Kathryn Montalbano: This week, the Bangladeshi government has pushed to retain the state’s Islamic status, a move that requires an amendment to the constitution that originally declared Bangladesh secular and independent from Pakistan in 1971. Bangladesh’s path to independence could almost be credited to Indian Muslims, who sought reprieve from social and political marginalization in 1947 for their new state, Pakistan.
Newly independent Bangladesh was intended to serve as an egalitarian nation in which Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus could peacefully coexist. However, in 1988, a military ruler declared the state Islamic; yet codification of Islam as the state religion did not significantly affect the secular legal system, founded on British common law.
Proponents of the declaration of “Islam as the state religion” allege that non-Muslims will still retain preexisting legal rights, embedded in Shiekh Mujibur Rahman’s 1972 constitution which guarantees freedom from faith-based discrimination or persecution. Following Rahman’s assasination in 1975, General Zia-ur-Rahman undermined the secularist tenets of the constitution with his 1977 Fifth Amendment, which infamously declared “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah.”
Rahman’s daughter and the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, stepped back from restoring her father’s vision of secularism and democracy to the troubled state recently (allegedly because of political pressure), but averred religious freedom amidst the pending Islamic state. Islamist parties–with leverage on a few domestic political issues–are the prime suspects hindering Hasina’s ability to lead Bangladesh to its previous secular foundation.