The state is for all – and religion for the individual

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Is the state religion of Bangladesh only Islam?

A serious question posed by journalist Probir Sikdar, who lost a leg in 2001 while investigating a war criminal in Faridpur who, under a pseudonym, had rubbed shoulders in the corridors of power.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, while speaking to a group of foreign journalists in January 1972 in London — just a day after he was released from captivity in Pakistan — asserted Bangladesh’s pledge to nationalism, democracy, secularism, and socialism.

Probir argues in a Facebook post: “Will it be wrong if I say the state religion is not only Islam but also other religions in the country, which includes Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians [which] are also included in state religion of the Republic of Bangladesh?”

If the constitution of Bangladesh is browsed, what does it say?

The preamble of the Constitution of Bangladesh also states: “Pledging that the high ideals of nationalism, socialism, democracy, and secularism, which inspired our heroic people to dedicate themselves to, and our brave martyrs to sacrifice their lives in the national liberation struggle, shall be the fundamental principles of the Constitution.”

In the first part of the constitution, the Republic of Bangladesh says: “The state religion of the Republic is Islam, but the State shall ensure equal status and equal right in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and other religions.”

I sought help from fellow columnist and journalist Syed Badrul Ahsan and writer-researcher Mohiuddin Ahmad, seeking their opinions regarding Probir’s statement.

The two great minds think alike, it seems. They stated that a rational and logical approach should have been: “Religion for the individual, while the state is for all.”

For a decade and more, the issue of religion and state is being discussed in different platforms.

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Because of the progressive media, politicians and the civil society now understand that secularism, religious freedom, and tolerance have been held hostage by the radicalized Muslims in the country.
Today, the basic tenet of the Liberation War has been made controversial by the “waz-mongers” and Islamists.

None can deny that the rise of radicalized Islamic evangelists had risen during the two military dictatorships of General Ziaur Rahman and General Hussain Muhammad Ershad for 14 years.

The military leaders who forcibly took charge of the country attempted to white-wash secularism, equality, and tolerance to create a new ideological space vis-a-vis the brutal birth of Bangladesh.
This new phenomenon of intolerance against faith minorities has been deliberately triggered by the politico-military regime to legitimize their illegal statesmanship. The mullahs did not hesitate to bark at the secularists and moderate Muslims too.

In a bid to oppose secularism and freedom of faith and belief, the junta encouraged the Islamic evangelists to take the stage to preach intolerance and spew hate-speech in the name of Islamic sermons.

Well, if not every week, every month there is breaking news of attacks and intimidation on minorities, including harassment towards the Muslim sect Ahmadiyya.

It is the responsibility of the state to ensure security to communities of other faith and belief. Obviously, the occurrences invited Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to issue global media statements.

It’s embarrassing when the international media seek comments on these incidents of intolerance and hate-speech which spark attacks on communities of other faiths and beliefs. Nevertheless, the language of the constitution has confirmed that all other religions in the country be given equal dignity and equal rights.

If other religions are not given equal status and dignity of state religion, then all other faiths and beliefs would be legally challenged with respect to the constitution and equal rights of all other religions in the country.

In light of this debate, it would not be an understatement to say that the state religion is not only Islam but also includes Hindu, Buddhist, and Christians as the state religion of the Republic of Bangladesh, concludes the staunch secularist Probir Sikdar.

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and is a recipient of the Ashoka Fellow and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be followed on Twitter @saleemsamad.

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