CALL TO PRAYER: Officials say the new places of worship will be open to women, unlike traditional ones such as Baitul Mukkaram, the National Mosque in Dhaka; and (below) Sheikh Hasina


BANGLADESH has launched a billion-dollar campaign to build hundreds of “model mosques”, partly with Saudi funding, to try to counter radical Islam in the Muslim-majority country, offi­cials said last Friday (6).  

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina, who inaugurated work on nine mosques through a video confer­ence last Thursday (5), is also trying to bolster links with Mus­lim groups in an election year, according to analysts.  

A senior official said 560 “mod­el mosques-cum-cultural cen­tres” would be built in the next 30 months as part of a government attempt to fight extremism.  

“In the next one to one and-a-half months, work on another 100 mosques will begin,” said Shah­mim Afzal, who heads the government Islamic affairs department.  

The mosques will be used to preach against “distorted Islamic philosophy” of groups such as Bangladesh’s largest opposition Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami and Egypt’s Muslim Brother­hood, the official added.  

Afzal said the centres of wor­ship would be open to women, unlike most of the country’s 300,000 mosques, and would be equipped with libraries and cul­tural centres.  

“Each mosque will cost 150 million taka (£1.3m),” he said.  

Bangladesh has been fighting Islamist extremism in recent years after militants carried out attacks on religious minorities, secular activists and foreigners.  

Imams would be required to give sermons “to inspire people against extremism”.  

Afzal last year said Saudi Ara­bia would bear the lion’s share of the project, but a senior official of the Islamic kingdom later denied any such plan.  

Afzal, however, said Saudi Ara­bia was partly funding the pro­ject. “They have already sent part of the funds,” he said, without disclosing the amount.  

Minority groups have raised concerns over the proliferation of Saudi-backed mosques, saying these could spread the kingdom’s ultra-conservative Sunni doc­trine of Wahhabism.  

An expert said the real aim of the mosque project by Hasina’s government could be political.  

“She wants to build rapport with traditional Islamic groups. She wants to win over these forc­es,” said Ataur Rahman, chair­man of the Dhaka-based Centre for Governance Studies.  

Hasina’s ruling Awami Legaue party has, over the decades, championed secular causes.  

“Ahead of the elections, she is adjusting her secular stand by leaning towards a more rightist Islamist position,” Rahman said.  

Hasina has said a general elec­tion will be held this year.  

Some 90 per cent of Bangla­desh’s 160 million people are Muslims. (AFP)