No, Bangladesh's High Court Didn't Uphold Islam as State Religion

Baitul Mukarram is the national mosque of Bangladesh. Located at the center of Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh. Image from Flickr by Toufique E Joarder. CC BY 2.0

Baitul Mukarram is the national mosque of Bangladesh. Located at the center of Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh. Image from Flickr by Toufique E Joarder. CC BY 2.0

Bangladesh's High Court dismissed a petition filed by a citizens’ group nearly three decades ago to remove Islam as the state religion of the Muslim-majority nation, a provision added to the constitution by then-President Lieutenant General Hussain Muhammad Ershad in 1988.

The rejection was based on a technicality, not the merits of the case. In fact, the court quashed the petition in just two minutes, with the judges saying the citizens’ group wasn't properly registered and therefore wasn't legitimate.

However, celebrations broke out throughout Bangladesh around the inaccurate idea that the court had upheld Islam as the state religion, while religious minorities and secular thinkers in Bangladesh expressed their anger and frustration. Some international media reports didn't help matters with their simplistic or sensational coverage.

Blogger Arifur Rahman tried to cut through the misinformation:

The petition was due to be heard on the bench formed of three justices, at the begining [sic], even before the actual content of the petition could be opened up for hearing, the judges deliberated on the admissibility.

It was found that the ‘locus standi’ (the right or capacity to bring an action or to appear in a court) was not met.

[…] Unfortunately, for both sides, this was kind of a draw. The battle did not even take place. The match was cancelled.

That leaves open the possibility of another petition and a real debate on the issue.

Religion, politics and violence

Bangladesh is about 90 percent Muslim and 8 percent Hindu, with Christians and other religions filling the remaining 2 percent. In 2014, a research by Pew Research Center showed that in 30 countries, the heads of state must legally belong to a certain religion. Bangladesh is not one of them, but the country is among a handful which has a state religion.

Tensions were high ahead of the court's decision. After the court announced it would hear the petition, some religious groups vowed to stall the country with protests if Islam was dropped from constitution. The religious party Jamaat-e-Islami called a nation-wide strike.

Allama Junaid Babunagari, secretary general of Hefazat-e-Islam, a radical Islamist party in Bangladesh, declared that if Islam were to be removed from the constitution, millions of Muslims would wage holy war in the country to reinstate it. He put forward this argument:

“ফুল অনেক আছে, কিন্তু জাতীয় ফুল শাপলা। মাছ অনেক আছে, কিন্তু জাতীয় মাছ ইলিশ। ফল অনেক আছে, কিন্তু জাতীয় ফল কাঁঠাল। ভাষা অনেক আছে কিন্তু আমাদের জাতীয় ভাষা বাংলা। তাহলে ধর্ম অনেক থাকলেও রাষ্ট্রধর্ম কেন ইসলাম হবে না”?

There are a lot of flowers, but the national flower of Bangladesh is the water lily. There are a lot of fish, but the national fish is the hilsa. There are a lot of fruits, but the national fruit is the jackfruit. There are many languages, but our national language is Bengali. So, then there are a lot of religions. Why should Islam not be the state religion?

While Bangladesh has a state religion in Islam, it also protects freedom of religion. In the third part of the Bangladesh Constitution, which covers fundamental rights, is Article 41, stating that every citizen is free to profess, practice or propagate any religion, and religious communities are free to establish and publicize their institutions.

Recently, however, the government's treatment of non-Islamic thinking hasn't lived up to that ideal. Six secular Bangladeshi writers have been killed since 2013, and authorities haven't taken any significant measures to deter extremists from targeting those who challenge Islam. Meanwhile, the last several years have seen a series of attacks against religious minorities and foreigners, the majority of which ISIS has claimed responsibility for.

The long history of secularism in Bangladesh's constitution

Secularism was actually one of the four fundamental principles of the original 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh, which was promulgated after the country's liberation from Pakistan in December 1971. A military coup in 1975 brought Chief of Army Ziaur Rahman to power, and his government did away with the secularism principle in 1979 with the fifth amendment to the Bangladesh constitution, which proclaimed that “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all actions”.

Another military ruler, General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, who was the 10th president of Bangladesh, continued on this path. He inserted Article 2A in the eighth amendment to the constitution, which reads:

The state religion of the Republic is Islam, but the State shall ensure equal status and equal right in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and other religions.

The military ruler used the eighth amendment and religious sentiment of people to silence a popular uprising in 1988.

A group of 15 eminent Bangladeshis calling themselves the Committee to Oppose Autocracy and Religious Communalism filed the petition that same year, questioning the constitutional provision giving Islam the status of state religion. But their petition languished for years.

In 2010, after the current Awami League government came to power, a Bangladesh court declared the fifth amendment to the constitution was illegal, restoring the secularism principle. This was further formalized with the passage of the 15th amendment to the constitution in 2011, which repealed many aspects of the fifth amendment. However, Article 2A containing the provision for state religion remained intact.

After almost two decades, the petition was brought back in 2011, but another five years would pass before the court moved on it.

‘This is not the end’

Online, many defended or were indifferent to the idea of having a state religion, while others thought having an official religion was incompatible with a modern state. On Facebook, user Helal Mohiuddin argued that a state religion didn't make much of a difference:

একবিংশ শতকে কোনো দেশের সংবিধানেই রাষ্ট্রধর্ম বা সেকুলারিজম বলে কিছু থাকা বা না-থাকায় কাঁচকলাটিও আসে যায়না। রাষ্ট্রধর্ম থাকলে এই লাভ হবে, সেক্যুলারিজম না থাকলে সেই ক্ষতি হবে জাতীয় ভীতি-আশঙ্কাগুলো কিছু চিন্তকের পঞ্চাশ-ষাট দশকে আটকে থাকা তাত্ত্বিক ও আদর্শিক হ্যাংওভার মাত্র! নিতান্তই অমূলক অহেতুক ঘোর-তমসা!

In the 21st century it doesn't matter whether the constitution has the stamp of state religion or the mention of secularism. “If we have state religion we will gain this”, “if we have secularism in the constitution, we will lose this” — these type of fears and thoughts are just old theories and ideological hangovers. It's futile drooling over nothing.

While Blogger Nisshongo Bios argued on Choturmatrik blog:

রাষ্ট্রের যদি রাষ্ট্রভাষা থাকতে পারে তবে রাষ্ট্রধর্ম থাকলে সমস্যাটা কোথায়? রাষ্ট্রধর্ম ইসলাম হলে অন্য ধর্মাবলম্বী কিংবা ধর্মহীন নাগরিকদের প্রতি বৈষম্য করা হয়। দেশে এমন অনেক জনগোষ্ঠী আছে যাদের মাতৃভাষা বাংলা নয়? তাহলে রাষ্ট্রভাষা হিসেবে বাংলাকে স্বীকৃতি দিলেও কি একইভাবে তাদের প্রতি বৈষম্য করা হয় না? শুধু সংবিধানে ধর্মনিরপেক্ষতার কথা লেখা থাকলেই কি দেশ অসাম্প্রদায়িক হয়ে যাবে?

If the state can have a state language, then whats wrong with a state religion? If the argument is that the state religion of Islam discriminates against people of other religions, then there are also people of other ethnicities in the country other than Bengalis. So are they not discriminated against if we have Bengali as our state language? If we stamp our constitution as secular will the whole nation become secular?

Nazia Afrin wrote in an opinion piece for NTV news portal that having a state religion while at the same time protecting freedom of religion was a way to appease folks of every religious hue:

বাংলাদেশের সংবিধানে রাষ্ট্রধর্ম হিসেবে রাষ্ট্রধর্ম থাকা না-থাকাটা একটি আপেক্ষিক ব্যাপার। ‘ইসলাম’ যেমন রাষ্ট্রধর্ম আছে, তেমনি এটাও পরিষ্কার উল্লেখ আছে যে দেশটিতে সব ধর্মের মানুষের অধিকার ও নিরাপত্তা সমান। ফলে এটা থাকায় সমাজের একটি ধর্মান্ধ অংশ আত্মতুষ্টিতে ভোগে, কিন্তু আইনের বিচারে সেটা তাদের কোনো বাড়তি সুবিধা দেয় না। সবচেয়ে বড় ব্যাপার হচ্ছে, রাষ্ট্রধর্ম থাকা বাংলাদেশে কোনো ধর্মভিত্তিক দল স্বাধীনতার পর আজ অবধি এককভাবে ক্ষমতায় আসতে পারেনি। ভবিষ্যতে পারবে এমন কোনো ইঙ্গিতও নেই।

The issue of state religion in Bangladesh constitution is a relative matter. In it, the state religion is mentioned as Islam and it guarantees equal rights and security for the other religions. The presence of this appeases the fundamentalists in the society, but they do not get any privilege in the rule of law. The important thing is that in spite of the presence of state religion, no religious party could come to power winning majority in popular votes. There is no indication that they will be able to do it in the future.

Blogger Mohammad Jane-e-Alam, however, said that it was only a matter of time until Bangladesh gets rid of its state religion:

আদালতের এ আদেশে, অর্থাৎ মামলা খারিজের কারণে যারা উদ্বাহু নৃত্য করছেন-তাদের বলি-এ কিন্তু শেষ নয়। সমাজ-সভ্যতার ক্রমবিকাশের ইতিহাসের দিকে তাকালে আমরা দেখতে পাব, অগ্রগতির চাকাকে কখনো কখনো পেছনে টানা যায়-কিন্ত তা সাময়িক-চুড়ান্ত বিচারে সমাজ এগিয়েই চলেই । আজকের যুগে এগিয়ে যেতে হলে, উন্নত সমাজ গড়তে হলে,মানবাধিকার সংরক্ষণ, সুশাসন, অর্থনৈতিক উন্নয়ন অগ্রগতি অর্জন করতে হলে, আধুনিক রাষ্ট্র ব্যবস্থার কোন বিকল্প নেই। বিজ্ঞান ভিত্তিক সেকু্লার রাষ্ট্র ছাড়া কোন রাষ্ট্র আধুনিক রাষ্ট্র হয়ে ওঠতে পারে না।

Those who are dancing on the decision of the High Court dismissing the petition, I tell you that this is not the end. If we look at the progress of society and civilisation, you will see that you can stall the wheel of progress sometimes, but that doesn't keep society from going forward. In this era if you want to build a progressive society, ensure human rights, rule of law and achieve economic progress then there is no alternative for a modern state. Without being a scientific secular nation, no nation can be a modern state.

Read more of our special coverage: Bloggers Under Fire: The Fatal Consequences of Free Thinking in Bangladesh

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