With the 2019 elections in mind, is the Awami League-led government – despite its secular credentials – moving towards a firmer relationship with the Saudi-led Islamic world?
The prime minister takes off today to attend the Arab Islamic American Summit in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. While all eyes will be on US President Donald Trump who is slated to address the Islamic world for the first time, the PM’s trip takes on a special significance for us because of a number of recent initiatives taken up by the government that suggest we are looking to strengthen our economic and political ties with the Middle Eastern nation.
On April 25, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) approved a massive project to build 560 model mosques and Islamic cultural centres in every upazila under every district in the country at Tk9,000 crore. Government officials told the media that the project would be financed by the Saudis, and though Saudi officials have denied knowledge of the project to the US media, government officials insist that the project will still be pitched to the Saudi government based on informal assurances received earlier.
Also in the pipeline are projects to build an Islamic Arabic university in Bangladesh, and a massive undertaking to modernise and digitise madrasas around the country. The government had earlier also joined the Saudi-led 34-nation military coalition against the Islamic terrorism, while top Islamic clerics were heavily in attendance during the recent 42nd anniversary celebration of the Islamic Foundation.
All of this arrives closely on the back of the PM’s rather disappointing trip of India, in which she failed to find a resolution to the Teesta water sharing issue, and yet went ahead to sign a pact on military cooperation.
Within days of her return, the government went ahead with its formal recognition of the Qawmi madrasa degree, Dawra-e-hadith, giving it the status of a Masters in Arabic and Islamic Studies. The PM also came out strongly with her criticism of Lady Justice on the compound of the Supreme Court, giving credence to the Islamist platform Hefazat’s aggressive protest against the statue. A little earlier, the government had tinkered with the national school curriculum to remove authors from textbooks who Hefazat did not approve of.
All this beckons the question: With the 2019 elections in mind, is the Awami League-led government – despite its secular credentials – moving towards a firmer relationship with the Saudi-led Islamic world?
And what consequences would that have for our country in the future? Will this create the pathway for Salafist or Wahhabi ideology to take a firmer root in our society?
Whether the ruling party was politically motivated to take these steps or not, the repercussions are still potentially dangerous for us.
The government gave Qawmi madrasas recognition at a time when it has no control over its curriculum, and has been squarely criticised for that decision. Similar to the Qawmi madrasas, the government has no official control over what goes on in the mosques around the country.
“The government has no control over the existing mosque,” said Shahriar Kabir, president of Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee and a prominent rights activist. “In many mosques, the imams are giving hate speeches during jumma sermons against other religious communities, minorities and western countries.”
He welcomed the model mosque project, but also cautioned the government to stay vigilant so Salafist or Wahhabi ideologies aren’t spread out in the guise of Islamic culture.
Salafism is at the core of all major militant and terrorist movements in the world, the latest being al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Wahhabism, the dominant Islamic sect in Saudi Arabia, is synonymous with Salafism in the sense that both ideologies support a strict, ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam.
“Both Jamaat-e-Islam and Hefazat are using mosques for their own operations. Most of the imams are either pro-Jamaat or pro-Hefazat. The government must free the mosques from their influence. It has to have an overall control over all the mosques so no one can promote Salafist or Wahhabi ideologies there,” Shahriar said.
The decision to invest so heavily on mosques, some feel, is also against the fundamental nature of our state.
Badiul Alam Majumder, central secretary of progressive rights group Citizens for Good Governance (Shujan), said being a secular country as per the constitution, Bangladesh cannot patronise one particular religious community.
“If we believe that Bangladesh is a secular country, we cannot give patronage to only one religion, because that would mean our politics is biased toward one religion. It also indicates that their real intention might be gearing up for the next election,” he said.
Salafism is not the only instigator of extremism, but it does have the largest exposure given the present situation around the world, Badiul said.
“So the risks of religious extremism being propagated via these mosques and cultural centres remain high, unless the government takes the reins in its own hands.”
Additional reporting by Syed Zainul Abedin and Asif Showkat Kallol