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Zafar Sobhan is editor of the Dhaka Tribune, a daily newspaper.

Jamaat needs to reinvent itself

Many Bangladeshis are looking to an Islamic revivalism within which to ground their moral and ethical precepts.

he fascinating thing about the three main political parties in Bangladesh, AL, BNP, and Jamaat-e-Islami, is how easy it would be for all three to truly represent the aspirations and values of certain constituencies of the population.

There is a wide swathe of Bangladeshis who are centre-left in their social and economic preferences, secular, progressive, rights-minded, focused on social welfare, wary of the private sector, who look to the state and non-profit sector as the guarantors of opportunity and equality. The AL is their natural home.

Then there is the centre-right, who are more pro-business and believe that entrepreneurism and private sector-led growth is the best way to provide opportunity to all, not low-income housing and subsidies for farmers. The BNP has always been more welcoming to this segment.

The third economic constituency, who think that the BNP and AL are both too neo-liberal in their outlook, and prefer a more independent and radical economic message, have by now migrated to the Jamaat, with its message of social justice married to contempt for the West, including its economic principles.

Similarly, when it comes to social and cultural issues, there are again three dominant factions within Bangladeshi society, each of which fits neatly with the ideological philosophies of the three parties.

The nativists, who bemoan the despoliation of the culture and language, and are rooted in the traditional Bengali cultural sensibility, have always been found disproportionately in the AL.

Similarly, the modernists have always been better represented in the sections that have always had an affinity for the BNP.

And, increasingly, more and more Bangladeshis are looking to an Islamic revivalism within which to ground their moral and ethical precepts and would like to create a society that is more self-consciously Islamic in its outlook and orientation. The Jamaat should be the natural home for them.

But none of the big three hit the mark.

The AL has marred its brand with its petty authoritarianism, targeting of enemies, both real and imagined, and seeming indifference to public opinion on issues as grave as constitutional change and as small as renaming the airport.

The BNP is no better. Far from being the fiscally conservative liberal democratic standard-bearer for progress and growth that it could be, it remains a cult of personality (as does the AL) mired in the worst kind of corruption and cronyism, that refuses to accept the misdeeds of its last term of office, let alone take any steps to reform itself.

The Jamaat is worse still. Not only does it bear the shame of its role in 1971, but with its Wahhabi-influenced assault on traditional Bengali culture and indigenous Islamic practices, it cannot claim to speak for the mainstream of Bangladeshi Muslim sentiment.

The AL looked for a moment in 2006 as though it might successfully reform and refashion the party into a more progressive, responsive, and inclusive entity, and there were high hopes again following its landslide victory in 2008. But one of the tragedies of 1/11 is that it moved AL away from the path of reform and the party is now less forward-thinking than it was before.

The BNP had an opportunity to recreate itself after the debacle of the 2008 elections. It was the perfect time to start anew by reinventing itself as a modern, conservative, nationalist party. It didn't do so.

Jamaat may be the one of the three that manages to successfully reinvent itself first. Some fear that one of the unintended consequences of the war crimes trials is that they will remove the stain of 1971 and allow the party to grow stronger. The Jamaat's sins of 1971 have always been a millstone around its neck, and the elimination of its 1971-generation leadership is the one way it can repudiate its past and draw a line under 1971.

Freed from the taint of 1971, it is possible that the Jamaat could try to recast itself as a truly authentic voice of Islamic revivalism, appealing to those who are sickened by the moral disorder and corruption of society and politics, and looking for a self-consciously Islamic solution to that which ails us.

But while a significant chunk of the electorate would be attracted to an Islamic party that stressed morality and probity, as long as the Jamaat retains its punitive, illiberal and unfamiliar (to Bangladeshis) brand of Islam, it shouldn't win the hearts and minds of the masses.

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