Threats as Bangladesh mulls scrapping Islam as state religion

Bangladesh is officially secular, but Islam has been the state religion for almost three decades.

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Dhaka // Hardline Muslim groups in Bangladesh on Thursday threatened large-scale protests if a court moves to remove Islam as the official state religion of the Muslim-majority nation.

Bangladesh is officially secular, but Islam has been the state religion for almost three decades.

More than 90 per cent of the population is Muslim, with Hindus and Buddhists the main minorities.

The high court is considering a petition by secularists who say Islam’s status as the state religion conflicts with Bangladesh’s secular charter and discriminates against non-Muslims.

Furious hardliners this week urged the court to dismiss the petition at a hearing on March 27, threatening large-scale protests if it moves to remove Islam’s special status.

“Any move to scrap Islam’s status will undermine and defame the religion,” Mufti Mohammad Faezullah, secretary general of the conservative political party Islamic Oikya Jote (IOJ) said.

“Obviously the Islamic parties, general people and the clerics will resist the move by holding protests,” he said.

The court’s move threatens to exacerbate tensions between secularists and hardliners in the conservative nation, which has recently seen a spate of killings of atheist bloggers, religious minorities and foreigners.

“If there is such conspiracy and the government and the judiciary bow their heads to these people [secularists], Muslims of all walks of life will hit the roads; fire of resistance will light up across the country,” Hefajat-e-Islam, a hardline Muslim group, said.

Bangladesh was declared officially secular after a deadly liberation struggle against Pakistan in 1971.

But in 1988 the then-military ruler elevated Islam to the state religion of the South Asian country in an effort to consolidate power.

“By making Islam as state religion, the-then military government destroyed the basic character of our secular constitution,” Subrata Chowdhury, a lawyer representing the petitioners, said.

“The minorities were relegated to second-class citizens of the republic.”

The government of prime minister Sheikh Hasina brought back secularism as a pillar of the constitution, but promised it would not ratify any laws that go against the central tenets of the religion.

* Agence France-Presse