A few days ago, the Daily Mail (UK) published a news item entitled “Bangladesh Considering Abandoning Islam as Its Official Religion Following Wake of Extremist Attacks.” While it reflects the fact that there will be a hearing in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh on the 27th of March to decide whether Islam should remain as Bangladesh’s state religion, the heading gives a false hope of solving a major problem. This hearing is not in motion because of the recent rise of Islamic extremism, killing and violence towards the minority. It is not a step taken by the government to fight Islamism, but rather a decision taken by the Supreme Court to look at a petition that was filed 28 years ago.
Bangladesh achieved independence from Pakistan by fighting a bloody liberation war in 1971. Three million people were killed by the Pakistani army in the name of jihad. Following the war of Independence, Bangladesh’s first Constitution (1972) stated four fundamental pillars of the newly formed state. It stated,
We, the people of Bangladesh, having proclaimed our independence on the 26th day of March, 1971 and through a historic struggle for national liberation, established the independent, sovereign People’s Republic of Bangladesh;
Pledging that the high ideals of nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism, which inspired our heroic people to dedicate themselves to, and our brave martyrs to sacrifice their lives in, the national liberation struggle, shall be the fundamental principles of the Constitution; (emphasis added)
However, the fundamental identity soon became threatened when in 1975, The father of the Nation, and head of state at that time, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated along with his wife and three sons by a few Bangladeshi army officers infected by the Pakistani virus. It is to be noted that during the 1971 war of liberation and the following few years, the US policy supported Pakistan in the global arena.
A military-backed government took power and governed the country from 1975 to 1977 under martial law. It also started to dismantle Bangladesh’s core identities declared in the constitution. In 1977, Lieutenant General Ziaur Rahman, President and Chief Martial Law Administrator at that time, passed a presidential decree that removed the principle of secularism from the preamble of the Bangladesh constitution and instead set “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah.” Hussain Muhammad Ershad, a Lieutenant General who seized power in 1982, made Islam the state religion in 1988. Ershad was repatriated from Pakistan only in 1973.
The religious furor of Pakistan, against which we fought in 1971, again became the identity of Bangladesh. During that time, a group of 15 Bangladeshi intellectuals and activists filed a writ application to the High Court challenging the decision. In 2011, another writ application was filed at the High Court to remove Islam as a state religion arguing that a secular country cannot have an official state religion.
Now in 2016, those two writ applications will be jointly heard by the Supreme Court to decide whether the applications contain valid arguments. This was long overdue. Bangladesh reverted back to a parliamentary democratic system in 1991, but no elected government had the courage to revoke Ershad’s decision and remove Islam as the state religion. They were afraid that this move might hurt the feeling of Muslim population, currently constituting 90% of the country. In June 2011, the parliament of Bangladesh passed the Fifteenth Amendment Bill of the Constitution that restored Bangladesh’s four basic identities thus upholding the 1972 constitution.
Unfortunately, the ruling government was not brave enough to go further. While they removed “‘Absolute faith and trust in Allah” from the preamble, they kept Islam as the state religion and started the secular constitution with “Bismillah-Ar-Rahman-Ar-Rahim”(In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful). The culprit Ershad, who circumcised a secular Bangladesh into an Islamic one, is now serving as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s special envoy with the status of a minister.
Currently, the Bangladesh Government is using almost all of its energy to deny that the Saudi funded Wahhabi Islamic extremism is on the rise in Bangladesh. It is letting secular writers, bloggers and publishers get killed by the ISIS and Al-Qaeda entities in Bangladesh. Instead of coming to the defense of the secularists and freethinkers, the government is either imprisoning them or threatening them using an ill-defined law related to “hurting religious sentiments.” Such acts are only going to bolster the hands of the Islamists in Bangladesh.
I believe a secular state cannot have a state religion. Therefore, I am hopefully waiting to see if a positive decision would come out of the Supreme Court despite threats of burning down the entire nation by the Islamic extremist group Hefazat-e-Islam.