Bangladesh moves to retain Islam as state religion

DHAKA, Bangladesh—Bangladesh will retain Islam as the state religion in amendments the government is proposing to its constitution, a government minister said Tuesday.

A former military ruler declared Islam the state religion in 1988 by amending the charter, but it barely affected Bangladesh’s secular legal system mainly based on British common law.
The government says the proposed changes won’t affect the legal system. Inheritance and other family laws already are based on religion.
The decision was made late Monday at a Cabinet meeting, the minister told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
A special government committee prepared proposals for the amendment, and the government will send those proposals to the parliament for passing as a law.
Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan in 1971 with help from India through a bloody nine-month war.
The original constitution was installed by independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. After Rahman’s assasination in a military coup in 1975, military rulers made a series of amendments to the charter.
Some see the government’s latest action as a compromise by Hasina, who during her election campaign before December 2008 polls said she would restore the 1972 constitution if voted to power.
The original charter did not recognize any faith as a state religion, promised elimination of communalism and disfavored discrimination or persecution because of a person’s faith.
The new proposals want to restore those provisions of secularism but keep Islam as state religion.
Monday’s Cabinet meeting chaired by Hasina also endorsed equal status and equal rights for practicing other religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, the minister said.
The Cabinet decided to keep the provision of state religion considering the national reality, the minister told AP.
The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has campaigned that Hasina’s Awami League party is anti-Islamic. The country’s main Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami and its hardline allies also brand Hasina’s party as anti-Islamic.
Bangladesh has thousands of Islamic schools that advocate installation of Sharia laws, and a violent hardline group years ago bombed government buildings and courts demanding Sharia law. The government claims the group, Jumatul Mujahedin Bangladesh, was broken after its top leaders were hanged.
The government also proposed an amendment to cancel a constitutional provision that requires the government to hand over power at the end of its term to a nonpartisan administration. A former chief justice is usually chosen to head the three-month caretaker administration that conducts new elections.
The Supreme Court has ruled the provision in the 1996 constitution is undemocratic.
The next general elections is due in 2014, and opponents of Hasina say amending the consitution to remove that provision could lead to vote-rigging.

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