HISTORY OF ISLAM IN BANGLADESH
Bengal was the land of Hindus. Islam came to Bengal through the contextualized approach of Sufi Pirs. Later during the Mughols, economic and social privileges like tax exemption was given to the converts to Islam from Hinduism. Islam preached equality in the Hindu society under the challenge of caste system. There was also proselytization and many temples were destroyed and replaced with mosques. Now, there are 90% Muslims in the country, whereas the Christian population is less than 1%.
GROWTH IN THE NUMBER OF MOSQUES IN BANGLADESH
The capital city Dhaka is called the City of Mosques. Mosques are the sure gateway of heaven for Muslims. So Muslims worship in mosques and the construction of many mosques make them glad. There are family mosques, every housing society allocates space for several mosques, every market place has space for mosque worship, educational institutes have mosques, and government offices have to have spaces for mosques. There is the Ministry of Religious Affairs which donate money for repairing and building new mosques. That means public tax is spent for islamization of the country. The picture around the mosque during weekly Friday worship is like Christian churches in Korea or other developed countries. But Islam is still preached throughout the nation and beyond. During winter, you may see Islamic gatherings everywhere and every night in the whole country. People donate money for the mahfil and Islamic Jalsha gatherings. So these gatherings are most of the time, sponsored by political leaders as a bribe to solicit votes during elections. During Mahfil and Jalsha, political leaders are invited and announced as special guests. Even the secularist Awami League leaders are using these gatherings for political purpose. Christians can’t do anything with these situations.
So without any outside help, mosques are growing innumerously. There are Islamic businesses donating huge amount of money for building mosques. But in addition with the above, if foreign fund from the Middle Eastern government and charities in the West is given through individuals, clubs, madrashas, Islamic NGOs and Islamic societies, the growth would no doubt be exponential. On the other hand, temples are destroyed and decaying, no repair is done and many temples have become abandoned property or the grazing field for animals. Often we read news of temples being attacked by outsiders.
In a small Christian community in the heart of Dhaka City, there are 6 mosques and three Islamic institutes. In our area as a small village there are 5 mosques surrounding our mission. In fact, we have penetrated and built a church building and other facilities at 3-acres of land in the area surrounded by already existing mosques. We are trying to copy what Islam is doing.
SAUDI ARABIA IN BANGLADESH
Saudi Arabia is credited as Muhammad’s birthplace, but actually Saudi Arabia did not have any role in the islamization of Bengal presently called as Bangladesh. Wahabism is diminishing even in Saudi so in Bangladesh this is lessening but Sunni ideology is growing. On the other hand, since Osama bin Laden is from the Wahabi sect, so Wahabism is believed as the source of terrorism in Bangladesh like in the world. Wahabism is significantly affected due to Saudi Arabian Wahabism. The Bin Laden farm is constructing the tallest building in the world to be opened in 2019 in Saudi Arabia.
Recently, in 2017, Saudi Arabia has announced their donation of over 90 million USD for building 560 mosques in Bangladesh. There would be Islamic cultural centers with each of these mosques. There are 490 sub-districts in the country so each sub-district is getting at least 1 new mosque and cultural center. The budget for each mosque and center is about 160,715 USD [12,535,770 BDT]. Currently, there is no record of Christians getting a big budget for one church building. I know one person donates fund for rural house church and his budget is average 2,500-3,000 USD which is good for a worship-hut. In our mission, we face struggle to raise 30,000 USD for building a chapel and a school. So this Saudi one-time grant is the biggest strategic religious fund Bangladesh has ever received from an outside nation since the entrance of Islam into this land. Because of this big impact, the Saudi government created a significant influence over and in Bangladesh. Both in terms of the amount of money and the extent of the project are huge. This is not the first time and only donation from Saudi but one instance only. Millions of people living in the rural areas would sell their hearts for the Holy Land where Mecca lies. We would undermine if we take this fund for granted that only the interest of Islam is in Saudi’s heart. We should anticipate that more Islamic resources would arrive soon after the completion of the 560 mosques project. Bangladesh cannot say no if Saudi wants to send their scholars and imams to teach and stay. That is why some Islamic political parties are concerned of the growth of salafism, the seed of terrorism through this fund.
Bangladesh is in Saudi-led military alliance of security and the government is willing to send troops for the protection of Islam and Mecca. There are more than 5 millions of Bengalis in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi royal family members have huge amount of investments in our country’s business. Saudi Arabia’s position would not change even though there is power change in Bangladesh. The leader of Bangladesh Nationalist Party together with her family members, [the second largest political party] have good relationship with Saudi royal family. Every year, the BNP leader and her family go to Mecca for pilgrimage upon the invitation of the King of Saudi Arabia. So in the future, it would be expected that the Bangladesh politics is going to new policies influenced by the Middle East.
Islam in Bangladesh regards the land of the origin of Islam highly, so if there have been on-going changes and reforms in religious and social aspects, a sure-reflection would be followed in Bangladesh. But our nation is emphasizing on the orthodoxy of Islam rather than radicalism. So the future of Islam would depend on how we cope with Saudi Arabia’s influence.
OTHER MUSLIM & MIDDLE EASTERN COUNTRIES
Almost all Muslim countries in the Middle East [ME] and in other parts of Asia give money to the Islamic charities in Bangladesh. You can easily find fabulous and gorgeous mosques and madrashas established by such countries. Apart from the ME governments, there are individual sheiks giving money to repair and build mosques. The funds continue flooding from the Middle East countries and the Bangladesh government cannot stop them. The government rather needs to be strict to trace the source-flow of the money for terrorism. The flow is privatized and beyond government control. For controlling ME money coming for terrorism, Christian missions are suffering due to the money-laundering and anti-corruption banking laws.
Bangladesh may not be able to maintain the balance in relationship with all Muslim countries because of the complexity of geo-politics. The present government has already taken the side with Saudi Arabia whereas Iran has been leading a separate ally with other Muslim and non-Muslim countries.
WHY IS BANGLADESH THE FOCUS?
Bangladesh is known as a moderate Muslim majority country in the world. The government is proud of that status. Historically the Muslim population is known as non-communal except for few occasions when riots have been devastating. But still Bangladesh is trying to maintain its secularism so the nation is not communal but secular which does not exclude religion. The religious status is secular and not religionless promising the freedom of other religions.
Saudi Arabia is lessening their dependence on oil business since they know that some day their oil would be gone. So they are expanding their business in the outside world for their GDP and Bangladesh is a good location for them. Because of Mecca, Bangladeshis have respect for Saudi and the Holy Arabia. In the near future, the Middle East would withdraw their deposit from the Swiss Bank and other banks in the West but would invest those funds in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government is pursuing the investments of these petro-dollars. Bangladesh economy is dependent on the remittance from Middle Eastern black-dollars. The government believes that Bangladeshis in the West do not remit much but the laborers in the Middle East do.
HINDUISM IN BANGLADESH
In the last 60 years, the rate of migration of Hindus to India is horrible which resulted to a decrease in Hindu population rate from 40% to less than 10% according to Hindu Buddha Christian Oikya Parishod [a national unity council of Hindu, Buddha and Christian]. Migration is still in continuation. After the division in 1947, Pakistan passed Enemy Property Act by confiscating Hindu property when Hindus left their lands and homes in both East Pakistan [now Bangladesh] and West Pakistan. The name of the act proved the hatred towards Hindus as it is defined as “enemy property act”. The business and professions of the Hindus were taken by the Muslims. After 1971, the independence of Bangladesh was declared. The Enemy Property Act has been termed as Vested Property Act but the essential spirit is still the same – even now after 45 years, the Hindus did not get their property back. No government is taking dare steps for restoring Hindu properties to the genuine inheritance-claimers. Many of these properties have been occupied by mosques and madrashas. Hindus and their generations would not forget and forgive these unresolved losses. So Hinduism has been in oppression severely – and the number of Hindus has gone down significantly. The issue on Hindu property is not the only problem to be solved, Bangladesh has lost a huge number of intellectuals and leaders. Many members of the Indian national politics, statesmen and culture are from Bangladesh in origin.
What does Islam says about Hinduism? There are teachings about infidels, Jews and Christians in the Quran. So the readers of the Quran can say what the Quran thinks of Christians. But there is nothing about Hinduism even though Hinduism has been existing many ages before Islam. So if Muslim scholars say that Islam is the religion of peace, religious harmony and tolerance giving freedom to all ethnic and religious groups, they would have hard times to prove that. Because not only polytheism but pantheism in Hinduism is taken as the religion of infidels.
Once the Bengal of Hindus has now become the nation of Hindu minority – even though the second largest population are Hindus but still very insignificant. The existence of Hindus is not even felt by many. The patriotism of the Hindus is questioned too because their one leg is in Bangladesh and another leg is in India. They are accused of earning money here but depositing into Indian banks. In the next 50 years, the existence of Hinduism could be a history. Once the most powerful Buddhist existence during the Pal dynasty has gone into extinction. Buddhist monasteries have become the ruins and now used for tourism. So Christianity could be the next target of Islam – there is a reason for it. Christians are viewed influential because of the foreign West despite having less than 1% population. Islam is successful to eradicate Buddhism, then Hinduism is in the challenge of survival and the next target would be Christianity.
ANY CONCERN FOR BANGLADESH CHURCH?
Tough time for Bangladesh Church is coming soon. Christians are going to face challenges they cannot afford. Muslims view Christians as a negligible minority now. But they still raise their voices very high by saying that the West is patronizing local Christians. They create mob if there is one conversion by saying the Christianization is going on. Many Christian leaders are leaving the country and their children are already in the West or Christian-majority nations. Last year, many mission groups have stopped their mission works or limited their works because of fear when few Christians have been attacked and also killed.
Islam does not give any room for being criticized. Any aspect of Islam is above criticism. Even the Prime Minister of our nation says that bloggers or open thinkers must not hurt the sentiment of other religions i.e. Islam. Islam does not tolerate criticism because they are scared. Christians should learn that Islam is intolerant because it is in fear of its ground of faith and traditions. On the other hand, Christianity is criticized randomly everywhere by everyone.
If the churches in the West stop supporting nations like us, then the church would be crippled. Bengali church is a vulnerable 400-years old baby surviving in the midst of pressure. One of the greatest weaknesses in our church is that if we are persecuted, we show our mercy and practical assistance through foreign money. Christian Church in Bangladesh become known as the agent of mercy. We are sharing mercy from others but not ours. Muslims expect mercy but not Christianity.
Bangladesh church should keep the Rohingya crisis in her mind. Bengali Muslims may be interested to exercise similar atrocity over Bengali Christians. Or think of Israel how it has been a surviving nation in the midst of Islamic enmity – excommunicated nation by the Middle East region. Even Bangladesh, a secularist nation does not have a diplomatic tie with Israel for fear of loosing support from the Middle East. What if the situation of Bengali church become like helpless and empty-handed neo-Israel. There are sporadically and even organized rehearsals of attack going on. Many Hindu converts can leave the country and some would embrace Islam like what happened in the past, in the year 1971 when many Hindus have become Muslims to save their lives from Pakistani army. Christians converting to Islam are believers who lost their Christian identities. Many Christians from mainline churches would want to leave the country rather than convert to Islam.
Geo-politics is changing rapidly and Bangladesh would not be left untouched when its surrounding people groups –would be formed as separate nation because of their cultural bond with their tribes in India. Islam by the backing of the Middle East fund will spend for the islamization of these Bengali and Indian tribes. And Christianity will find them as competition in the Eastern and South-Eastern borders of Bangladesh. Christians in this nation would become the prey if it sits idle just observing the ongoing changes.
ANY CHRISTIAN NATION/COUNTRY IN THE WORLD?
In the world, there is no Christian nation that declares Christianity as their state religion. But there are many countries where Islam is the state religion. One of them is Bangladesh. That means that Bangladesh, by the Constitution is a Muslim nation. There are similarities between the Constitutions of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Since there is no nation who claims Christianity as their state religion, like Muslim nations claiming Islam as their state religion, and the secularist West does not believe in such things, there is nobody or no organization to heed to the cry of Christian minorities in the world. Christian rights fall under the category of freedom of speech and religion of minority in general. The Western churches of course care.
NATIONS WITH CHRISTIAN MAJORITY – DO THESE NATIONS GIVE THEIR GOVERNMENT FUNDS FOR CHURCH BUILDINGS IN CHRISTIAN MINORITY NATIONS?
There are funds for charities received from governments in the West but those funds were used mostly for the Muslim beneficiaries. Government policies in Bangladesh had driven the organization like World Vision and Compassion to sponsor more Muslim children than children from Christian families. Christian NGOs are under strict government monitoring so that money could not be used for any religious activities esp. Christian activities. Even in our church, we are spending more than 20,000 USD from donations, every year to educate Muslim children with only a few Christians. Our expectation is to have the support from Christian countries or organizations for our continued existence in the future when these children would grow and if they remain grateful to us and stand beside us in our trials. Because we are starting our new Christian and cultural ministries in Islamic villages. On the other hand, we are under some obligation to show to the government that we are doing works for our nation building. This is church money and what are we achieving with it? NGOs are ordered to recruit Muslims not only Christians so more Muslims staff are joining in Christian NGOs.
I believe that some nations with Christian majority population are still richer than the Middle East. But these nations do not have any agenda for Christianization of other unreached nations. They are after political and economic agenda. Saudi Arabia depends on US military weapons but is engaged in the islamization of Bangladesh. They are not only purchasing weapons but spending for strengthening Islam worldwide. Like Bangladesh, they might have plans to donate many more mosques and Islamic cultural centers in other Islamic nations. Even though in fear from other Islamic sects, but they did not forget their religious duties. Saudi Arabia is making religious friends, more powerful to them than weapons.
HOW SHOULD THE BANGLADESH CHURCH RESPOND?
The Bangladesh Christian church cannot undertake all and every measures with its very little or almost no resources. So it needs to research what measures should they consider as priority and most effective. Here are some Christian Strategies that can be considered:
Unity & Patriotism – When we talk about Bengali Christians, we mean Bangladesh church. But the church is divided because most of the Christians are from lower caste Hindus and different tribes. Even though all of them speak Bengali, they are bound in their own distinct cultures and traditions. They are Christians in Bangladesh, but they are a small fraction because their main tribal population is in India. By nationality, they are Bangladeshi, but politically they are considered as risky if they ally with their majority tribe living in India. These tribes are culturally and mentally Indian even though they defy this reality. Currently, Christianization among the Bengali is not yet successful. Bengalis are more than 90% while the total Christian population, including tribes are still less than 1%.
Example of Christian & Biblical lifestyle of Christians for Muslims – The small percentage of Christians and churches should live according to the Christian ethics. Our position should be like the Israelites in the Bible. We can survive and grow. Christian ethics can bring people into Christian faith.
Visible Church Buildings – Unless there is revival, evangelistic rallies for mass conversion should be avoided, but visible Christian churches with good facilities for ministries need to be set up in different parts of the country. We should talk less but work more quietly. What are we going to do when Saudi Arabia gives funds for 560 mosques and Islamic cultural centers? Do we have any agenda to defend ourselves? Can we at least construct 100 visible churches in coordination with evangelical denominations? Can we assume what the next plan of the Middle Eastern nations is? The number of churches we want to establish are big buildings and facilities visible to residents and not only small family-based churches with almost no influence which would not be able to face islamization.
Writings to defend Christian faith and promote evangelism – In the midst of pressure, more literature should be written and distributed. This is frustrating that Bangladesh church has no money for printing millions of tracts and literatures for evangelism.
Platform for Freedom of Religion and Christian rights – There is some little effort going on but there is less cooperation and involvement from the local church.
Establishing Cultural Centers – Church does not have any thought on this yet. Our church should think of the aggression of 560 Islamic cultural centers. Christian churches should establish centers for culture and ethics before we become targets of Islamic culture.
Strengthening local missionary movement – Strong mission movement with skilled and specialized manpower is a need. The church is not there yet. Christian Educational Institutes: hub of mission outreach.
Building and sending qualified officers in the government – Even the government expects more Christians should work in government agencies and serve regionally and nationally. But there are only very few. Christians as minority should demand for government jobs and at the same time they should compete with others on the basis of their qualifications. So they can influence the work areas and the people working in government offices with Christian values and examples.
Mr. Edward Ayub is a Presbyterian minister in Bangladesh. He is the moderator of Presbyterian Church of Bangladesh. He is one of the five initiator of Bangladesh Missions Association.