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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)

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