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 on Friday.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who inaugurated work on nine mosques through a video conference on Thursday, 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,” Shahmim Afzal, who heads the government Islamic affairs department, told AFP.
They 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.
The country has been fighting Islamist extremism in recent years after militants carried out attacks on religious minorities, secular activists and foreigners.
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 ($1.8 million),” he said. Imams would be required to give sermons “to inspire people against extremism.”
Last year, Afzal 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.
The official, however, told AFP that Saudi Arabia was partly funding the project. “They have already sent part of the fund,” he stated, without disclosing the amount.
Minority groups have raised concerns over the proliferation of Saudi-backed mosques, saying these could spread the ultra-conservative Sunni doctrine of Wahhabism practised in the Gulf kingdom.
An expert said the real aim of the billion dollar 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. In recent years Hasina has cracked down on hardline Islamist groups, and tried and executed Islamist leaders accused of war crimes. She has made secularism part of Bangladesh’s constitution.
“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 percent of Bangladesh’s 160 million people are Muslims.