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“Muslim, but religiously liberal”

Bangladesh is a poor nation defined by religion and language. The culture is quite tolerant, but many Bangladeshis believe that Saudi Arabia is supporting right-wing Muslim outfits in their country. Hans Dembowski discussed the matter with Mahfuzul H. Chowdhury, a political scientist.

Interview with Mahfuzul H. Chowdhury

How is Saudi influence felt in Bangladesh?
Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh have a long history of cultural and economic relations. Bengal was under Muslim rule for more than five hundred years beginning in the early thirteenth century and ending in 1757. Nowadays, many Bangladeshis are working in Saudi Arabia, and their remittances are of high economic relevance. The Saudi government, more­over, provides aid to Bangladesh, for instance by funding infrastructure projects. A third important factor is the Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca. This is one of the pillars of Islam, and hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi Muslims perform it every year. Finally, it is widely believed that the Saudis fund religious parties, non-governmental organisations and educational institutions – the madrasas – in Bangladesh. The madrasas teach thousands of students, most of whom do not have opportunities to attend normal schools. The madrasas also provide them with shelter and food. A significant number of people are employed as teachers and support staff, so the madrasas are really quite important.

Who is susceptible to religious fundamentalism?
The most susceptible groups are the madrasa teachers and students as well as some university and college students and teachers who allegedly get Saudi money too. Poor, unemployed people are susceptible too.

What exactly is the Saudi influence on madrasas in Bangladesh?
That is impossible to tell. It is believed that the Saudis donate large amounts of money. But these funds are not regulated by the government. There is no transparency, no kind of public record. In recent years, people have come to believe that the growth of right-wing forces, religious “fundamentalism” and related violent activities is rooted in some madrasas.

Are the madrasas a substitute for dysfunctional state-run schools?
No, they are not. It makes more sense to consider them the homes of children of religiously oriented people as well as economically marginalised groups. One group of madrasa students belongs to the wealthy strata of society, and the other belongs to the economically deprived section of the society who cannot afford to go to the normal schools. The second group constitutes the overwhelming majority of the madrasa students. It is important to note, however, that there are now two kinds of madrasas. The first is funded and controlled by the government, whereas the second is independent and not regulated by the government. The latter are said to get Saudi funds, and they are the ones in which most of the poor students are enrolled because they are free of cost and offer boarding and food.

Religion and language are the two issues that historically have defined the borders and the nation of Bangladesh. To what extent does that give religious fundamentalists a foothold?
Yes, the territory called Bangladesh today became a part of Pakistan in 1947, when India was partitioned along religious lines after British colonial rule. Predominantly Muslim eastern Bengal became East Pakistan. Predominantly Hindu West Bengal is an Indian state. In 1971, Bangladesh split from Pakistan in a bloody war of independence, and Bengali linguistic nationalism replaced Pakistan’s religious nation­alism. The majority of Bangladeshis is Muslim, but religiously liberal. Five to eight percent of electorate, however, vote for religious fundamentalist parties like the Bangladesh Jamati Islami.

How do the two major political parties, the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), deal with religion?
They handle religious issues with enormous sensitivity and care. Neither of the two is very conservative in religious terms, but both their members and voters tend to be religiously oriented believers. Both parties are careful not to hurt religious sentiments. However, the AL is a secular party. It ran Bangladesh’s first government and was responsible for the first constitution, which emphasised secularism. After 1975, various military governments enacted some religious amendments, which the AL did not reverse after coming back into power. However, after coming to power this time, the AL government has formed a parliamentary committee to consider changes in the constitution to re-establish the fundamental prin­ciples of the 1972 constitution – secularism, demo­cracy, socialism, and Bengali nationalism – in the light of a Supreme Court verdict. Recently, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh ruled that the constitutional amendments made by the military governments after the coups in 1975 and 1982 were unconstitutional. The BNP was founded by a military ruler turned politician, General Ziaur Rahman. He mixed religion with politics, and the BNP has formed alliances with the Bangladesh Jamati Islami. Basically, the AL is more likely to stress linguistic nationalism, and the BNP more likely to stress religious nationalism. But neither of these two parties are fundamentalist, and both are prone to try to increase their share of the vote by catering to common people’s religious sentiments.

How do they do so?
Both major parties want to mobilise religious forces from their respective political positions. Both parties have their support groups among madrasa-educated people. The BNP is closer to religious oriented parties and their ideologies, but the AL too, though in a moderate way, uses the religious groups to counter the BNP. The BNP mobilises religious support by taking stands against India. The AL, on the other hand, speaks of secularism, yet it has not taken decisions to repeal the religious provisions inserted into the Bangladesh constitution by the regimes who came to power after the coup of 1975.

Are there fundamentalist leanings in the military today?
It seems that there is a small section of military officers who are religiously oriented and may have some links to right-wing religious groups as well as to Saudi Arabia. But it is difficult to determine their numerical strength or significance. There was a military coup under the cover of emergency rule in early 2007, but the military-backed caretaker government did not pursue a religious agenda. Rather, it tried to re-establish democratic governance after a perceived crisis of corruption.

Bangladesh is home to many NGOs that famously promote microfinance with a particular focus on women. How do organisations like the Grameen Bank, BRAC and others relate to religious fundamentalists?
The Grameen Bank and BRAC do not have connections with the fundamentalist groups; rather they are subjected to criticism from the religious fundamentalist groups. In rural areas, their offices and workers are even occasionally attacked by violent fundamentalists. But there is an unknown number of Islamic NGOs working in Bangladesh who are believed to receive funds from the Saudis and other Islamic sources, and as I said before, their madrasas serve an important social role.


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