High Court Backs Islam as State Religion of Bangladesh

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
2016.03.28
Dhaka
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160328-BD-court-islam-620.jpg Islamist leaders flash victory signs after the Bangladesh High Court rejected a petition challenging Islam as the state religion, March 28, 2016.
AFP

Bangladesh’s High Court on Monday scrapped a 28-year-old petition to remove a 1988 amendment to Bangladesh’s secular constitution making Islam the state religion.

A three-member High Court panel headed by Justice Naima Haider dismissed the petition without explanation in the presence of leaders of the conservative Hefazat-e-Islam group, which had threatened to “cripple the country” with protests if the court ruled otherwise.

“The court has dismissed the writ petition; so Islam will be retained as the state religion in the constitution,” Murad Reza, an additional attorney general, told reporters.

The petition was filed in 1988 by 15 civil society actors and secularists, ten of whom died before the court had a hearing on the matter, according to lawyers.

‘Distorted day by day’

The Bangladesh Supreme Court has two wings – the High Court and the Appellate Division. Anyone aggrieved by a High Court verdict can go to the Appellate Division for redress.

“We will discuss the issue and decide about whether we should appeal before the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court,” advocate Subrata Chowdhury, a lawyer representing the petitioners, told reporters at the court building.

Petitioner Sirajul Islam, a professor, spoke to BenarNews but did not comment on the verdict.

“We filed the petition as the efforts to Islamize the constitution had been on; the secular spirit that caused our War of Independence was being distorted day by day. Mr. Ershad made Islam the state religion to prolong his autocratic rule, not for love for Islam,” he said, referring to H.M. Ershad, president of Bangladesh from 1983-1990.

After its independence from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh adopted secularism as one of the four principles of its constitution adopted in 1972.

Following the assassination of the country’s founding President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August 1975, the country’s first military ruler, Ziaur Rahman, replaced secularism with “trust in the Almighty Allah” through military orders in 1976.

Ershad, the second military ruler, made Islam the state religion of Bangladesh in 1988 at a time when major political parties had been fighting in the street demanding his resignation.

In 2010, the Supreme Court declared the military rules of Rahman and Ershad illegal and asked that the government restore the original 1972 constitution. The present Awami League-led parliament did so in 2011 but did not remove the language making Islam the state religion.

Warnings

A couple of hours before the hearing, a team representing Hefazat-e-Islam, a platform of conservative Madrasa teachers and students, handed over a memorandum to the court’s registrar asking that the petition be dismissed.

“Any measure like this would be tantamount to extreme attack on the religious sentiment of the majority of people,” said the memo, according to a copy obtained by BenarNews.

“In that case, the Islam-loving people would have no option left other than to wage a tough street movement,” it said, adding that Islamic activists could not take responsibility for “untoward circumstances” that might occur during such protests.

Syed Abdul Hannan Al Hadi, convenor of the Islamic Intellectual Front, also issued a warning before the court ruled.

“If the verdict goes against us, we will cripple the country through hartal, protest and violence, if necessary. We will overturn the country,” Hadi told BenarNews.

In May 2013, Hefazat-e-Islam brought Dhaka to a standstill as thousands of their followers entered the capital and demanded the execution of “atheist bloggers.”

Law enforcement mounted an operation to clear the protesters from the city in which Hefazat claimed thousands of its followers were killed. Police challenged that allegation, saying nine died, according to media reports.

On Friday, Hefazat-e-Islam activists held rallies in Dhaka and Chittagong asking the court to turn down the petition.



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