As Bangladesh is facing a worryingly growing fundamentalism, a 28-year-old petition asking for the removal of the mention of Islam as a religion of State in the Constitution highlights the issues and challenges the secularist government must deal with.
An historical and political back and forth between secularism and Islam as a religion of state
When Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan in 1971, the notion of secularism was widely acknowledged as being a founding principle of the nation. It was one of the four principles written in the first Constitution of 1972, the other ones being Democracy, Nationalism and Socialism.
However, the political situation remained unstable, as challenges of unemployment, poverty and corruption failed to be addressed: in 1975, the Prime Minister and founding father of the nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated by junior officers during a military coup. His successor, army chief Ziaur Rahman, formed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party which, in an effort to counter the still influent Awami party of the late Mujibur Rahman, proclaimed a more Islamic “Bangladeshi nationalism”. In 1977, the Parliament amended the Constitution and replaced the notion of “secularism” by the proclamation that “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all actions”. In 1988, his successor Hussain Muhamad Ershad, also a military ruler, continued on this path by declaring Islam the official State religion.
However, the recent return to democracy, from 1991 to nowadays, seemed to shift once again the equilibrium in favor of secularism. In 2009, the Awami League, winner of the elections and led by Sheik Hasina, daughter of Mujibur Rahman and current Prime Minister, proclaimed its will to reintroduce the notion in the Constitution. In 2010, the Supreme Court indeed ruled out the fifth amendment of 1977, which had removed the notion of secularism, as illegal and secularism was once again declared a fundamental principle of the State.
Though Bangladesh is composed of more than 89% of Muslims, its core culture remains inherently and historically secular: traditional ancient dances as well as various festivals such as Pohela Baishakh are still widely practiced and popular. A huge part of the civil society, youth and freedom fighters were also the ones pushing for the reintroduction of the notion of secularism in the Constitution. The current government, led by the Awami League, is also perceived as a secular one.
Islam remains however the official State religion of Bangladesh and a huge component of the society. Perceptions of Bangladesh and its relationship to Islam vary and are still subject to discussions and disagreements. The Minister of Foreign Affairs Dipu Moni defined Bangladesh as a “secular country”, whereas the United Nations refer to it as a “moderate Muslim democracy”.
An Islam more and more politicized: increasing tensions between the government and militant fundamentalist groups
In September 2015, two foreign nationals were assassinated in the street: Cesare Tavella, an Italian aid worker, and Kunio Hoshi, a Japanese national. Though these murders were claimed by ISIS, the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was quick to reject the responsibility onto opposition party Bangladesh National Party. Hostility between the two parties is not recent: the BNP is a close ally of the Jamaat-E-Islami, the largest Islamic political party in the country. Prominent members of the faction were tried in 2009 by the International Crimes Tribunal for war crimes during the 1971 civil war. Initially condemned to life sentences, the Shahbag Movement, mainly composed of secular humanist bloggers, managed to pressure the Court to transmute the sentences to capital punishment. Hefazat-e-Islam, another militant Islamic group, allegedly linked to the Talibans in Afghanistan, led a violent siege on the city of Dakha in May 2014, protesting against the Shahbag Movement and their supposed critics of Muslims. The death toll was consequent, as fifty members were killed by paramilitary groups.
Bloggers preaching secularism are being more and more targeted: in 2013, Reporters Without Borders warned that the Ansarullah Bangla Team had published a hit list of 84 bloggers. In 2015 alone, four of them had been killed. Today, nine of them have been reportedly killed or attacked.
Minorities such as Hindu, Christians and Shiite communities have also been increasingly targeted and attacked by Islamist militant cells.
The government’s ambiguous response
Though the government did arrest some suspects, granted police protection to some bloggers and banned extreme Islamic groups such as the Ansarullah Bangla Team, it also prosecuted and jailed bloggers for their allegedly “defamation of Islam”. Several NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were prompt to condemn what they called an “attack on free speech”.
Indeed, the Awami League, while claiming its attachment to secular values, is also striving for not antagonizing the overwhelming majority of Sunni Muslim community and to prevent an eventual escalation of violence.
A 28-year old petition that revives the challenges faced by Bangladesh
In this context a growing tensions, a 28-year old petition has been heard in court last Sunday. Made in 1988 by fifteen secular militants –ten of them are now deceased- to protest against the introduction of Islam as a religion of state, the petition has only been now brought to the Supreme Court. A nationwide strike was declared by BNP and numerous protests coming from diverse Muslim groups were already organized. However, the petition came to an abrupt end as it was dismissed in less than two minutes by the Judge Naima Hader, which argued that the petitioners had “no standing to raise the issue with the court”.
This petition has highlighted the current issues and challenges faced by the Bangladeshi population and government, divided between their cultural secularism and the growing influence of Islam in the society and in the political life. Unfortunately, the hasty dismissal of the petition does not bode well for a future praising constitutional secularism.
Léa Guinet, Research Assistant at CIPADH
Farasha Bashir, “Rising extremism worries in Bangladesh”, The Diplomat, 9 October 2015. Available online: http://thediplomat.com/2015/10/rising-extremist-worries-in-bangladesh/
Charbak, “In Bangladesh, blogging can get you killed”, Amnesty International, 9 November 2015. Available online: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2015/11/in-bangladesh-bloggi...
Maher Sattar & Ellen Barry, “In 2 minutes, Bangladesh rejects 28-year-old challenge to Islam’s role”, The New York Times, 28 March 2016. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/29/world/asia/bangladesh-court-islam-stat....