Islamist parties in Bangladesh that have in the past always sided with the country’s center-right alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are now joining hands with the ruling Awami League. The incumbent party led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is secular by its very manifesto. But the Islamists are turning the tables before the national election on December 30.

Of a total of 70 Islamist political parties, 63 are now with the Awami League-led Grand Alliance. Of the remaining seven parties, five are with the BNP-led 20-party Alliance and two are refraining from joining either of the alliances led by the two main political parties.

However, only 10 of these 70 parties are registered with the Election Commission and thus can contest the polls with an electoral symbol. There are a total of 39 political parties registered with the EC.

The largest Islamist political party of the country – Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) – has been banned from taking part in the upcoming general election. The EC has canceled its registration as a political party. JI is the same party that opposed Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan during the Liberation War of 1971.

Even though it’s banned, JI still is a key member of the BNP-led alliance that seeks to oust the ruling Awami League at the polls this year. A leader of the JI told Asia Times on the condition of anonymity that a total of 85 candidates from the party would be contesting in the polls, including 25  competing under the “paddy sheaf” symbol of the BNP, while the rest will be competing as independent candidates.

AL’s initiative to tap into Islamic vote banks

Awami League, the ruling party with a center-left manifesto, has been making a conscious effort to develop stronger ties with Islamist parties in the last couple of years. Not only has it formed strategic alliances but it also has worked to unite like-minded Islamic clerics under the same umbrella.

On September 15, a new Islamic Democratic Alliance (IDA) was formed, comprising 15 Islamic and like-minded political parties and organizations, to support the ruling AL-led alliance during the upcoming parliamentary election.

Interestingly, most of those 15 parties sided with AL’s arch-rival BNP in the earlier parliamentary elections. IDA chairman Al-Hajj Misbahur Rahman Chowdhury said they has joined hands with the Awami League for “strategic reasons.”

“Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has done a lot for Islam, so ideologically we have no problem supporting her party politics. At this point, it seems, we will be benefited more if we endorse her alliance in the upcoming election,” Chowdhury said.

Awami League religious affairs secretary Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah told Asia Times that several Islamist parties and clerics had vote banks, but they neither had registration nor the means to participate in the next general polls.

He said the Awami League was planning to utilize the above-mentioned vote banks by bringing those parties and clerics into the alliance.

He said “any party and person” could join the AL-led alliance “if they believe in the spirit of [the] 1971 Liberation War.”

“We do not lose our secular identity if we make ties with the religious parties. Rather, we encouraged them to follow the spirit of the Liberation War and a secular Bangladesh.”

The Hefazat-e-Islam equation

Meanwhile, in a striking turnaround, Hefazat-e-Islam, an unregistered self-styled “non-political” party, has seemingly joined hands with the ruling AL. This Islamist group had once claimed that the government carried out “genocide by killing thousands of its men.”

Founded a little less than a decade ago, Hefazat-e-Islam was thrust on to the center stage of national politics in 2013 by an extraordinary set of circumstances.

Unlike other political outfits that operate in the capital, Dhaka, the group is headquartered in the port city of Chittagong, where hundreds of madrassas draw tens of thousands of young Muslims for schooling.
Many of these madrassas teach only Islam, using Arabic as the medium of instruction. The Hefazat’s leaders and activists, who take strict views on religion, are almost wholly drawn from these schools.

On May 5, 2013, during the current Awami League-led government’s first term, Hefazat-e-Islam occupied the capital’s financial district for 12 hours to demand the death penalty for some blasphemous bloggers. The police finally cleared the area late at night amid violence in which at least 39 of Hefazat activists died.

After that event, the Hefazat did not have to take to the streets again as the Islamist group got much of whatever it wanted through negotiations with the ruling party. On May 25, 2017, the Supreme Court authorities in Bangladesh were forced to take down a statue of the Greek Goddess of Justice Themis on the court’s premises after Hefajat demanded its removal.

Interestingly, on November 4 this year, Hefazat-e-Islam again held a massive rally but this time in cooperation with the government under the banner of Al-Hiyatul Ulya Lil-Zami’atil Qawmiya Bangladesh, a combine of Qawmi education boards led by Hefajat chief Shah Shafi Ahmed.

In that rally, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was honored with the title “Mother of Qawmi” for recognizing the Dawra-e-Hadith degree as an equivalent of a master’s degree in Islamic studies and Arabic.

Political pundits have said that although Hefazat is not a registered political party, Islami Oikya Jote, Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish, Khelafat Andolan, Islami Andolan Bangladesh, Islami Oikya Andolan, Jamiatul Ulama Islam, and several other Islamist parties are politically active under the banner of Hefazat.

Political analyst Afsan Chowdhury told Asia Times that AL’s siding with Hefazat was a “strategic compromise.”

“I don’t think AL will bring any ideological changes because of its apparent ties with Hefazat-e-Islam. AL is increasingly trying to bring Islamist parties under its umbrella to grab their vote banks.

“Besides, there is a common notion that the Islamist parties in Bangladesh usually make alliance with AL’s arch-rival BNP. I believe, by forging these alliances, AL also wants to break those notions,”  Chowdhury said.