Islam’s New Face by Mahfuz Sadique*
“When the right time comes, we shall achieve our goal,’ says a smiling, bright-eyed Mohiuddin Ahmed. As the head of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Bangladesh, he is an Islamist revolutionary with a twist. Having graduated from Bangladesh’s top business school, the Institute of Business Administration at Dhaka University, with enviable scores, Mohiuddin presently teaches the same corporate strategies and ‘cash-cow’ principles at his alma mater that his teacher’s had taught him. But the number of students attending his business classes are dwarfed by the attendance at the Chhatra Sabha (Students’ Society) sessions of the Hizb ut-Tahrir. He and others like him represent the new face of the Islam-based religious politics that is slipping into the mainstream of Bangladeshi consciousness. Unlike in the past, his foot soldiers are career-oriented, upwardly mobile young men, and women, from the country’s public and mushrooming private universities. Almost tip-toeing into the ‘ideological vacuum’ left from the aimless student politics of mainstream student bodies, Hizb ut-Tahrir is, to use the own words of a gleeful Mohiuddin, ‘selling the time-proved cocktail of popular discontent and faith.’ And they are selling good.
But there is the catch. What this ever-growing number of ‘modern Muslims’ envision, with intoxicating and chilling precision, contradicts the principles of conventional liberal, democratic and secular society, and nations that abide by it.
For a man who is the chief coordinator and spokesperson of a religion-based political party presently banned in several Middle Eastern states, throughout Central Asia, Germany (the reason cited was anti-Semitism) and Pakistan, Mohiuddin couldn’t appear any less worried. ‘We have done nothing to instigate such a response. We do not believe in any form of violence, or force,’ he explains. When asked about the size of the membership roll, but Mohiuddin claims that figure is not compiled. What he does reveal is that attendance in the monthly seminars they hold is in the region of 250 – 300, and not always the same people.
Hizb ut-Tahrir was founded in Jerusalem in 1953 by an appeals court judge, Taqiuddin al Nabhani. Initially the group’s operations were restricted to the Arab countries. The group first appeared in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Today, Hizb ut-Tahrir claims to be have operations in more than 100 countries.
Hizb ut-Tahrir Bangladesh, the country chapter of the international organisation of the same name which envisions a Shari’ah-based Khilafah state, has been gaining most momentum through its activities at the country’s universities. Alongside its national launch in Bangladesh in 17 November, 2001, just weeks after the 9/11, with anti-American sentiment and Islamic fervour peaking, the party started off university chapters at several public and private universities, including Dhaka University and North South University. Though religion-based student politics is nothing new at the nation’s higher educational institutions, Hizb ut-Tahrir has their eyes on a strata of students isolated from the mainstream. Non-practicing students, marginalised from mainstream politics, and open to discussions on lifestyle, society and science sprinkled with faith were the party’s first and prime target audience. But why this specific cross-section?
The dynamics of student politics, and the role religion has played in it, has changed gradually over the years. Student political organisations based on religious ideologies, just like their mainstream counterparts, have almost always had their origins and visions pegged to their mother ships, political parties. Religion-based student politics in our higher educational institutions has its roots from the Pakistan period. Though, in their organisational strength and ideological rigidity they had little resemblance to their present day setup. In the early sixties, three religion-based student organisations operated actively: Pakistan Chhatra Shakti, National Student Federation (later referred to infamously by its abbreviated form: NSF) and Islami Chhatra Sangha.
While Pakistan Chhatra Shakti was relatively obscure, the NSF and the Sangha had political muscle behind them. Established in 1956, as the student wing of the Khelafat-e-Rabbani party and later endorsed by then politically powerful Muslim League, the NSF had always been plagued by internal strife but remained a powerful and ‘bullying’ student organisation with direct backing from the East Pakistan governor Monem Khan. Though referred to as the ‘musclemen on campus’ and also responsible for first bringing violence into the student politics of Dhaka University, the NSF never had a strong footing among general students. And even more significant was their lack of political vision. Worth mentioning is that the cultural front of Khelafat-e-Rabbani, Tamaddun Majlish, played a pivotal role in the early days of the language movement.
But the Islami Chhatra Sangha, the Bengali name of Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, was a different story. Though, not a front running student organisation at the time, they set the pace for the Islami Chhatra Shibir of today. Syed Abul Ala Maududi had established the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamic political party based on his own ideologies, in 1941. Right after the partition of India and Pakistan, the student wing of the party – the Islami Jamaat-e-Talaba (‘Talaba’ meaning students) – was formed in Lahore on 23 December, 1947. But until 1954 there was virtually no student representation in the organisation from East Pakistan. It was only in 1955 that a full-fledged East Pakistan wing, the Islami Chhatra Sangha, was formed.
Another organisation that played a crucial role in galvanising the Islamic student movement was the Jamiat-e-Talabae-Arabia, though it did not fall under the general fold of student politics. This organisation’s member base was the madrassah-based students in the country. Till the mid-1960s they complemented the powers of the Chhatra Sangha.
The first major clash, in terms of viewpoint and action, between Islamic student bodies and the mainstream surfaced in the 1969 student movement, when countering the 11-point general demand, the Islami Chhatra Sangha put forward their own 8-point charter, which favoured the confederation. This resulted in the first visible alternative Islamic student force emerging alongside the majority student factions. There were even some violent clashes between the two opposing camps that left a prominent Chhatra Sangha leader killed.
The beginnings of the Chhatra Sangha in East Pakistan might have been modest but by the late sixties they had gathered considerable clout within the organisation’s All-Pakistan (Nikhil Pakistan) body which culminated in the election of Matiur Rahman Nizami (presently a minister in the four-party alliance government and also the head of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh) as the president of the national committee. This was the first time that an East Pakistani was at the helm of the Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing for all of Pakistan.
Islamic student organisations, taking queue from their parent parties, always treaded the line of an Islamic state in direct contradiction to the ideologies of both the mainstream right and left student bodies which centred their actions around the four basic governing political principles of the progressive politics at the time: Bengali nationalism, self-rule, socialism and the most objectionable to the Islamic camp: secularism.
Stepping stones to the mainstream
While the actions of today’s mainstream student political organisations – some originating from the pre-liberation period and some formed later – have shifted from their original political philosophies (few of them consider their political charters as guiding principles) the contradiction between progressive and religious conservative student politics, set off in the Pakistan period, has carried on to the present day. With the strength and spread of Islamic political parties growing with every passing year, and as two Islamic political entities (Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh and Islami Oikya Jote) are sharing state power, the underlying conflict between the two fundamentally polar camps is reaching dizzying heights.
Though big Islamic student organisations, such as the Islami Chhatra Shibir, have made inroads into the student bodies of most public universities, their conservative views, actions, and also the unfavourable image among general students towards its parent party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, has prevented them from capturing a larger support base. Other Islamic parties which target universities, such as the, Islamic Shashantontra Chhatra Andolan, Islami Chhatra Majlis, Khelafat Chhatra Andolon do not have any specific support base. But most activities of these organisations in turn have assisted the growth of the greater movement to legitimise Islam-based politics within the mainstream, or as is the case with such organisations, engage students with their politics.
While Shibir might not have been able to tap into general students, a stagnant ‘depoliticised’ psyche of general students has resulted in their (students) disassociation from any of the other major student bodies of either the right or the left. After the anti-Ershad movement brought together students throughout the eighties, the nineties saw a gradual fallout phase which has resulted in a great vacuum. As the ‘incorruptible purists’ of left student bodies in the 1960s and 1970s are a distant memory, a great intellectual lapse has engulfed the universities, and waits to be filled by a convenient force. This is where the Hizb ut-Tahrir comes in.
Islam, intellectually speaking
Though, the political ideology they represent is radical in terms of its values and implementation, the approach they have taken is least to say modern, and even appealing to the moderate Muslim, university crowd. Engaging in dialogue with both general students and opposite camps on previously taboo issues among Islamists through numerous seminars, discussion sessions and study circles, they are tactfully using the same political tools that previously worked so well for leftist student bodies during their heydays. The topics covered include ‘Existence of God’, ‘Blind faith of Atheism’ and ‘Cloning’.
Hizb ut-Tahrir’s aim, as summarised in their publication, is ‘to resume the Islamic way of life and to convey the Islamic da’wah (invitation) to the world. This objective means bringing Muslims back to living an Islamic way of life in Dar al-Islam and in an Islamic society such that all of life’s affairs in society are administered according to the Shari’ah rules, and the viewpoint in it is the halal and the haram under the shade of the Islamic State, i.e. Khilafah State. That state is the one in which Muslims appoint a Khalifah and give him the bay’ah to listen and obey on condition that he rules according to the Book of Allah (swt) and the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah (saw) and on condition that he conveys Islam as a message to the world through da’wah and jihad.’
It also states: ‘The Party, as well, aims at the correct revival of the Ummah through enlightened thought. It also strives to bring her back to her previous might and glory such that she wrests the reins of initiative away from other states and nations, and returns to her rightful place as the first state in the world, as she was in the past, when she governs the world according to the laws of Islam.’
The party believes in establishing ‘the Islamic State’ through three stages. The first stage involves ‘culturing to produce people who believe in the idea and the method of the party, so that they form the party group.’ As part of this stage, members of Hizb ut-Tahrir are mingling with the general public and creating Sahabahs, associated to the Islamic thought of ‘companions’. The second stage involves in ‘interaction with the Ummah (the masses), to let them embrace and carry Islam, so that they take it up as its issue, and thus works (sic) to establish it in the affairs of life.’ The third, and final, stage is: ‘establishing government, implementing Islam generally and comprehensively, and carrying it as a message to the world’.
It is the final stage that is contentious. Though Hizb ut-Tahrir is a political party, they do not accept any conventional political process. Parliamentary democracy is not acceptable in their system. Though, election as a process is acceptable, elected lawmakers formulating laws to govern a country is not acceptable in the Hizb ut-Tahrir’s final stage: ‘establishing government’. Now the obvious question arises: how then do we establish government?
‘We do not believe in violence. We have condemned all terrorist activity in the country and abroad. We are presently spreading the vision of Hizb ut-Tahrir among the public. We are also engaging in dialogue with society’s opinion-making figures as they can influence a greater number of people,’ explains Mohiuddin. On the issue of taking power, he replies: ‘That is the third stage. We believe that by the time we have substantial members and a critical mass of sympathisers who agree to our cause, there will be pressure on the state machinery to follow suit. In such a scenario, the culmination of populist support and key opinion-makers on our side, we shall be take power and form a Khilafah state.’
What about jihad, which is mentioned within the party’s aim?
Mustafa Minhaz, Media and Promotions Secretary of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s central committee, and a lecturer at the University of Asia Pacific, cautiously responds to this question: ‘That is a stage when an Islamic state has been formed. A jihad, or war, between armies is not against Islam’s principle. It is not a scenario that will arise later.’
‘Religious zeal speaking’, the uninitiated might say. But while Bangladesh has just seen close to four years of Hizb ut-Tahrir, countries with longer exposure to the party have started seeing growing signs of active resistance. Though their name came up as a possible suspect in bombings in Uzbekistan last July, analysts have termed it unlikely. Three British members of their party are being prosecuted in Egypt ‘for plotting to overthrow the government’. Despite such sporadic incidents, or rather allegations, the party has maintained an ostensibly non-violent positioning.
An interesting facet of their ideology is that, in principle, they subscribe to the same school of thought as the Taliban, or even Al Qaeda for that matter, since neither believed in engaging with a democratic structure. Their basic distinction is in their approach. ‘The perceived but not necessarily implied difference between the Hizb-ut-Tahrir and them (Taliban and Al Qaeda) is the fact that while the former insists that the end does not justify the means and that the Islamic Caliphate can be ushered in by non violent political activism, the latter has carried out a series of violent terrorist acts, which it claims are justified for the ultimate cause,’ points out Swati Parashar, associate fellow with the International Terrorism Watch Programme, in a research paper for the South Asia Analysis Group.
Hizb ut-Tahrir’s activities, as with any rising political organisation, need a constant supply of committed, intelligent and resourceful members. Young men, and women, fit exactly that profile. What better place to recruit such youth than universities?
Mohiuddin admits the result though not the intent. ‘Yes, we have a greater following among students. But that is not intentional. University students are embracing our vision as it is a viable solution compared to the misdirected philosophies of other political camps,’ he clarifies.
But a clearer indication to such intentions came from Minhaz. ‘We have studied, and scrutinised, major political movements of history. For example, in our own country, if you look at the phenomenal rise of the left student movement during the sixties and seventies, the key element in their success is their ability to galvanise a large support base within university students. And in doing this they first engaged the intellectually aspiring students and in turn these students had been able to attract a larger mass. We have also taken a similar path though we believe our philosophy has a larger appeal as it is based on faith,’ explains Minhaz.
This process has been going on simultaneously at both public and private universities. But the two streams of institutions have yielded different results. While their efforts in public universities have been mostly limited to Dhaka University, private universities have shown a remarkable acceptance to their efforts.
At Dhaka University, initial successes were thwarted when in late 2003 activists of Bangladesh Chhatra League, the student wing of the main opposition party Awami League, chased away several Hizb ut-Tahrir members. Despite the incident, they have splintered support in the Commerce Faculty of the university. Several general students have mentioned being approached by Hizb ut-Tahrir, and some of them have also admitted to attending their seminars.
Seminars targeting Dhaka University students are organised close to the campus. For example, one of the largest seminars, accompanied with a debate between leftists and Hizb ut-Tahrir members, was held at the Public Library auditorium at Shahbag. With prominent figures like Farhad Mazhar attending, the seminar saw a large attendance.
‘When programs are organised close to Dhaka University we get more audience. Along with our own members we do get interested observers who want to know what we have to say. It is at these seminars that we invite those interested from the audience to attend our group sessions,’ points out Muhammad Al Amin, an MA student of Department of Finance, Dhaka University and Hizb ut-Tahrir’s Student Representative at the university.
But whatever shortfalls they have had in recruiting from public universities were amply replenished by the phenomenal rise in their growth at private universities.
Private universities have become the new front in the war to win hearts and minds to the Khilafa state. Since the enactment of the Private University Act 1992, Bangladesh – or, Dhaka to be precise – has seen a sharp increase in the number of private universities. The present count, according to the accrediting authority for private universities – the University Grants Commission – is 54. While the Act has no mention of prohibiting student unions, or student political bodies, most of the big private universities have taken a safe-approach by enforcing a strict embargo on any form of student organisation which may have an affiliation with politics. And as new universities came up, they maintained the status-quo. There was reason to. The growing acceptability of private university among students, and the parents who pay for their education, was largely due to the non-political atmosphere they assured. After a frightful decade of violence and session-jams at public universities during the eighties, it was a welcome option to many.
Though the initial enrollment into private universities had been mostly restricted to students from fairly well-off families, by the mid-nineties students from middle-class families with a public-schooling education started getting into private universities too. While universities worldwide are considered as the melting pot of ideologies and also a primary ‘culturing platform’ of opinion, the forced vacuum at private universities left many students craving a political identity. By the late nineties, most universities had elaborate student activity clubs to compensate for this vacuum. But even then none of them provided the intellectual succour to sustain student interest.
Enter Hizb ut-Tahrir
In fact, along with the one at Dhaka University, one of the first ‘circles’ formed was at one of the leading private universities: North South University. Though this ‘circle’ had no physical infrastructure to show for, they aggressively started preaching their cause through some initial contacts. To put it mildly, they had a field day, everyday. Encouraged by the initial success, Hizb ut-Tahrir started putting in more concerted effort into private universities. At present, they have groups at Independent University Bangladesh, East West University, American International University Bangladesh, City University and Southeast University.
‘It is true that we have tapped into the ideological, or rather intellectual, vacuum at private universities as few students get to discuss any serious issues at university,’ admits Imtiaz Selim, who heads Hizb ut-Tahrir’s activities at private universities and in-charge of the party’s activities in the Gulshan Circle. A business-graduate of North South University and presently working for a telecommunications company, Imtiaz is an amicable, mild-spoken young man. Originally from Chittagong, insiders say he is also the second-in-command of the party’s growing activities in Chittagong.
Well versed in major political philosophies, and abreast with global events, Imtiaz is not your average private university graduate. With good social networking among students of various private and public universities, he can pull his weight in a conversation on just about anything. And this power to socialise with students from all social and economic backgrounds has enabled him, and members of his party, to infiltrate the diverse student demographics at private universities.
‘Politics, philosophy, economy, culture, lifestyle are issues that any young man, or woman, would like to discuss. While activity clubs rarely address this need, whatever activity there is, they are all related to career, or studies,’ says Imtiaz, and adds, ‘so Hizb ut-Tahrir members at private universities started discussing serious issues such as globalisation, imperialism, economic systems.
‘And we didn’t shy away from talking about sensitive issues, which had surfaced at private universities, or even those which contradicted our principles. We talked about pre-marital sex, we talked about drugs, we talked about alcohol, and we even talked about communism, as there was no other place these students could discuss that. Many of these discussions were not at all superficial in nature, rather intellectually engaging. And after having an open discussion, we presented to them the ideologies that Hizb ut-Tahrir believes in. We presented the Islamic way of life as a solution to all of their problems,’ elaborates Imtiaz.
From the very beginning, students started paying attention. At North South University, dozens of members attended their group sessions after prayers at the most convenient location, the prayer room. While not just staying restricted to male members, they started recruiting female members. Within months Hizb ut-Tahrir had become a topic of discussion. Though the number of core members remained low, sympathisers grew rapidly.
A final semester student at North South University’s School of Business, referred to the approach taken by Hizb ut-Tahrir at private universities as ‘nothing less than guerrilla marketing.’ ‘Their leaflets are minimal but attractive in design and many of them are in English, which conveniently caters to the psyche of private university students. Their members mingle within the general student body. Be it in the canteen, in the student lobby, in the study areas, and mostly in the tea-stalls adjacent the university, they whip up conversations with any student on some topical issue, like the Iraq war or hartal, and eventually bring up their discussion sessions,’ says the student.
‘I attended one of their seminars as I found the topic interesting. It was about cloning. But I started avoiding them when they asked me to attend their sessions at the prayer room,’ says another student.
A female student at Independent University Bangladesh’s School of Environmental Science and Management attended a women-only session of the Sisters’ Circle. ‘They had discussed the Islamic way of life. It was quite general talk. But one of my friends has joined in their party, and she has started wearing a hijab since then,’ says the girl.
Authorities at the universities observed the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir with caution. And breaking their self-imposed embargo on student’s engagement with political organizations, they stayed quiet. As prayer rooms, canteens, rest areas, study rooms became the political playing field for Hizb ut-Tahrir, they just overlooked it as general religious practice. Only when their activities became elaborate did the authorities ask Hizb ut-Tahrir to take their activities outside the campus perimeter. While group sessions shifted to local mosques near the universities, and restaurants, the political activism of Hizb ut-Tahrir members at private universities has continued.
Though officially denied, insiders within the university administration and several faculty members have indicated that as religion is a sensitive issue, the universities think it better to ignore it. ‘The private universities already have a reputation for being ‘too western’ and we are scared that cracking down Hizb ut-Tahrir will further strengthen this allegation,’ says a teacher at a prominent private university. In fact, with the official stance of no-student-politics still in place, they have tried hard to keep the situation under wraps. To stop leaking of such damaging ‘business’ information in the media, some of the major private universities even keep several paid media consultants, which generally include university and education correspondents of major dailies, who in turn have kept such and other issues out of the media.
A highly-placed source in North South University said that the US Embassy brought up the issue with the university last year as many of the universities’ graduates go on to attend graduate schools in the US. Activities of members of the party have been under heightened scrutiny since then though with a spread out member base within the general body, their activities have merely taken a more clandestine nature.
Is there anybody out there?
An interesting loophole within the systems of private universities is that student unions, or student political bodies, are not legally prohibited at any private universities as none of the private universities have published ‘statutes’ which legally restrict students from forming student bodies.
While Hizb ut-Tahrir is actively entertaining its political aspirations, it is interesting to observe that other political camps, either from the right or the left, remain completely absent. Ideologically, the left student bodies are the only ones that are directly in clash with Hizb ut-Tahrir. But they seem surprisingly inactive. A little inquiry revealed a classic reasoning; adding to a better understanding of the rise of faith-based student politics. The Student’s Union, the largest leftist student body operating at public universities, do not consider private universities as legitimate educational institutions, and therefore they don’t operate in them.
For what its worth, the Islamic student movement in Bangladesh has a new face. Their gathering clout among private university students is likely to have far reaching consequences. As a faith-based organisation, students have been found to be connected to the party even after graduation, and as they will rise through the ranks in Bangladesh, the party’s financial and organisational capacity will increase likewise as all members contribute both compulsorily and also voluntarily. And along with it, as Hizb ut-Tahrir’s influence within the general public increases, the day may actually come when they just might say: step aside!
[*Published in the Eid Special (September 20 ’06) of The New Age daily in Dhaka, after six months of investigations. The original link to the newspaper’s website does not work any more. Excuse typos. This work was incorporated into a follow up piece (with even more typos) – a wider look at the rise of political Islam in Bangladesh, especially universities. Warning: Long read.]