Jamaat-e-Islami: A Danger in South Asia and the U.S.
A radical Islamist group with a history of terrorism, Jamaat-e-Islami, is wreaking havoc throughout South Asia. Over the years, it has disrupted elections and staged violent demonstrations. In Pakistan recently, Jamaat was at the forefront of rallies demanding the death of Asia Bibi, a 53-year-old Christian woman whom Jamaat operatives believe is guilty of blasphemy even though the Pakistani Supreme Court acquitted her of the charge.
Thankfully, Congress is taking notice. Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) recently introduced a resolution that spotlights and condemns Jamaat-e-Islami and its well-orchestrated efforts to find legitimacy in the U.S.
Late last year, in the lead up to elections in Bangladesh – a friendly majority Muslim country with an overwhelmingly positive view of America – this issue came to the forefront. Policymakers in the U.S. and abroad clashed over how to handle Jamaat, which was banned from forming a political party but sought power by running candidates under the banner of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Dr. Kamal Hossain, one of the drafters of the Bangladeshi constitution, warned about Jamaat’s malign influence. This was ironic since Hossain’s party, Jatiya Oikyafront, partnered with Jamaat under the BNP label. Hossain said he was "not aware" of Jamaat's participation when his party joined with the BNP and that it was a "mistake" to work with the BNP as long as Jamaat was involved.
Minority groups in Bangladesh agreed. The Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council congratulated Rep. Banks and other lawmakers for introducing a resolution critical of Jamaat last year. They did so, they said, “on behalf of all minorities of Bangladesh.”
Jamaat and its associates have a decades-long history of violence. In 1971, Jamaat death squads murdered thousands of civilians during Bangladesh's War of Independence from Pakistan. During the run-up to Bangladesh's election in 2014, Islami Chhatra Shibir, Jamaat’s student wing, was ranked the third most violent non-state armed group in the world because it frequently targeted religious minorities like Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and Ahmadi Muslims to intimidate and disenfranchise them.
Many government officials and so-called experts take a head-in-the-sand view. At a recent panel on Bangladesh convened by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, John Sifton of Human Rights Watch – a group that routinely takes the side of terrorists rather than terror victims – decried the Bangladeshi government for barring Jamaat from directly participating in elections. He also criticized government actions aimed at cracking down on Jamaat’s “student wing.” His argument ignores Jamaat’s violence during Bangladesh’s previous election and the inherent problems of allowing violent actors to participate in elections.
Rep. Banks’ new resolution goes beyond Bangladesh’s election and mentions Jamaat’s bad actions in multiple countries, including in America. This is important because many in America continue to downplay the Jamaat problem. This is in significant part due to Jamaat’s extensive efforts to obscure its offenses. Jamaat hires powerful lobbyists to whitewash Jamaat to Congress, the Trump Administration and prominent think-tank scholars.
Moreover, Jamaat is well organized in the U.S. The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) is a thinly veiled front group for Jamaat that acts as a legitimate community organization. ICNA's logo is the same as Jamaat's violent student wing and ICNA’s ties to Jamaat could not be more clear, right down to inviting Jamaat operatives to its conferences, raising funds for Jamaat charities and even publicly identifying itself as a Jamaat organization. While other Islamic groups, such as the Islamic Society of North America, have commended the acquittal of Asia Bibi, ICNA refused to comment, as did other Jamaat proxies.
Unfortunately, Americans have enabled Jamaat’s actions. Jamaat’s Western proxies have raised tens of millions of dollars in the U.S. since 2005. ICNA Relief, the charitable arm of ICNA, has received over $1 million from the Department of Homeland Security. Another charity affiliated with Jamaat, Helping Hands for Relief and Development, works with Lashkar-e-Taiba, which perpetrated the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks. It also openly partners with affiliates of the terror group Hamas. During this same time, Jamaat has even expressed support for violence against American troops in Afghanistan and other places.
While the Banks resolution won’t solve the problem, it begins the process of breaking the silence about the threat of Jamaat. That is good for the security of America, America’s allies and for the forces of pluralism and freedom in South Asia and elsewhere.
Cliff Smith is a former Congressional staffer and a lawyer who works in foreign policy and national security affairs.