Friday, April 15, 2011

Bangladesh to legalize political Islam, ignoring courts decision to restore secularism

SALEEM SAMAD

Despite electoral promises and an apex court’s ruling to restore secularism, the Bangladesh parliament is poised to pass an amendment to establish Islam as the state religion and legalize religious politics.

The Sunni Muslim majority nation of 158 million will relax stringent restrictions imposed in the constitution of 1972.

The constitutional amendment committee members said in “prevailing political reality” the parliamentary special committee on constitutional amendments on Monday decided to advocate for relaxing restrictions on political Islam so that Islamic parties can continue functioning without any restrictions.

The provision of Article 38 of the Bangladesh constitution bans use of religion for political purposes. Instead, the article allows every citizen to form associations or unions, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of morality or public order.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, leader of the ruling Awami League, at Monday’s meeting said the ruling party would not curb the political rights of Islamist parties. The secularist activists expressed there frustration and women rights groups are disgusted after recently hearing prime minister's political vision to keep Islam as state religion in the constitution.

The Awami League government in 1972 banned religion-based organizations after Islamic parties collaborated with the marauding Pakistani army that killed 3 million people in nine months in 1971.

Hasina, also the leader of the House, made it clear to the committee that her government would keep “Bismillah’ir Rahman’ir Rahim” (Faith in Allah) in the preamble of the constitution and retain Islam as the state religion.
Two previous military rulers, Gens. Ziaur Rahman and H.M. Ershad deliberately doctored the constitution to keep the Islamists in good humor. In 1978, the provisions of article 38, prohibiting communal bodies, were dropped while in 1988 Islam became the state religion.

The dreaded Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, whose leaders are now facing war crime charges, became politically active following the 1978 order.

Earlier in July last year the apex court, in a landmark judgment banned political parties that propagate Islamic ideology, reverting to the original constitution of 38 years ago.

Moments after the judgment the rights groups seems to be excited by the court’s verdict and interpreted that it was a major blow to the Islamist parties which foresees Sharia law for apparently a secular Muslim population and also advocates Koran and Sunnah which will eclipse the state constitution.

"It seems that the government is reading a wrong message from the secularists and liberal Muslims," remarked Shahriar Kabir, a researcher on Muslim radicalism and extremism.

A secularist advocate, Shahriar Kabir, said the prime minister’s statement has confused the nation and it seriously contradicts the verdict of the superior court. It seems that the war criminals and their adversaries have nothing to fear. Their parties would continue to function and overtly work against the war crimes trial, he remarked. [ENDS]

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com