The recent hanging of Bangladeshi war criminal Abdul Quader Mollah has galvanised a powerful pan South Asian Islamist network stretching from Dhaka to Peshawar.
Quader Mollah, known in Bangladesh as "Mirpurer Koshai" or the "Butcher of Mirpur", was formally indicted on five counts of murder involving the killing of 344 civilians in 1971 and was sentenced to death by a specially constituted war crimes tribunal. His execution was carried out in Dhaka Jail on the night of Dec 12 after his appeal to the country's Supreme Court was rejected.
While his execution sparked spontaneous celebrations by thousands of Bangladeshis who came out on the streets waving the national flag and cheering the execution, Quader Mollah's supporters belonging to the hard-line Islamist organisation, the Jamaat-e-Islami, launched a series of street attacks across the country killing at least 30 innocent civilians in a span of just three days.
The Jamaat, in a message on its website, warned that the ruling "Awami League will have to pay for each drop of Abdul Qader Mollah's blood". But more than Awami League supporters, it was ordinary Bangladeshis who have been butchered by Jamaat supporters since Mollah's hanging.
The Islamist protests against the execution were not confined to Bangladesh but erupted in Pakistan and Kashmir as well where the Jamaat-e-Islami and its allies are equally well entrenched. The Jamaat-e-Islami was founded by the late Islamic ideologue Maulana Abul Ala Maududi in Lahore in 1941.
The execution of Mollah in Dhaka was seen as a direct attack on the Jamaat and its allies throughout South Asia.
In Srinagar, the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, led by former Kashmiri Jamaat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, offered funeral prayers for Mollah and issued a statement strongly condemning the execution, calling it "a heinous murder... politically motivated and against all norms". "There is no denying that Jamaat-e-Islami activists in Bangladesh are being subjected to political vengeance for their love for Pakistan and Islam and India is playing a detrimental role in it," Geelani later added.
The Jamaat refrain across the subcontinent was the same: according to their leaders Quader Mollah was innocent but had been hanged by the Awami League government for political reasons.
Asiya Andrabi, head of the Kashmiri women's militant organisation, Dukhteran-e-Millat, said Quader Mollah had been hanged for trying to "uphold the cause of Islam and Pakistan". She argued that the fall of Dhaka Dec 16, 1971, was the result of a conspiracy hatched by India. Addressing a function in Srinagar, Andrabi said that Dec 16 (Bangladesh's Independence Day) is "the blackest day for whole Ummah".
The loudest protests emerged from Pakistan where the National Assembly passed a resolution introduced by the Jamaat-e-Islami condemning the hanging. Pakistan's Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan described the execution as a "judicial murder".
In Peshawar, Imran Khan, cricketer-turned-leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, issued a statement claiming that Mollah was innocent and that the charges levelled against him were false.
Pakistan's The Nation newspaper reported that the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), angered by the execution of Mollah, has threatened to attack the Bangladesh high commission in Islamabad.
The Pakistani response evoked violent protests in Bangladesh and the return of the supporters of the war crimes tribunals on to the streets of Dhaka. At the forefront of the protests is the Ganajagoran Mancha, which has been demanding the death sentence for all 1971 war criminals. "These people were killers and slaughtered thousands of our countrymen in 1971," explained activist Paula Aziz. "We are not a bloodthirsty lot but we want them to be given the ultimate punishment under Bangladesh law, which is hanging," she added.
The street protestors in Dhaka burnt Imran Khan's effigy and demanded that Dhaka suspend diplomatic ties with Islamabad until it apologised for its stance on the execution of Mollah. Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed joined the protests by condemning Pakistan for meddling in her country's internal affairs.
The Ganajagoran Macnha, the Awami League and a host of other patriotic Bangladeshi organisations are vehemently opposed to the Jamaat-e-Islami, which had actively worked against the creation of Bangladesh and supported the Pakistan Army in its brutal crackdown against pro-Independence activists and sympathisers during the 1971 liberation struggle.
Abdul Quader Mollah was a key activist of the Jamaat and chief of a secret death squad, who had slaughtered more than 300 of his countrymen during 1971.
The anti-Jamaat chorus in Bangladesh did little to cow down the party and activists of its students' wing, the Chhattra Shibir, continued their rampage across the country killing scores of people and vandalising property worth millions of takas.
The formidable spread of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh and beyond, despite a relatively small popular support base, is attributed to its enormous financial clout and global Islamist linkages.
Professor Abul Barkat of Dhaka University in a research paper, 'Economic power base of Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh', has pointed out that the Jamaat is pursuing its "aim of capturing state power by using religion as a pretext through a well-organised economic power-based political process".
Today, an estimated 125 secret terrorist units, 231 NGOs, trusts and societies as well as a number of major corporate entities support the Jamaat in Bangladesh. The organisation receives substantial donation from abroad and from domestic sources. The Jamaat controls banks, IT companies, hospitals, newspapers, coaching centres, transport companies and other key enterprises. As a result, despite a small popular base and the presence of strong secular elements in the Bangladesh polity, the Jamaat is able to exert disproportionate influence in the country's politics and sustain a large mass of street fighters.
Barkat's account of the Islamist economic machinery in Bangladesh is worrying. "The estimated amount of annual net profit generated by these enterprises would be US $ 280 million," he writes. "At least 10 percent of their net profits are being used to finance the Islamist political organisation, which is sufficient to fund the salary of 500,000 full-timers in Islamic fundamentalist politics," states Barkat.
Frances Harrison, a former BBC journalist in her study titled "Political Islam & the Elections in Bangladesh", has pointed out that "the Islamic forces at play in Bangladeshi politics have a strength that goes beyond mere electoral achievement... Some Islamic NGOs and madrasa have received funds from the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia and Kuwait".
"The influence of the Afghan war was clearly seen as Bangladeshi fighters returned home from jihad in the late Eighties and some went on to form militant groups. Today the spread of internet and mobile phone technology in Bangladesh is playing a greater role in connecting some individuals to radical Islamic ideology abroad," states Harrison.
The Jamaat in Bangladesh is linked to a number of other even more extremist Islamist organisations like the Hefazat-e-Islami, HuJi (Harkat ul Jihad Al Islami) and others. The Islamists view Bangladesh as the weakest link in the South Asian chain and perhaps believe that they can first seize power here.
The hanging of Abdul Qauder Mollah has come as a huge setback, hence the rage.
(Indranil Banerjie is a writer and commentator on strategic issues. The views expressed are personal)