Wahhabism in Bangladesh?

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In April 2017, the National Economic Council of Bangladesh approved a Tk-9,062 crore project to build 560 model-mosques in Bangladesh. Initially, the government of Bangladesh asked for Saudi Arabia’s financial assistance, which, according to the latest news never came.

That did not prevent Bengali local Muslim communities, which represent 90% of the Muslim population of the country, from building their own mosques profusely or redecorating old-Moghul style mosques following the Wahhabi designs.

The redecorating of a 500/600-year-old small mosque located in Barbakpur, north of the town of Bogra, one mile off the main Rangpur Highway, is an ominous example. It was made possible, to the great displeasure of many villagers, with the investments of wealthy villagers. Expats are mostly migrant workers coming from Gulf States, inspired by Saudi style and values. Their aim is to change the traditional Bengali-style mosques into Wahhabi-style. The use of local materials, such as cheap white tiles and cement constructions in the case of Bangladesh, has become usual in both rural and city areas in Bangladesh. They are whitewashed and don’t stand out from one another.

It is still possible to admire the more than 40 mosques that were built between the 13th century and the 18th century, one of the oldest being Pathrail Majsid, which was built in 1393 in Bangha, Faridpur. The pattern of structure and character of Mughal architecture relies on the use of white marble and red stone and rests on several large bulbous domes. Main features are also linked to large courtyards surrounding the mosque, with Arabic and Persian inscription, iwans on two or four sides, and the use of decorative chattris. The import of Wahhabi-style mosque is threatening Bangladesh’s common heritage and contributing to changing the identity of Bengali Muslims.

Many mosques are also monitored by several Islamist groups such as Hefazat-e-Islam, Ahle Hadis and Ahled Sunnat, which makes it difficult for people to enter and stay in the mosque according to their needs. There is an old tradition in the region, particularly in rural areas, following the principles of khanqas (Sufi gathering place and auspices) of welcoming the most deprived and in need. The 19th century social movements, Faraizis the Tariqah-i-Muhammad, embraced both Hindu and Muslim peasant populations in their fight against the domination of the upper-class British and Hindu zamindars (landowners). Today, the opaque organization of the Islamist groups that run the new mosques bar Muslims from enjoying the traditional key features of hospitality that has long existed in Islam in Bengal.

The Islamic faith first came to Bengal in the 7th century with the first Arab merchants and the spread of Sufi saints and travelers across the region. Throughout the centuries, Islam became a mix of old traditions, habits, folk cultures, and Hindu and Muslim rites and symbols. You can find a good example of this open-minded and tolerant way of practicing Islam if you visit Tara mosque. Built in the late 18th century by the Pir Morza Ghulam in the Mughal style, the guardian of the mosque will welcome you warmly (in exchange of some takas) and won’t say a word if, as a woman, you don’t cover your hair with a veil. For decades in Bangladesh, most women have been practicing their religion without wearing an orna, hijab, or burqa. Today, the majority of women cover their heads as a result of the influence of Gulf States as well as influence coming from Indonesia and Malaysia.

The first wave of transformation of these practices happened shortly after the independence of Bangladesh. The spirit of the Liberation War was that Bengal’s identity as Bengali was more important than other characteristics, including religiousness. After Sheik Mujibur Rahman’s assassination in 1975, General Zia, who ruled the country until 1986, implemented his doctrine of Bengali nationalism.  In contrast to the ideals of the Liberation War, General Zia’s aim was to highlight the Bengali population’s Muslim identity. This tendency to Islamize our identity was also highly linked to the geopolitical context and the need for the country to be recognized as a “proper” Muslim country by its other Muslim counterparts.

The case of the recognition of Bangladesh by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a good example. Right after independence, Sheik Mujibur Rahman met with the late King Faisal who did not grant his recognition to the State of Bangladesh because of the Bangladesh Constitution’s article on secularism.

Sheik Mujibur’s travelling envoy, Justice Abu Syed Chowdhury (also the first president of Bangladesh), told the prominent Pakistani journalist, Anthony Mascarenas, during an interview that he met King Faisal in January 1974, who refused to recognize Bangladesh because of its “secularism”. It’s only under Khandaker Moshtaque, who fooled everyone by making them think that Bangladesh was becoming an Islamic State, that  King Khalid was finally convinced to recognize Bangladesh as a country.

Diplomatic ties were solidified under Zia’s regime when, in 1977, he replaced the term “secularism” by “Absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all actions”, and then under Ershad, in 1988, Islam become the state religion. Ziaur Rahman, is known to have had a special relation to the Saudi royal family, as was his widow, Khaleda Zia, who was Prime Minister between 2001 and 2006.

Under the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islam coalition government, Saudi Arabia supported Jamaat’s minister Matiur Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mujahid, which put Saudi officials in a complicated position during the war trial of BNP and Jamaat leaders for their participation in the genocide of 1971. That is perhaps why late King Abdullah preferred to sign a decree (number 61646) deciding not to interfere in the internal matter of Bangladesh.

In 2013, during the Shahbag protest demanding capital punishment for war crimes, the antagonism between secularity and religiousness came again to the fore. On July 5th 2015, Prothom Alo published an article revealing the incomplete content of cable leaks of the Saudi Kingdom regarding the politics of Awami League in Bangladesh. The cable addressed to Saudi foreign minister Saud Al Faisal said: “The main objective of the Bangladesh government in conducting the war crimes trial is to make political gains and to take revenge against some important people.”

Concomitant, the same year, Prime Minister Sheik Hasina announced that she would rule the country according to the Medina charter, a strong historical reference referring to a text written by Ibn Ishaq in the 7th century highlighting the necessity of a multi-religious Islamic state to end intertribal fights in Medina. This goes hand in hand with the amelioration of the warming of relations between Hefazat-e-Islam and the Bengali government. The Islamist lobby branded Sheik Hasina the mother of qwami madrasa in 2018 after her government officially recognized the master degree of qwami madrasa (which does not follow the secular syllabus of the Educational Board of Bangladesh).

Without affirming that a direct relation exists between Saudi Arabia, Hefazat-e-Islam and Bangladesh, it is evident that the previously labelled secular Awami League has changed its strategy in favour of the conservative Islamic world.

Nonetheless, it is under Sheik Hasina’s allegedly secular government that the Supreme Court re-declared, in 2016, that Bangladesh was a secular country with Islam as the official state religion; when, only three years before, in 2013, the very same Supreme Court revoked that same legislature, which would have been at odds with the Bengali’s right to religious freedom.

The traveling agenda of both Saudi and Bangladeshi officials mirrored this warm diplomatic trend. In March 2016, the Saudi Foreign Minister Abdel Al Jubeir first visited Bangladesh. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh visited Saudi Arabia in June 2016 to discuss the recruiting of 5 lakhs more workforce from Bangladesh by Saudi Arabia.

In fact, more than 2.5 million Bangladeshis currently live in Saudi Arabia, which has de facto become one of the biggest employers of Bengali “poor workers”. They work in the sector of infrastructure, transportation, catering, and housing. Besides the huge amount of remittances – 3,7 billion in 2013 – from Bengali emigrants towards their families in Bangladesh, which represent a considerable portion of income flows of the country, this money is now serving to build mosques and madrasa all over the country. In March 2019, Prime Minister Sheik Hasina went for another official visit to Saudi Arabia to discuss a Memorandum of Understanding in the field of strategic and defense affairs, notably regarding the war in Yemen.

These enormous flows of capital and travelers have a direct impact on the life of millions of Bengalis. Apart from the economic impact, workers coming back to visit their families in villages and cities during Eid holidays directly influence the way their families and neighbors practice Islam and their faith.

In 2010, I stayed in the village of Oshtrogram, in the district of Bemon Baria during Eid holidays. I went to the house of the village’s wealthiest family to wash up, because they were the only ones who had working showers! When I arrived, I was warmly welcomed. However, I had to enter a specific room because there was a separation between men and women. I sat to thank the hostess who was wearing a full burqa, apart from her head which was not covered because she was in a “safe place” surrounded only by women. We talked, and she explained to me that the money came thanks to her husband who was working in Qatar. He told her that she should cover herself entirely, and that during the Holy month of Eid women should be separated from men. She was doing everything from this separate room.

Many other families who receive remittances from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States can relate to this story. As the father, son, or brother become the breadwinner, if he tells his family that women should wear the burqa, then his word is not contested. This process of wahhabisation of Islamic values in Bangladesh is not the work of the migrant workers alone. Local mollah, members of Hefazat-e-Islam, Tabligh Jamaat, Ahle Hadith, and Ahle Suna all have highly contributed to reinforcing this operation. This is what I call “bottom-Islamisation”: The values of Gulf States and their rigorous vision of Islam have slowly but surely been implemented in Bangladesh, with Saudi Arabia at its head.

Far from adhering to the 19th century British-colonizer mindset to reduce each and every Muslim movement, radical or not, as an offspring of the Wahhabi movement, I, for one, understand Wahhabism in its broader sense.

It is a combination of the religious Islam professed by the Saudi establishment (as the doctrinal tradition elaborated by theologians claiming to be a part of the reform of Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab); the religious practices of Saudis; the influence of Saudi Arabia in the Muslim world; the specific religious opinions professed by Islamists groups; and the theological references to behaviors labelled as deviant.

On a daily basis, Bengali people have traded the words Khoda Hafez for the expression Allah Hafez, which is another expression of this Islamisation of our practices. Khoda Hafez, derived from Persian, which refers to the Zoroastrian God, and it is the Bengali way of saying Goodbye. Allah Hafez has always been in use by local mollahs and pirs, or very pious people. What’s striking is that the use of Allah Hafez to say goodbye has exploded. The devil is in the details: this has slowly become of way of recognizing who is pious and who is not.

Saudi Arabia is also a favorite choice of destination of pilgrimage for even the poorest Bangladeshis. Both sacred cities of Mecca and Medina make Bengali households spend thousands of takas to do the Hajj. Families like to boast about having completed it. During the Qurbani Eid, when cows and goats are sacrificed to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son, for the sake of God, the attitudes have also changed.

Over the past decades, the number of cows and the cost of them has become more of a determining factor in social standing, something to brag about to other families. The more you pay for the cow – it can exceed 9 000 takas for a cow – the merrier the family is. This is a new and ostentatious way of practicing Islam, which is similar to the luxurious way of living in Gulf States, particularly in Saudi Arabia. There’s a gap between the sense and value of Eid, the way it is practiced within middle class families, and the fact that there are still thousands of people living under the poverty line in a country where inequalities are widening.

Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh have both in common the fact that they welcome two of the most important Sunni pilgrimage in the world (apart from the Karbala pilgrimage for Shias in Iraq): the worldly recognized Mecca and the less-known Biswa Ijtema.  The Bengali component of the holy pilgrimage is considerably cheaper and much more accessible for underprivileged households. Millions of believers, coming from all over the world, gather in Tongi, 40 km from Dhaka. Under the patronage of Tabligh Jamaat, a global missionary movement for the propagation of the Islamic faith and a return to “real practices” of Islam, the pilgrimage is held in January each year. For the 54th edition, clashes between two factions of the movement highlighted internal tensions, thus the ensuing interference of Hefazat-e-Islam.

Bangladesh, and its majority of 90% of Muslim population, surrounded by Hindutva-India and the so-called non-military regime in Burma, both anti-Muslims, force the Prime Minister to make contradicting stand on the world political stage. This may partly explain why Bangladesh prefers aligning its values with its ally, Saudi Arabia, rather than being loyal to its own multicultural, multi-religious, and tolerant identity.



Ujoyni Pod is a PhD student on State, religion & society in Bangladesh. Teacher of Political Science.



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