THE executive committee of the National Economic Council at a meeting chaired by the prime minister approved the construction of 560 mosques-cum-Islamic cultural centres throughout the country under the model mosque project. The government of Saudi Arabia would pay Tk 8169.79 crore and the Bangladesh government TK 892.62 crore of the total cost of Tk 9062.41 crore for the entire project.
There are more than 2,50,000 mosques in Bangladesh almost all built by private initiatives. The country’s rich people consider it a great act of faith to contribute money to mosques. Even those who are financially poor have the same attitude towards mosques that money contributed to a mosque is the noblest of acts. My driver asked my daughter who is visiting from the United States for contributing to building a mosque for his community in Gazipur where he lives. My mosque in Gulshan 1 collects on an average Tk 50,000 every week during jumma prayers alone from the ordinary devotees.
Therefore, the news of the government’s decision to use primarily Saudi money with a small part paid by it to build 560 mosques with a cultural centre each was also welcomed by the majority of the Muslims of the country. To the Muslims in Bangladesh and worldwide, from those that are orthodox to those who are not great devotees of Islam, there has never been any question asked anywhere about building mosques. It has always been considered a great and noble act. The fact that the model mosque project is being undertaken by a secular ruling party has further eased the minds of those who have the mistaken and distorted notion about Islam.
Nevertheless, a well-known secular leader of the country, one of its unofficial spokesman, attacked the government’s ‘model mosque’ project in no uncertain terms calling it unconstitutional and un-Islamic. He claimed that mosques are not built anywhere by the government and that both Islam and our constitution also do not permit the government to build mosques. The secular leader’s utterances were strange because he was taking a stand against mosques in a country where the vast majority of citizens are devoted Muslims. His utterances underlined his ignorance of Islam, the society he lives in and the constitution of the country. He exposed himself as a Islamophobe.
Islam came in Saudi Arabia in a tribal society and not in a country like it is today. Therefore, the mosques that were built at the time of the birth of the religion were all built by the devotees. As Islam’s glory spread from one corner of the world to the other during the golden age of Islam, some of the most glorious mosques, many of which still stand proudly, were built directly by the rulers or at their encouragement. In the oil-rich states of the Middle East today, where Islam and society are blended in one, the state not just builds the mosques, it ensures all aspects of their well being. Thus, the king of Saudi Arabia’s official title is the custodian of the two holy mosques.
Islam is Bangladesh’s state religion, according to the constitution. Therefore, if the government would like to build mosques, there cannot be any obstacle based on the constitution. Nevertheless, the government in Bangladesh does not build mosques as a responsibility because the Islam-loving Muslims of the country themselves build mosques and run them as a favour to themselves. In fact, it is around the mosques that the Muslims of the country come together in a positive way which is quite in contrast to the way they behave in politics where conflict is the order of the day.
In fact, the country’s secular forces and the leader who took umbrage with the government for the ‘model mosque project’ would do themselves and the country a big favour if they cared to look at the government’s concept of ‘model mosques’ positively. With the government under a party that is not Islamic or fundamentalist but a believer of secularism in the public domain, this could be the ideal opportunity to segregate the few in Islam that preach violence from the vast majority of Muslims who firmly believe what Islam truly is a religion of peace. Therefore, the secular forces should welcome the ‘model mosque project’ and not oppose it in a manner that only Islamophobes would.
The secular leader, of course, had other reasons as well to oppose the mosque project that is political, not Islamophobic. In the same podium from where he made these misleading utterances, he had also expressed views about politics that exposed his ulterior motives and the conflict of the forces he leads with the ruling party. The secular forces and the ruling party were hands in glove during the tumultuous times of 2013–2014 when they played a major role in helping the latter to come to office for a second term with the Shahbagh movement and the war crimes trials. The political environment has changed since with both the movements are now politically stale and the government is now aware that Islam would play a major role in the next election.
The ruling party has been warming up to the Islamic forces and distancing from the secular forces much to the latter’s disappointment and anger aware of that the majority of the people did not like the way the secular forces had gone against Islam, the Prophet and the Qur’an during the 2013–2014 political events. The secular leader went after the government’s ‘model mosques’ project also out of that disappointment and anger. He went further and blamed the ruling party for using religion for its political ends like all other political parties equating it with Jamaat. And in his ultimate frustration for the government discarding the secular forces, he said that in all past national elections, the minorities, meaning the Hindus, become the victims. He, therefore, said before ensuring the BNP/Jamaat’s participation to hold an inclusive general election, the Election Commission must first ensure the safety of the 20 million Hindus in the country.
The secular leader’s care and concern for the Hindus were commendable. It was nevertheless a big surprise that he would speak dismissively about the BNP/Jamaat’s participation in an inclusive national election that exposes his agenda. And his assumption that the country’s 20 million Hindus are victims in the general elections is a generalisation that bears little merit. A driving force behind the emergence of Bangladesh was the desire to build a non-communal society and secularism was considered the way to a non-communal society. Unfortunately, secular forces in Bangladesh placed Islam as the antagonist of a secular society in total lack of understanding of both secularism and Islam. Secularism is a-religious and not anti-religious and has no critical view of Islam. Islam, except for the few extremists, is a religion of peace.
The vast majority of the Muslims of Bangladesh respect mosques as places of the highest sanctity above all other institutions in the country so much so that they leave their shoes outside before entering a mosque. They spend the time in a mosque committing themselves to their religion totally. During the time they spend in the mosque, they consider it haram, an act forbidden by Allah, to talk, hear or do evil. Therefore, why would one object to building mosques and that too ‘model mosques’ unless one has issues with Islam?
Saudi-funded religious projects in the past were intended to spread Wahabism that many believed encouraged some form extremism. The new crown prince of Saudi Arabia has committed his country to the spread of liberal Islam. And with the present Bangladesh ruling party’s commitment to secularism, there should be no fear of that happening from the 560 mosques being built under the model mosque project with Saudi funding. That leaves one nagging question unanswered which is why would a leader who is a Muslim have such a view on mosques that only the Islamophobes in the west have.
M Serajul Islam is a retired career ambassador.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion