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For the beleaguered forces of radical Islam in Bangladesh, this would come as a morale booster. A video-message of al Qaeda’s present chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri, now circulating on the Internet, has called for an ‘intifada’ (popular uprising) in Bangladesh. The Egyptian doctor has described Bangladesh as a ‘huge prison’, perhaps alluding to the large number of Islamist leaders and activists now locked up in the country.
While the senior leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami face death and life sentences for their war crimes over the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, hundreds of leaders are in jail on charges of violence during the last one year. The Jamaat is an alliance partner of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), whose leader Khaleda Zia has ruled out severing ties with the Islamist groups. The Jamaat activists provided the street muscle to the BNP protests, but Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina handled the challenge by determined police action and sometimes by asking her party activists to take the fight to the streets.
However, the Islamist groups and the BNP appeared demoralised after the January 5 parliament elections. Pakistani Islamist groups complicated the issue by protesting against the hanging of Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Mollah. When the Pakistan National Assembly adopted a resolution critical of the execution, this was seen as yet another challenge to Bangladesh’s liberation. The anti-Pakistan wave further pushed the Jamaat and other Islamist groups on the backfoot. As the government security forces unleashed coordinated operations in several Jamaat strongholds to sever the Islamist stranglehold, there was little that they could look up to. Even the West, critical as it was of the polls, called on the BNP chief to cut off ties with the Jamaat.
So the Al-Zawahiri video would be seen as a boost to the Islamist cause in Bangladesh. Al-Zawahiri’s tirade against the government follows the Jamaat narrative that the present government is an Indian puppet, it has destroyed the cause of Islam in Bangladesh, there is total opposition to establishing the laws of Sharia and more.
“Bangladesh is the victim of a conspiracy in which the agents of India, the corrupt leadership of Pakistan Army and treacherous power-hungry politicians of Bangladesh and Pakistan are all involved,” Al-Zawahiri says in his message. And then he calls on Bangladeshis to “gather around the true scholars of Islam, support them and protect them and launch a massive public uprising in defence of Islam against the enemies of Islam”.
But by lashing out at Western-style democracy championed in Bangladesh and pitching for Sharia rule, Al-Zawahiri may end up raising hackles in the West, specially the United States. Because so far the Jamaat and its fraternal groups have fought a street war to uphold the very democracy that Al-Zawahiri is so critical of. But for Hasina and her party, the threat of intensified terror, of petrol bombs being replaced by car bombs, is a frightening prospect. The power of terror did reflect in the low turnout during the polls. If the Islamists manage to stage a few daring car bombings that kill a few hundred like in Iraq, Bangladesh will be looking at a whole new challenge of global terror coming to the country through home-grown Islamists who may lack a popular support base but have enough real and virtual networks to bleed the country and those who run it.
(Subir Bhaumik is a veteran journalist and author. The views expressed by the author are personal.)