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Saudi Arabia exports extreme Islam to Bangladesh

U.S. ally pledges $1 billion to spread conservative Muslim ideology blamed for rise in terrorist violence

Bangladeshi policemen stand guard outside the country's national mosque during Friday prayers. Associated Press/Photo by A.M. Ahad

Saudi Arabia exports extreme Islam to Bangladesh

Saudi Arabia is financing the creation of hundreds of new mosques in Bangladesh, sparking fear among the nation’s religious minorities.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s cabinet approved the mosque project on April 26. The Saudis plan to spend almost $1 billion, according to BenarNews.

Islam is the official religion of Bangladesh, and nearly 90 percent of the population is Muslim. The constitution promises religious freedom for minority faiths like Hinduism and Christianity, but Islamic extremist violence is increasing in the southeast Asian nation. Some fear Saudi influence will further escalate the problem.

The “wave” of Islamist-led violence within Bangladesh began in 2013, according to Foreign Affairs magazine, and has targeted bloggers, secular activists, members of minority Muslim sects, Hindus, and at least one Buddhist monk.

In 2016, Islamic extremists attacked a cafe in Dhaka and forced hostages to recite Quranic verses or die. They killed 22 people.

“Those who could were spared, while those unable to were killed,” an Open Doors representative told reporters. Islamic extremism is the primary source of persecution against Christians in Bangladesh, according to the World Watch List.

Wahhabism is a conservative form of Sunni Islam born in Saudi Arabia. It stresses a literal interpretation of the Quran and views other religions, including more moderate Muslims, as “infidels.” For decades, Saudi Arabia has spread Wahhabism around the globe through schools, mosques, and cultural centers that promote conservative Islamic teaching. According to some estimates, the Saudis have spent more than $70 billion on those global efforts since 1979.

“Experience shows that the Saudi ideology of Wahhabism spreads incitement against other faiths. People of Bangladesh are peaceful, and they are respectful to all religions,” Abdur Rashid, chairman of the Islamic studies department at Dhaka University, told BenarNews.

Some experts say “internalized” Wahhabism is a significant factor in the rise of extremist Islamist groups, including Islamic State (ISIS).

Although Saudi Arabia is a close U.S. ally, including in the fight against ISIS, it has many Western critics. Even President Donald Trump condemned Saudi funding of “radical schools and mosques,” according to The New York Times.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also criticize the strict, Sunni monarchy for its human rights abuses and religious intolerance.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has listed Saudi Arabia as a country of particular concern every year since 2004 because of its many religious freedom violations. The kingdom prohibits church buildings; prosecutes and punishes dissent, apostasy, and blasphemy; exerts extreme pressure on non-Muslims; discriminates against Shi’a Muslims; and heavily restricts women with a guardianship system.

Open Doors ranked the country 14th on the most recent World Watch List of worst persecutors. It ranked Bangladesh at 26.

Julia A. Seymour

Julia is a correspondent for WORLD Digital. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and worked in communications in the Washington, D.C., area from 2005 to 2019. Julia resides in Denver, Colo.



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