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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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Violence And Intimidation Directed Towards Rohingyas In Bangladesh Camps

Human Rights Watch warned in a report in August that the Bangladeshi government was restricting access to basic services by resisting attempts by aid agencies.

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Rohingya, Violence
Rohingya refugees carry a hume pipe in Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, in Bangladesh. VOA

The failed attempt to send thousands of Rohingya back to Myanmar starting this month has drawn attention to alleged violence and intimidation by security forces against members of the Muslim minority living in Bangladesh’s sprawling refugee camps.

Bangladesh has boosted its international reputation by hosting more than 730,000 Rohingya who fled a vicious campaign by Myanmar’s military last year that U.N. investigators have labelled genocide – an accusation Myanmar has consistently denied.

But Bangladesh appears keen to demonstrate that Rohingya refugees will not be welcome there indefinitely. The planned repatriations sparked fear and chaos last week as Rohingya went into hiding – and in a handful of reported cases attempted suicide – to avoid being sent back.

Rohingya, myanmar, violence
Rohingya refugee children shout slogans during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh. VOA

Meanwhile, allegations of sporadic beatings, looting and intimidation by Bangladeshi soldiers, police and camp officials have underscored the bleak conditions faced by Rohingya in their host country, where most are denied official refugee status and face restrictions on freedom of movement.

The repatriation of some 2,000 refugees was scheduled to begin last Thursday, but Bangladesh has now put the plans on hold until next year after failing to find any Rohingya willing to go back.

Rohingya in the camps have told VOA that soldiers were stationed near the homes of those who were told they would be sent back last week, fueling fears of forced repatriation and adding to widespread distress in communities already suffering extreme trauma after last year’s violence.

One Rohingya man told VOA anonymously that block leaders in the camps were also “announcing with loudspeakers… that it’s essential for everyone to carry ID with them whenever and wherever they go if they leave their homes.”

Late last month, security forces looted property from Rohingya shopkeepers at the Balukhali camp, said John Quinley, a human rights specialist with the non-profit organization Fortify Rights.

Rohingya, myanmar, violence
Rohingya refugees walk under rain clouds on June 26, 2018, in Jamtoli refugee camp in Bangladesh. VOA

“Right now the security forces are operating in the camps with total impunity,” he said.

In another case earlier this month, Fortify Rights reported that security forces rounded up 18 Rohingya leaders and slapped and hit some of them while telling them to instruct other refugees to cooperate with a new U.N.-backed project to provide them with “smart cards.”

Many Rohingya oppose the identity cards because they fear the information on them will be shared with the Myanmar government.

Bangladesh’s refugee, relief and repatriation commissioner, Abul Kalam, told VOA he was unaware of the allegations of violence but would follow up. “Generally, it is not acceptable that someone would apply force on or beat someone to do or not to do something,” he said.

Quinley called on the U.N.’s refugee agency to “do everything in their power to make sure that the Bangladeshi authorities are respecting human rights.”

Rohingya, myanmar, violence
An elderly Rohingya refugee holds a placard during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh.VOA

Spokesperson Caroline Gluck said the agency has notified the authorities of a “small number” of reports of violence related to the smart card project. The agency has “been following up with them to ascertain the circumstances of what happened,” she told VOA.

Officials have responded that the incidents were “not linked” to the smart card project, she said.

She added, “The new ID card will enable refugees to be better protected and will streamline access to assistance and services.”

Mohammed Sheikh Anwar, a Rohingya activist, told VOA the Bangladeshi government “needs to keep the lower-level authorities in check. There should be an accountability measure.”

“Committing violence against genocide survivors to make them agree to the authorities’ terms is not the solution,” he added.

Rohingya, myanmar, violence
A Rohingya refugee woman draws water from a hand pump at a temporary shelter in New Delhi, India.

Last week a Rohingya man named Ata Ullah said he was beaten at the office of an official at the Chakmarkul camp, the Guardian reported, after he failed to provide the official with a list of refugees.

Ata Ullah said in a video circulated on social media that when he couldn’t provide the official with a list he “was beaten with a large stick… they stepped on my neck, I could not stand it.”

Also Read: Bangladesh Government Build a New Rohingya Camp

Human Rights Watch warned in a report in August that the Bangladeshi government was restricting access to basic services by resisting attempts by aid agencies and Rohingya refugees to “create any structures, infrastructure, or policies that suggest permanency.”

As a result, the report said, “refugee children do not go to school, but rather to ‘temporary learning centers,’ where ‘facilitators,’ not ‘teachers,’ preside over the classrooms. The learning centers are inadequate, only providing about two hours of instruction a day,” the report said. (VOA)