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State religion and secularism: Bangladesh's double standards

Radicalism is built on the long-lasting influence of having Islam as the country's official faith

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State religion and secularism: Bangladesh's double standards

Bangladeshi Islamist leaders flash victory signs after the Bangladesh High Court rejected a petition challenging Islam as the country's state religion in Dhaka, March 28. The court's decision came in the wake of nationwide protests by hard-line Islamist groups. (Photo by AFP)

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Secularists, intellectuals and minority communities were surprised but cheered when the Bangladesh Supreme Court in February decided to review a writ petition that challenged the insertion of Islam as the state religion in the country's constitution in 1988.

The high hopes over the review decision were understandable.

This Muslim-majority nation of 160 million was born secular, yet accepted Islam as the state religion for nearly three decades. As a result Bangladesh's minority communities have often considered themselves inferior to followers of the country's dominant religion.

Many believed the court's original intention to review the case 28 years after the petition was filed, was aimed at containing the sudden rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the country. Bangladesh has recently experienced a series of atheist blogger killings, attacks on Muslim sects like Shias and Ahmadis, religious minorities including Buddhists, Christians and Hindus.

As the guardian of the constitution, it was a rare chance for the court to make a just decision by reinstating the original character of the charter by shrugging off dual characteristics.

However, the hope and enthusiasm were short-lived.  

A month later the court dismissed the petition. This was done moments after the hearing opened and without examining any arguments.

Presumably, the court's decision was influenced by threats of violent protests from Islamic groups including the largest radical Islamic political party Jamaat-e-Islami and Hefazat-e-Islam, an umbrella group of radical Islamic groups.

The protesters argued that if a state can have a state language, fruit or flower, why shouldn't there be a state religion for a country where 90 percent of the people are Muslim. The logic seems medieval and irrational in a modern democratic world, but the court didn't have enough courage to challenge it.

Drafted in 1972, the original constitution declared the country a secular state.

Due to the disastrous and oppressive rule of Islamic Pakistan from 1947-1971, Bangladesh's founding fathers inserted secularism as one of the four key foundations of the newborn nation.

The victory in the war was also a victory for moderate Islam. An act of defiance against Wahhabism, the extremist form of Islam encouraged during Pakistan's rule.

While some in the West now interpret secularism as being "anti-religion," here in Bangladesh its meaning is about having equal respect for all religions and aspirations for religious harmony.

Bangladesh's march toward secularism was halted when the country's first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated with most of his family members, in a 1975 military coup. The military were allegedly supported by Islamist parties and groups who lost power following the war.

That was the beginning of a host of efforts to Islamize the country.

Military ruler Ziaur Rahman erased secularism from the constitution in 1977 and replaced it with "Absolute trust and faith in almighty Allah." Rahman's successor, H.M. Ershard — another military ruler — made Islam the state religion in 1988.

Both rulers aimed at making the nation more Islamic for political gain. Their rule — until the restoration of democracy in the 1990s — saw a massive shift in the country's political arena, most notably the revival of religion-based politics and political parties, which were banned in independent Bangladesh.

Since the 1990s, power has altered between the center-left Awami League and the center-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party, but none of them have dared to touch the issue of Islam as the state religion.

However, the ruling Awami League, reasserted secularism in the constitution in 2011. But fearing protests and losing votes, they refrained from removing Islam as the state religion.

Now having a constitution that accepts secularism as one of four key principles but also recognizes Islam as the state religion is a pure case of double standards.

While the Bangladesh constitution guarantees equal rights and opportunities to citizens irrespective of their ethnicity, caste and creed, the state religion issue has indirectly established supremacy for Islam in the country. In other words, it means Islam gets preferential treatment over other religions, at least symbolically.

Today, many Muslims have the impression that they belong to a superior religion and attempt to justify any abuse against religious minorities citing such supremacy. They even abuse secular intellectual voices who promote religious harmony and tolerance.

This attitude has directly and indirectly contributed to the torture and abuse of minority people, especially Hindus, the country's largest minority group. This includes the theft of land and property, torture and killing for land and the sexual assault of Hindu women.

All these abuses have forced a mass exodus of Hindus from the country. In 1947, Hindus accounted for 29.7 percent of the population but it stands at about 9 percent today.

Christians and Buddhists account for 1 percent of the population and they also face similar oppression although on a smaller scale. About 3 million indigenous people, many of whom are Christians and Buddhists, are not spared from abuse because they are a minority.

One could say that the recent rise of Islamic radicalism in Bangladesh is influenced by global Islamic fundamentalism, but its foundation is the long-lasting influence of Islam as the state religion. When a state officially endorses and patronizes a religion, undoubtedly it emboldens religious radicals who often use religion as a shield for material and intangible gains.   

Now a great opportunity to overturn the situation was missed when the court last month decided to reject the petition challenging the idea of the country having a state religion.

Minority communities were dismayed over the decision. The country's civil society groups and secular intellectuals, even the vibrant media, didn't take a strong enough stand to scrap state religion.

Meanwhile the political parties and state machinery kept silent as expected. As for the greater society, it seems it has accepted having a state religion forever.

The idea of a state religion is dangerous in a modern world. Yet it is still nurtured in parts of the Islamic world, especially in the Middle East and countries like Pakistan. Most of these countries feel the brunt of Islamic fundamentalism. As we see with recent events in France and Belgium, the West is no longer immune to fanaticism either.

Bangladesh's crisis with fanaticism is long-running and ongoing. Secular activists are being attacked and killed, minority sects and communities are being targeted and the radicals don't seem to be stopping.

It's difficult to predict whether Bangladesh will ever have a truly secular constitution without a state religion. Most likely it's not going to happen anymore.

The current wave of extremism is just the tip of the iceberg of what this state religion might exacerbate. In all probabilities, the worst is yet to come.

Published April 15, 2016 

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