Islamists on the Back-foot in Islamic Bangladesh


Islamists on the Back-foot in Islamic Bangladesh

Alamgir Hussain

Since the September 2001 (9/11) Jihad attacks in the USA, there has been a steady rise in Islamic radicalism and violence in Islamic countries all over the globe. But one predominantly Muslim nation, Bangladesh, stands as the only exception to that trend.

Anti-Islamist demonstration in Shahbag Square in Dhaka, Bangladesh

A country, where nearly over 91 percent of the population are Muslims, Islamists stand weaker than ever since the 9/11 attacks. And the young generation of Bangladeshis—thanks to active internet campaign against Islamic radicalism, even directly against Islam, and to enliven the secular spirit of her Liberation War in 1971, in which the-then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, broke away from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, a nation founded on Islam in 1947—are not satisfied with that position of the Islamists. Eager to see their annihilation as a political force, they recently took to the streets in order to protest against life-time imprisonment against a war criminal, named Quader Mullah, in the ongoing war crime trial. Those war criminals had fought opposed the Independence of Bangladesh and fought on the side of Pakistan during the 1971 Liberation War, and are charged with collaboration, murder and rape. And they are the major leaders of the Islamist Party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, in Bangladesh.

The protesters in hundreds of thousands spontaneously joined the demonstration from all walks of life, seeking death penalty for all the accused war criminals on trial, assembled in Shahbag Square in the capital Dhaka, dubbed Bangladesh’s “Tahrir Square”. From there, the demonstration has spread across the country. The demonstration is now running for nearly two weeks with the protesters adamant against giving up until a pledge to the effect of their demand for imposing death penalty upon all the war criminals under trial are obtained from the government.

Further anti-Islamist demands have been raised since the beginning of the revolution, among them are demands for banning the Jamaat-e-Islami Party from politics as well as banning religion-based politics. They have also demanded the nationalization of all Islamic financial institutions, such as the Islamic Bank, and the banning of their propaganda media, such as the Islamic TV channels and newspapers. Responding to their calls, members of the public have resigned from their jobs in Islamic organizations, cable operators have stopped telecasting Islamic propaganda TV channels, while others have closed their bank accounts with the Islamic Bank.

This anti-Islamist demonstration in Bangladesh is certainly phenomenal, especially when Islamists are gaining momentum or capturing power all over the Muslim world.

Bangladesh’s tryst with Jihadis

Bangladesh too had its own tryst with the radical Islamists in the post-9/11 years. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, the people of Bangladesh elected an Islamists-allied government, led by the semi-Islamist Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that won 193 seats, while the Jamaat-e-Islami had 17, their highest-ever, in the 300-seat Parliament.

And the Islamists-allied government took the path of turning blind eye to the activities of violent Islamists, turning Bangladesh into a sanctuary for Al-Qaeda-inspired radicals, trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to operate rather freely. Islamic terrorist attacks had started in Bangladesh as early as in March 1999 when a bomb blast on a cultural gathering, seen as un-Islamic by puritanical Islamists, killed 10 people and injured about 100, while another blast a month later targeting a fair celebrating the Bengali New Year, also seen as un-Islamic, killed 10 people. Sporadic incidents of Islamist violence as well as threats and attacks on the life of secular intellectuals continued.

As a result, after the ouster of the Taleban and their al-Qaeda allies from Afghanistan in 2001, Bangladesh was being increasingly seen by international observers as the next Afghanistan, as al-Qaeda cadres were shifting their base to Bangladesh. The Far Eastern Economic Review called Bangladesh an emerging “Cocoon of Terror” in April 2002, while a report in the New York Times in October 2002, entitled “Deadly Cargo”, pointed to al-Qaeda activities in Bangladesh, including al-Qaeda and Taliban Jihadists, armed with AK-47 weapon caches, entering Southern Bangladesh through Burma.

Amidst all these accusations, the BNP-Islamists led government vehemently denied and condemned those reports and even took the publishers to court on charges of maligning the nation’s image.

Emboldened by the government’s glaring connivance, even probably support from Islamist elements within the government, Islamist terrorist groups, led by Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), headed by an Afghanistan-trained Jihadi named Abdur Razzaq aka Bangla Bhai, started their campaign of terror in Northern Bangladesh. The first major terrorist attack took place in August 2004, when grenades were thrown into the rally of the secular opposition leader Sheikh Hasina, killing 18 people, including a senior female leader, wife of a former minister. Similar attack on another opposition rally a month later killed the former Finance Minister.

Over 2004 and 2005, Islamists perpetrated many terror attacks on secular cultural programs and activities, movie theaters and secular NGOs, all considered un-Islamic by them, thereby spreading terror among the population. Bangla Bhai’s JMJB thugs had cruelly butchered no less than 35 people in public view. A suicide-bomber blew himself in a sitting court in Dhaka to intimidate or undermine the un-Islamic secular judiciary, which killed the judge and a number of other people. Judges and lawyers were also targeted and killed in bomb attacks elsewhere.

Through all these obvious Jihadi terror activities, the government continued its denial and didn’t resolve a single case, none was punished, except accusing the main opposition secular-leaning Awami League Party as well as the CIA, MOSAD and RAW (India) for those terror activities. Islamic Jihadi terror’s biggest day in Bangladesh came on 17 August 2005, when some 500 bombs were set off all over the country within one hour in an amazingly coordinated manner. Although casualties were low, terrorist bombings of such scale and coordination had no precedent anywhere in recent decades.

The government again tried to deny the presence of Islamic terrorists in the country and as usual blamed the opposition party. Nonetheless, international pressure soon mounted, forcing the government to hunt down the perpetrators. Hundreds of terrorist cadres were apprehended in the ensuing drive, all connected to Islamist organizations, including JMJB and Harkat-ul-Jihad. None of the detainees belonged to RAW, MOSAD, CIA and the opposition party.


At the end of the BNP-Islamist government tenure in 2006, a military intervention started the de-Jihadization of Bangladesh. The prime leaders of the Islamist terror campaigns during the BNP-Islamist government were executed. Radical Islamists were treated firmly.

When parliamentary under the previous BNP-Islamist government, overwhelmingly voted the secular-leaning Awami League Party into power – Awami League got 230 seats, up from 47 in 2001, while the BNP got only 32 and Jamaat-e-Islami 2.

One of the major Awami League election pledges was to conduct trials of the 1971 war criminals, who formed the leadership of the Jamaat-e-Islami Party, and who were forgiven by the country’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, father of the Awami League Party chief Sheikh Hasina.

Having owned an army, judiciary, bureaucracy and security agency infested with Islamists during the previous BNP-Islamist government, the Awami League government survived an army revolt at its Head Quarter in Dhaka on February 25-26, within a month of taking power. Yet, the government handled the radical Islamists well during the past four years in power, with not a single bomb blast taking place in the country. And keeping its electoral pledge of putting the war criminals to justice, it set up an International War Crimes Tribunal, arrested many of the accused war criminals and Jamaat leaders, and their trial is at the final phase with sentences against two culprits already declared – death penalty against one and life-time imprisonment against another. And the latter punishment, seen as too lenient by many Bangladeshis, brought the youths to the street demanding death penalties for all the war criminals under trial.

Islamist counterattack?

Bangladeshi anti-Islam blogger and activist Ahmed
Rajib Haider (Thaba Baba) murdered, supposedly
by Islamists

During the ongoing anti-Islamist demonstration, two persons have been killed, suspected to be acts of the Islamists. One of them is a bank officer, who expressed his support for anti-Islamist the demonstration. The second person is named Ahmed Rajib Haider, a 35-year-old architect, who goes by the nick-name Thaba Baba. Thaba Baba is an atheist, anti-Islam activist and talented blogger, and is supposedly the brain behind the well-known Bangla Wesbite, Dhormockery [Dhormo (religion) + mockery], which was banned by the government of Bangladesh in recent past. He is also one of the main organizers of the ongoing anti-Islamist demonstration.

Thaba Baba was picked up by the culprits, murder by slitting his throat and dumped his dead-body in front of his house. At least nine Jamaat-e-Islami activists have also died in clashes with the police during the course of this demonstration.

This targeted murders that has all the hallmark of how Islamists kill their opponents in Bangladesh, however, suggest that they are certainly not a dead force. The death of Thaba Baba, whose funeral was attended by a 100,000-strong crowd, has created further outpouring of emotions in the country, and made demonstrators further determined to defeat the Islamists.


Today, there exists despair or skepticism that it is hard to win the battle against Islamists. Certainly, it is thought that Muslim nations cannot wage an effective battle against Islamic radicalism from within. The ongoing anti-Islamist demonstrations in Bangladesh clearly suggest that it is possible to achieve the supposed unachievable in Islamic countries. Having been in tune with online Islam-critiquing activities, which started with the Bangladeshi community based website,, which predates the founding of – I tend to believe that the ongoing popular anti-Islamic insurrection in Bangladesh is the outcome of the past 12-13 years of intellectual campaign targeting Islam on the internet. Within Bangladesh, the Islam-critical activities has picked up only during the past few years of the current government with internet access reaching to remote country-sides and the population becoming increasingly internet savvy. The battle against Islamists in Bangladesh is certainly not over, but my belief is that if the Bangladesh online community can continue their Islam-critiquing activities for another 5-10 years with the kind of freedom they have enjoyed over the past 3-4 years, Islamists will die a natural death.



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