The Bangladesh government’s decision to build 560 mosques nationwide with almost $1 billion in money from Saudi Arabia could turn counterproductive if conservative groups exploit them to promote Wahhabism over the more moderate Sufi practice of Islam, analysts said.
This week Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s cabinet approved a proposal to build the mosques in each town to spread Islamic culture across the predominantly Muslim South Asian country whose constitution guarantees secular rule.
The government’s Islamic Foundation will oversee construction expected to cost 90.6 billion taka (U.S. $1 billion), officials said. It will be paid through a Saudi grant of 80.17 billion taka ($967 million) with Bangladesh covering the rest.
“Experience shows that the Saudi ideology of Wahhabism spreads incitement against other faiths. People of Bangladesh are peaceful and they are respectful to all religions,” Abdur Rashid, chairman of the Islamic Studies department at Dhaka University, told BenarNews.
Popular in Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism stresses the literal interpretation of the Quran and its followers see other religions, including other strains of Islam, as infidels. Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are subscribers of the ideology, which Saudis started spreading in the 1970s.
Sufism, on the other hand, is a less puritanical form of Islam popular in South and Southeast Asia, including Bangladesh. Sufism promotes attaining a spiritual connection with Allah, not establishing Islam through a violently literal interpretation of the Quran.
Rashid cautioned against the government’s decision, saying “there is risk of spreading Wahhabism across the country through these mosques” on the pretext of nourishing Islamic culture.
“So, the government will have to be careful so that violent Wahhabism is not expanded,” he said.
On a positive note, he said the mosques could be used as temporary shelters during natural calamities such as cyclones and floods.
Design plans call for each mosque to have separate prayer and ablution facilities for men and women, a library with materials for children, and guest rooms and training facilities for imams. Construction is to finish by December 2019.
Bangladesh will be holding its next general election in the year 2019, and an opposition leader said Hasina’s government could be using the mosque construction-project for political purposes.
“The prime minister and the government have been patronizing them (Islamic groups) to get votes in the 2019 general elections,” Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the secretary general of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), told BenarNews. The election is tentatively scheduled for January 2019.
Hasina has come under similar criticism lately for siding with the hardline Hefazat-e-Islami’s call to remove the Lady of Justice statue from outside the Supreme Court building, saying the statue of a Greek goddess is unbefitting for Bangladesh. About 90 percent of the country’s 160 million people are Muslims.
Her government also faced accusations from opposition parties of trying to win Muslim votes over its decision to recognize degrees from Qwami madrassas as the equivalent of general master’s degrees.
City of mosques
The mosques are not needed, according to leader from Bangladesh’s Sufi Muslim minority that has been violently targeted by religious extremists.
“Saudi finance is a concern. They may use their money to promote Wahhabism through these mosques,” Rezaul Haq Chandpuri, who is with a federation representing Bangladeshi Sufis, told Agence-France Presse, adding that religious minorities would feel “helpless and insecure.”
Bangladesh already has more than 250,000 mosques, Religious Affairs Minister Matiur Rahman told members of parliament in November 2015. The capital Dhaka, often referred to as the city of mosques, is home to 6,000, according to the Islamic Foundation.
Planning Minister A.H.M. Mustafa Kamal told reporters on Tuesday that Hasina proposed the mosque project during her visit to Saudi Arabia last year and the Saudi King approved it.
Shamim Mohammad Afzal, director general of the Islamic Foundation under the ministry of religious affairs, told BenarNews his organization was prepared to build the mosques.
“Site selection is complete. This initiative of the government will spread the peaceful spirit of Islam,” he said.