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Will High Court restore Secular status of Bangladesh?


Dhaka, Bangladesh: A spirited debate is unfolding in Bangladesh as its Supreme Court prepares to hear a 28-year-old petition challenging the constitutionality of an amendment that made Islam the state’s religion.

The High Court division of the Supreme Court on March 27 is scheduled to hear the petition and set a future date for a ruling on the amendment, which was enacted under the dictatorship of Gen H M Ershad in 1988.

The country’s constitution guarantees secularism, but the legal move aimed at stripping Islam of its status as the official religion in predominantly Muslim but multi-religious Bangladesh has ruled Islamic groups and parties.

The writ petition was filed 28 years ago by 15 civil society leaders after Ershad’s Jatiya Party led parliament declared Islam as the state religion. But the Supreme Court never heard the case, Rana Dasgupta, one of the lawyers representing the petitioners, told reporters.

“Ten of the petitioners already died before any hearing took place. We firmly believe that the court will examine the documents and give a verdict without being influenced by the comments of others on the issue,” he said.

Dasgupta is also general secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Oikya Parishad, an association representing religious minorities that have been targeted in recent and sometimes deadly attacks by suspected Islamic militants, amid a growing wave of fundamentalism.

He said some leaders of Islamic party publically were calling for retaining Islam as the state religion in order to influence the justices before the hearing.

Bangladesh’s original constitution, framed in 1972, adopted secularism as one of the four fundamental principles of the state, according to Dasgupta. However in 1976, the country’s first military ruler and founder of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Gen Ziaur Rahman, removed the secular provision in the constitution and replaced it with “Faith in the Almighty Allah.”

Ershad, the second military ruler, 12 years later added another change that made Islam into the state religion.

Millions sacrificed in name of secularism

“In 1988, we formed a committee against autocracy and fundamentalism and filed the writ petition. … We sacrificed three million people in the 1971 war [of independence] against Pakistan for a secular country,” Professor Sirajul Islam Chowdhury, one of the 15 petitioners, told reporters.

“Mr Ershad made Islam as the state religion to cash in on common people’s sympathy with a view to prolonging his rule, not for passion for Islam,” he added.

Since 1971, Bangladesh has pursued secularism as a state policy, but the military rulers who usurped power following the August 1975 assassination of the country’s founding president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Islamized the constitution in a way that went against the spirit of the independence war, Chowdhury said.

“The writ petition is going to be heard after 28 years,” he added, noting that the political atmosphere now was relatively better and more conducive to discussing this issue.

“[W]e think the issue of State religion should be settled now,” he said.

Defaming Islam?

Islamic parties and groups are resisting the legal move, with some leaders even threatened to stage protests over the upcoming court case, according to reports.

“We want Islam to retain [its status] as the State Religion of Bangladesh because the Muslims are the majority here. You will see state religions in many countries in the world,” Abdul Latif Nizami, president of the conservative Islami Oikya Jote party, told agencies.

Islami Oikya Jote is aligned with Bangladesh’s largest faith-based party, Jamaat-e-Islami, and the main opposition the BNP.

Nizami said the majority of Muslims in Bangladesh would not accept scrapping Islam as the state religion. But he declined to say whether the Islamic parties would stage street protests.

“And I hope the judiciary would consider the opinion of the majority of the people while delivering the judgment,” Nizami added.

But a report by Agence France-Presse (AFP) last week quoted Islamic Oikya Jote Secretary General Mufti Mohammad Faiz Ullah as saying that protests could happen.

“Any move to scrap Islam’s status will undermine and defame the religion,” Faiz Ullah told AFP.

“Obviously, the Islamic parties, general people and the clerics will resist the move by holding protests.”

Gauging how people might react

But according to Professor Nizam Uddin Ahmed, a political commentator and author of several books on Bangladeshi politics, the average citizen doesn’t really care about the issue of Islam’s official status in Bangladesh.

“The common people of Bangladesh have never been bothered whether Islam should be the state religion,” he told reporters.

“I personally think that the abrogation of Islam as the state religion would not heat up the country’s political situation because the Islamic parties are cautious about waging a street movement over the issue. Again, they are divided, too,” he added.

In his view, the constitutional amendments passed by the regimes of generals Rahman and Ershad no longer are legitimate because, in 2010, the Supreme Court declared their regimes as illegal.

“In line with the court order, the [ruling] Awami League restored the original 1972 constitution, but they did not risk removing Islam as the state religion of Bangladesh, fearing tough street agitation. Now, both the Islamic parties and the opposition are at bay; the government has established a tight grip,” Ahmed said.

However, another commentator warned that doing away with the provision in the amendment that established Islam as the state religion might worsen the country’s current political climate.

“The hardline Islamic parties and the militant outfit would preach it (replacing Islam with secularism in the constitution) as an anti-Islamic act. Every possibility is there that the militants may mislead the people about secularism,” Brig Gen Shahedul Anma Khan, a security analyst and columnist, told reporters.

(Published with permission from BenarNews)

  • Annesha Das Gupta

    It is not anti-Islam or anti anything. It is just pro liberalism. And high time it should be. There should be mutual respect for every cultural and religious diversity.

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Sri Lankan Muslims speak of tragedies back home

Sri Lankan Muslims and supporters protested outside the UN against the recent violence targeting their community

Sri Lankan Muslims and supporters protested outside the UN. IANS
Sri Lankan Muslims and supporters protested outside the UN. IANS

Sri Lankan Muslims and supporters protested outside the UN against the recent violence targeting their community, and for some of them it had been an intimate family tragedy.

While participating in the demonstration of about 250 people, on Wednesday, they narrated to IANS the harrowing moments they went through as they helplessly shared the trauma in real time over the phone with their families as the relatives were besieged by mobs during the riots.

Munir Salim’s parent’s home was destroyed and car set ablaze by a rampaging mob in Welekada Ambalateena near Kandy on March 7, and his elderly parents and his sister with her five children barely managed to survive only because the rioters could not break the main door.

Protest against violence and injustice. (VOA)

But they set fire to the second floor of the house, where his sister lived, said Salim, who is the president of the Sri Lanka Muslim Association of New Jersey. His sister fled downstairs with her children and survived with her parents, he added.

“I was feeling helpless talking to my parents when they first told me how they were throwing stones at our house and setting fire to the mosque and the shops in the area,” he said.

The rioters then moved away for a while seeking other targets, then returned to set the fire to the house and the properties as he was calling them back, he said.

The houses of two of his aunts nearby were also attacked and his cousin had to carry his paralysed mother as they fled for their lives, he said.

There were two deaths, injuries to dozens of people, hundreds of houses and businesses destroyed and several mosques damaged during the riots that started on February 26 and continued till March 10. Sri Lanka imposed a State of Emergency and deployed troops to quell the violence.

For Shihana Mohamed it was a heartbreak, listening over the phone as her family’s history of living harmoniously in the Kandy area for more than a thousand years, unraveled on March 6, she said.

She told IANS that her sister-in-law fractured her leg while fleeing the fury of the mob that attacked her brother’s house, destroying it and burning his car in Kengalla, also near Kandy.

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Her 83-year-old bedridden uncle’s house was also attacked, she said, and his family had to carry him to safety. As she was hearing about the attacks on her phone, she said that she wept and then desperately called diplomats asking for help. While the attacks were taking place, the security personnel stationed nearby did not intervene, she said.

Mohamed said that while the attackers were Sinhala extremists, there were other Sinhalas who came to the aid of Muslims at risk to themselves.

The Sinhala family next to her brother’s house tried to intervene, but the mob over-ran them, while a Sinhala neighbour stopped the rioters from burning down her house, even though they managed to break the windows, she said. Her uncle was protected initially by a Sinhala, she said. In another instance of communal amity, she said a Tamil family sheltered her sister-in-law, who had broken her leg.

For her family this was the second setback. During riots in 1989, which were not overtly communal but more political, her family’s properties were destroyed and they had to rebuild home and business.

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The Association of Sri Lankan Muslims in North America (Tasmina), which organised the protest, demanded that the UN intervene and hold the Sri Lankan government responsible for bringing the rioters to justice and protect minorities.

Ghazzali Wadood, who was one of the protesters, said, “It is the ultra-nationalists who are responsible for the attacks. The government should take action against the politicians behind the attacks.” IANS