Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bangladesh dramatic shift from secularism to Islamic constitution

Photo: Secularist campaign for trail of war criminals
SALEEM SAMAD

BANGLADESH ON Monday night decided to make a radical shift from secularism to a pro-Islamic constitution. The move angered pro-democracy, secularist activists and also surprised the nation's moderate Muslim population.

An amendment of the constitution will be brought soon to retain Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim (in the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful) in the preamble of the constitution, freewheel policy to religious biased politicking and Islam as state religion.

A meeting of the cabinet ministers chaired by Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina on Monday approved the amendments to the constitution. The constitutional reforms committee worked for months to recommend several revisions.

Meanwhile, the opposition led by former prime minister Khaleda Zia and Islamist alliance partners launched a countrywide agitation, including strikes protesting abrogation of non-partisan interim government to ensure free, fair, credible polls in the reformed constitution. They fear that the forthcoming general elections due in 2014 could be rigged based on proven track records of ruling party.

Two senior ministers AMA Muhith and AK Khandaker expressed their discontent during a cabinet meeting and protested the inclusion of “Islam as the state religion” of the republic in the reformed constitution. They argued that it will be in conflict with the constitution of 1972 ensuring the state should be secular with equal rights to all citizens practising other religions including Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity.

Commenting on the ministers’ argument, Hasina remarked, “The committee report has been prepared in this regard on the basis of reality as there have been many changes in the past 40 years.”

Secularists argue that state cannot belong to a faith, instead human beings may have a religion or practice a faith.

A year after the bloody war of independence from Islamic Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh (formerly an eastern province of Pakistan) adopted a secular constitution. Despite being the fourth largest Sunni Muslim dominated population, the country banned political activities of Islamic parties.

The 1972 secular constitution guaranteed religious freedom and respect of all faiths was installed by independence leader Shiekh Mujibur Rahman, the father of present prime minister Hasina. Subsequently the military juntas ruled the country for 15 years doctored the constitution, encouraging Islamization of Bangladesh.

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

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