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After 50 Years, Is Bangladesh a Secular or Religious Nation?

The history of Bangladesh has been marked by a struggle between secularism and religion for the nationalistic soul of the country. Bangladesh fought its war of independence in 1971 on the basis of the ideal of secularism. For Bangladesh, embracing religion or creating a secular identity has been a source of major contention in the creation of its national identity.  

After India gained independence from the British Empire in 1947, the Partition , a division of India and Pakistan into two states, was created by the members of the Bengal Legislative Assembly. They decided to cast three separate votes to decide the fate of Bengal. At the end of the three separate elections, it was decided that Bengal will indeed be divided. The Muslim regions were then separated into West and East Pakistan by India’s landmass. Bangladesh, which was Bengali, was part of Eastern Pakistan. Bengali ethnic nationalism began to rise in East Pakistan soon after Pakistan gained independence. 

A majority of East Pakistan was Muslim, while a mjority of West Pakistan was Hindu. There were linguistic, cultural, and political differences that couldn’t be solved. The Bengali people spoke their own language and eventually wanted it to become the primary language of east Pakistan. But they faced immense discrimination by the western region.   

A civil war broke out between West and East Pakistan in 1971. The East won and controlled “Bengali”, which is now the country of Bangladesh. Soon after Bangladesh became independent, it turned into a secular state that was founded by the Awami League, based in an Islamic society. Awami League is one of the major political parties in Bangladesh. Secularism in Bangladesh was seen as a denial of Islam, by some people.

In the 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh, secularism was one of the four fundamental principles of state policy. But the President of Bangladesh, President Ziaur Rahman removed the secularism principle in 1977, and declared Islam the state religion. Today, the leading and most popular religion in Bangladesh is Islam. Bangladesh has 152 million Muslims, which makes up 90.4% of the country’s population. 

The Awami League, brought back the four fundamental principles in the Constitution in 2008, returning the country to its secular roots. Even though the U.N. saw Bangladesh as a “Moderate Muslim Democracy,” Dipu Moni, the Bangladesh forign minister since 2019 said that the country is, “A secular, not moderate, Muslim country.” Secular values have clashed in Bangladesh’s society, with the abolishing and the re-establish of secularism, it reveals how important these principles are to their Constitution. 

In March of 2016, Bangladesh’s high court rejected a petition to have Islam reinstated as the offical state religion, a policy that had been in place since 1988. The petition was written by secular activitsts to remove Islam as the offical state religion of the Muslim majority of Bangladesh. There were also steps in place to have a nationwide Islamic strike led by the Jamaat-e-Islami to force the petition’s rejection but it was a moot point because their prayers were answered.

The secular petitioners were not allowed to state their case or produce arguments. Subrata Chowdhury, one of the secular activists in the case said, “We are saddened (at the ruling). It’s a sad day for the minorities of Bangladesh, the judges simply said the rule is discharged.” Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, make up the minority religions of Bangladesh. The court said the petition was not legitimate because the people who filed never registered with authorities. Islam will remain the offical religion of Bangladesh. 

Jamaat-e-Islami is Bangladesh’s largest Islamic party and they see the outcome as a, “Victory of 160 million people.” Hefajat-e-Islam local leaders of the Islamic group also stated they are delighted with the courts decision, and members of the group accumulated outside of the court and held up a ‘V’ with their fingers for victory. Fazlul Karim Kashemy, a Hefajat-e-Islam leader said, “We thank the court on behalf of the nation for rejecting the petition, Muslims and non-Muslims in our society have been maintaining good relationship for long.” 

In November of the same year, government officials were contemplating removing Isalm as the official religion. After a senior politician claimed Bangladeshi people have embraced “a force of secularism.” 

 Dr Abdur Razzak, a leading member of Bangladesh’s Awami League party  said, “Bangladesh is a country of communal harmony. Here we live with people from all religions and Islam should not be accommodated as the state religion in the Bangladeshi constitution. I have said it abroad and now I am saying it again that Islam will be dropped from Bangladesh’s constitution when the time comes. The force of secularism is within the people of Bangladesh. There is no such thing as a ‘minority’ in our country.” He also said that Islam has been kept as the religion of the state for “stratigic reasons.” 

The International Religious Freedom Report of  2005 of Bangladesh states, “Religion is an important part of community identity for citizens, including those who do not participate actively in prayers or services. Confirming that religion is the first choice by a citizen for self-identification, with atheism being extremely rare.” 

Secularism and religion in Bangladesh has been so vilified by Islamists that it has come to mean something comparable to anti-Islamic. It hasn’t changed then, and it will certainly not change now.