Bangladesh: Ruling Party Official Defends Remarks on Islam as State Religion

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
161129-BD-islam-620.jpg Bangladeshi Muslims offer Friday prayers during Ramadan at a mosque in Dhaka, June 17, 2016.

A senior official with Bangladesh’s ruling party has defended his public comments that Islam should lose its constitutional standing as the state religion and the country should restore its original approach to government including secularism.

Abdur Razzak, a member of the Awami League (AL) Presidium Council, its top policy-making body, told a public forum earlier this month that the religion practiced by a majority of Bangladeshis would eventually lose its official status in the constitution, and that Islam was being kept as the state religion for strategic reasons.

“I have said it abroad and now I am saying it again that Islam will be dropped from Bangladesh’s Constitution when the time comes,” Razzak said during a roundtable at the National Press Club in Dhaka.

“The force of secularism is in the people of Bangladesh. There is nothing called ‘minority’ in our country,” BDNews24 quoted him as saying.

His remarks have drawn criticism from members of his own party. Those words came as the multi-religious South Asian nation of 169 million people has been contending with growing conservative Islamic sentiment, and a spate of recent murders targeting members of religious minorities as well as writers and intellectuals associated with a grassroots movement that has called for Bangladesh to preserve its tradition of secular rule.

“I have told what I believe. I have clearly [said] that the original 1972 constitution adopted secularism as one of the four fundamental principles of the state. But the autocrats and the military rulers who usurped power cut it from the charter, branding secularism as anti-religion,” Razzak told BenarNews during an interview in which he stood by his controversial comments.

Detractors from the party were quick to point out that Razzak’s comments were his own and did not represent the Awami League. AL General Secretary Obaidul Quader told a press conference on Nov. 13 – a day after Razzak’s remarks at the press club – that the party had no plans to drop Islam as the state religion.

Constitutional history

After Bangladesh was born in 1971, following its war of independence from Pakistan, secularism was included as one of the four core values in the country’s first constitution.

“Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman adopted secularism, promising all faiths that Bangladesh as a state must not be party to any religion. This is the spirit according to which Bangladesh seceded from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” Razzak said, referring to the father of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Following the 1975 assassination of Rahman and members of his family, military leader Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman seized power. He removed secularism from the constitution and replaced it with the phrase “trust in Allah by all means.”

The next military ruler, H.M. Ershad, who took power in a coup in 1982, six years later enshrined Islam as the state religion through the eighth amendment to the constitution.

In 2011, the Awami League recaptured four core values as outlined in the original constitution – nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism – through the 15th amendment, but allowed Islam to remain as the state religion. The constitution allows other religions to be practiced in peace and harmony.

In March 2016, a three-member panel of the High Court scrapped a petition to remove the 1988 amendment that had made Islam the state religion, but without offering an explanation. Leaders of the conservative Hefazat-e-Islam group had attended the proceeding after threatening to cripple the country with protests if the court stripped Islam of its standing as the state religion.

‘Political reality’

Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury, an AL organizing secretary, told BenarNews that Razzak should not have made a sensitive comment without the party’s approval.

“Where did he get it? If he was a mature politician, he would not talk like this. Making Islam as the state religion does not ideally fit with the Awami League’s party policy of secularism, but we have to do it for political reality,” he said.

Explaining what he meant by “political reality,” he said the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) along with Jamaat-e-Islami and other conservative Islamic parties would brand AL as anti-Islam and pro-atheist party if it changed Islam’s official status.

AL platform stresses secularism

Razzak is the second top-ranking AL member to face criticism from his party for talking against Islam.

In September 2014, former Telecom Minister Abdul Latif Siddiqui went to jail for criticizing Islam and the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.  He resigned from the party and gave up his seat in parliament after the AL suspended him for his comments.

The suspension occurred even though the AL’s charter stipulated secularism, Professor Ataur Rahman, a former president of the Political Science Alumni Association of Bangladesh, told BenarNews.

“But the Awami League is not working to uphold secularism at all. They are trying to brand themselves as more Islamic than the Jamaat-e-Islami and the BNP,” the Dhaka University political science teacher said.

“And what I can assert is that the Awami League will be using Islam to get maximum political mileage out of Islam. This policy is nothing but a political expediency. They are well aware that the people may take to the street in case they talk against Islam,” Rahman added.

Shahriar Sharif in Dhaka contributed to this report.


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