Bangladesh court upholds Islam as religion of the state

Country’s top court rejects 28-year-old petition to revoke constitutional provision declaring Islam as state’s religion.

Dhaka, Bangladesh –  Bangladesh’s High Court on Monday rejected a 28-year-old petition calling for the removal of a constitutional provision recognising Islam as the official religion of the Muslim-majority South Asian nation.

The court ruled that the petitioning organisation, the Committee against Autocracy and Communalism, did not have the right to be heard in the court.

Justice Quazi Reza-Ul Hoque, one of the three judges sitting on the bench, said that the court found that “the petitioner does not have locus standi and that is why the petition will be summarily rejected”.

The organisation’s lawyer, Subrata Chowdhury, said that he was “100 percent disappointed” with the decision.

“Without a hearing and without giving us any chance to present our argument on the point of locus standi, the court dismissed the case,” he told Al Jazeera.

Others, however, were pleased with the decision.

Leaders of the Qawmi madrasa-based organisation Hifazat-e Islam show victory sign after the high court ruling on the state religion of Bangladesh [Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera]
Leaders of the Qawmi madrasa-based organisation Hifazat-e Islam show victory sign after the high court ruling on the state religion of Bangladesh [Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera]

Lawyer Maulana MA Raquib, the president of the religious party Nezam-e-Islam who was present in court, said: “This is the decision of the highest court in the land. Islam should be the state religion. The majority of people in this country believe in Islam.”

He argued that having Islam as the state religion would not affect minority religions. “Minorities will not be discriminated against as there is a guarantee in the constitution for the minorities,” he said.

The petition was originally filed in 1988 after the then President Lieutenant General Hussain Muhammad Ershad declared Islam as the state religion in a symbolic bid to win popular support while major political parties campaigned to oust him from power.

He resigned amid mass protests in 1990.

“We filed the petition then because Bangladesh was founded as a secular state, and having a state religion contradicts the basic structure of the constitution,” Professor Anisuzzaman, one of the leaders of the petitioning organisation, told Al Jazeera.

“The founding fathers of the country wanted to have a secular nation, and all of us during our liberation war subscribed to that and Bangladesh was founded on that basis.”

Bangladesh became independent from the Islamic state of Pakistan after a nine-month war in 1971 which resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, with the government claiming as many as three million.

Further impetus to challenge the constitutional provision came in 2011 when the current Awami League government further amended the constitution by adding new provisions which retained the wording on state religion, though at the same time emphasised “secularism” and the “equal status” of other religions.

Following the 2011 amendment, the Committee for Resistance against Autocracy and Communalism filed a supplementary petition to its 1988 case and the High Court then passed an order asking the government to explain why the new provision reaffirming Islam as the state religion should not be declared.

The dismissal of this case on Monday has allowed the government to avoid setting out its position in favour of the constitutional amendment, which could have been fraught with political dangers.

“I don’t know what is the position of the current government as the latest amendment brought back secularism from the first constitution but did not abolish the provision of state religion, so there is a contradiction,” said Professor Anisuzzaman.

“Bangladesh is a secular country but also provides for state religion.

“The government seems to favour both concepts, so that those who are in favour of state religion do not vote against the government,” he added.

Asif Nazrul, a professor of law at the University of Dhaka, said that he did not think the government was particularly concerned about secularism or Islam.

“Their only issue right now is how to stay in power, and when that requires emphasising secularism, they will do that, and when that requires supporting Islam, they will stick to that,” he said.

Shireen Huq, a leading women rights activist, thinks it is all about “political expediency”.

“Once wording like this [in the constitution] has been introduced, it is difficult to remove it as it could have a reaction which the government is not prepared to face,” she said.