are aware are convinced that family planning methods conflict with their faith,” he said, adding, “We then realized we were faced with a huge challenge.”

Before the refugee crisis exploded in late August, Bhattacharjee’s department had about 50 workers.

“We have hired about 200 people over the past few weeks and still feel the need for more staff,” he said. The near 250 health workers operate out of 13 offices in Ukhia and Teknaf sub-districts and “go door-to-door to educate Rohingya about the benefits of family planning.”

“So far, we have managed to talk about birth control with 150,000 Rohingya. We convinced 7,500 of them to take contraceptive measures like condoms, pills and injections,” Bhattacharjee said.

‘I would like to opt for birth control

Islam, the refugee who became a father for the fifth time this week, was among the unconvinced multitude.

“Our children are Allah’s gift to us. We will accept as many as he gives us,” he said, as he prepared to walk 1 km (0.6 mile) to the nearest food distribution center to bring his family something to eat.

“Allah will take care of them,” he added, before disappearing into the crowd of refugees rushing to get ration supplies.

Islam’s wife, Amina Khatun, 24, said she did not agree with her husband.

“If they [family planning workers] come here, I would like to opt for birth control,” she told BenarNews.

She had their first child when she was 16 years old, two years after getting married. Over the next eight years she delivered four more children. All of them, including the latest addition to their family, were born at home with help from women in the neighborhood.

“It’s not easy to take care of so many children. And my husband wants to have more,” Khatun said exhaustedly as she breastfed her newborn.

Abdul Muktalif, 57, a camp leader in Teknaf, said that all Rohingya couples had “at least five children in hopes that the more kids they have, the more money they will bring in when they grow up.”

Muktalif, who has been living at the Leda camp for the last 14 years, has 15 children – the youngest 1 year old – from three wives.

Officials weigh voluntary sterilization

Bhattacharjee said his office was mulling the idea of providing voluntary sterilization to Rohingya but “cannot implement it unless the Ministry (of Health and Family Welfare) approves it.”

In a statement issued Thursday, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said: “Simply offering sterilization would be a narrow and unethical approach.

“Family planning is a matter of individual choice, should be completely voluntary, and women, girls and couples should have access to the widest method mix for them to choose from complemented by adequate information and counseling on available methods and services,” it said. (Benar)