By Rupak Bhattacharjee*
Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami continues to be a potent force despite being weakened politically largely due to its economic prowess. Jamaat won eighteen seats in 2001 parliamentary elections while the number came down to just two in 2008. The party’s influence over the predominantly Muslim society of Bangladesh can not be ascertained from the number of seats it secured in the successive Jatiya Sangsad polls.
The radical Islamic group operates diverse organisations like banks, real estate and insurance companies, educational institutions, medical care facilities, coaching centres, transport and tourist enterprises, media outlets, publication houses and charities. Some of the leading Jamaat- affiliated institutions include: Islami Bank Bangladesh Limited (IBBL), Social Islami Bank Limited, Ibn Sina Trust, Agro Industrial Trust, Far Eastern Life Insurance Company Limited, Takaful Insurance Company Limited, Keori Limited, Coral Reef Properties Limited, Retina, Panjeri Publications, Fouand al-Khateeb Charity Foundation, Al Hera Samaj Kalyan Foundation, Diganta Media Corporation, Daily Sangram, Education Aid, Darul Islam Centres, Manarat International University, International Islamic University Chittagong, Darul Ihsan University, Rabita al-Alam al-Islami Bangladesh, Allama Iqbal Sangsad, Al-Mutada Development Society and Centre for Strategy and Peace Studies.
The Shariah-compliant IBBL constitutes the primary source of finance for Jamaat. The IBBL, which was established in late 1975 with the initiative of the then ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Bangladesh, has emerged as one of the three top banks in South Asia. However, the Islamic bank has been kept under close watch since the 2012 United States Senate report accused it of indulging in terror financing. The IBBL provides Jamaat a financial platform to launder money from abroad and also transfer unaudited funds to various domestic and foreign militant groups.
In the recent years, the bank was fined four times as per the provisions of the Money Laundering Prevention Act, 2012 for financing Islamic militancy. Reports suggest that the IBBL’s “corporate social responsibility” funds had been used to pay the fees of suspected war criminals and accused terrorists. The Home Ministry disclosed that IBBL diverts 8% of its profit to finance militancy in the name of “corporate zakat”. The bank had also been engaged in other illegal activities to destabilise the country’s economy. Local reports say the IBBL distributed counterfeit currency to some of its subscribers.
The Home Ministry further pointed out the IBBL’s higher officials among trouble makers included alleged collaborators, war criminals and jihad tax advocates. The IBBL’s board of directors has always been dominated by persons associated with fundamentalist Jamaat. In a major development on January 24, 2016, the country’s central bank, the Bangladesh Bank, sacked Deputy Managing Director of IBBL Nurul Islam for his involvement in terror financing and violence perpetrated by Jamaat’s student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir.
Investigations into money laundering revealed that foreign fund had reached militant groups mainly through Jamaat-controlled financial institutions. Ahle Hadis Andolan Bangladesh chief Professor Galib acted as an intermediary for receiving and distributing funds from abroad to many radical Islamic groups active in the country. Besides, some of the Islamist outfits get financial assistance from foreign sources directly.
The Jamaat also operates fourteen other banks in Bangladesh. The party recently entered into insurance business in collaboration with Far Eastern Islamic Insurance Corporation. In addition to using its vast network for money laundering and terror financing, the Jamaat has made deep inroads into Bangladesh’s lower middle class and the poor through several enterprises and charities across the country. Furthermore, the Jamaat has been active in the sphere of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
Reports indicate that the party runs as many as thirty charities of different size and reach. The most prominent among them is the Al Hera Samaj Kalyan Foundation that was floated in 1982. Its key objectives include preaching Islam, publication of religious books and journals, running of Madrassas, orphanages and charitable dispensaries, and distributing loans and assistance to the poor. The foundation is also engaged in lucrative manpower export to the Arab and Gulf countries.
The Jamaat has developed substantial stakes in the country’s education sector over the last two decades. The party’s Islamic Training Centres provide low-level technical skills such as electronic and car repairing as well as serves as instruments of its propaganda. The Darul Islam Coaching Centres managed by Jamaat have been operating in all the 64 districts of the country. These institutions emphasise on employment generating technical skills to attract younger people especially in the rural areas. The Darul Islam Centres have helped Jamaat strengthening its support base among the students and youths across the country in a planned way apart from raising funds for the party.
The Jamaat and its front organisations have also financed six private universities in Bangladesh. One such popular centre of higher education has been the International Islamic University in Chittagong which was set up with the financial assistance from Saudi Arabia based charity International Islamic Relief Organisation. Moreover, the Jamaat owns several publishing houses, newspapers and a think-tank called the Centre for Strategy and Peace Studies. The Daily Sangram, Jamaat’s mouthpiece, is one of the oldest newspapers in the country. The Islamist party publishes magazines for youth, like Youth Voice, booklets and Islamic literature. The party also backs some of the leading publishers, including Adhunik Prakashani and Shatabdi Prakashani.
The Jamaat not just receives monetary assistance from Saudi and Pakistani sources, Western and Gulf-based Muslim charities, and Shariah-controlled financial institutions, the party raises fund from cross-border smuggling and other illegal means as well to sustain its countrywide operations. The local media reports say the Jamaat activists in eastern Bangladesh were found involved in smuggling of drugs, contraband items and people across the border with India to sponsor their political activities. Bangladesh’s elite anti-crime and anti-terrorist security force Rapid Action Battalion recently seized large quantity of drugs in Shibganj locality.
The Bangladeshi observers say Jamaat’s earnings from domestic sources are much higher than income from its foreign assets. According to a Dhaka University professor of Economics, the net profit of the fundamentalist-owned enterprises stood at $280 million in 2012. The fundamentalist party has been running wide ranging organisations with the avowed aim of forming a state based on the tenets of Islam in the future.
The Jamaat has penetrated into the country’s economy and society over the last several decades. Since its rehabilitation in the polity by the country’s first military ruler and founder of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Ziaur Rahman, the fundamentalist party has emerged one of the strongest political forces in economic terms and it appears that the current trend will continue for sometime.
Bangladesh’s civil society is particularly concerned over the prevalence of a parallel economy dominated by Jamaat which is regarded as the fountainhead of Islamic fundamentalism in the country. In February 2013, the activists of the historic Shahbag movement urged the people to boycott all “Islamist-owned” institutions that provide funds directly or indirectly to Jamaat. Many believe that the Jamaat could utilise its strong economic base as springboard for capturing state power in the long run. In the short run, the party is likely to continue terror financing in its bids to deastabilise the secular-democratic dispensation in the country. Containing Jamaat’s influence in the society remains a challenging task for the present Awami League government as the Islamist party is said to have infiltrated the administration, bureaucracy, armed forces and media.
*Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent analyst writing on issues concerning Bangladesh. He can be reached at: [email protected]