Religion-based Political Parties in Bangladesh

by Barrister Harun ur Rashid | August 24, 2010 8:35 pm

A question was raised whether political parties based on religion could exist in Bangladesh after the verdict of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court confirming the illegality of the Fifth Amendment Act of the Constitution (judgment was released on 28th July 2010).

The question was set to rest when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reportedly has made it clear in one of her cabinet meetings that her government has no intention to ban religion-based political parties. Her reported statement is pragmatic based on sound assessment of the political environment in the country.

In Britain, Queen Elizabeth is the “Defender of the Faith”, not “Faiths”, meaning that the monarch defends only the protestant branch of Christianity as distinct from Catholic- Christians and other major faiths.

Furthermore it is argued that in all Western nations religious ceremonies play dominant roles in state functions. Even academic terms in England, such as “Michaelmas, Hilary, Easter and Trinity” go back to roots of Christianity.

In many European countries, political parties have prefixed the name of a religion, such as Germany’s Christian Democratic Union and Christian Union in the Netherlands.

However such religious ceremonies or terminologies do not compromise secular character of laws and systems of government in Europe.

Although many political parties in Europe have prefixed the word “Christian” , there appears to be no intention to change the basic structure of state’s existing system and laws on Biblical doctrines. Rather some political parties in Europe are found to be based on “racist ideology” of white supremacy but not on “ a particular religious ideology”.

The question is whether a political party which wants to change the structure of the constitution and laws of a state on the basis of particular religious doctrines can exist in Bangladesh which is a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-religious state.

When political parties in their manifestoes want to change the structure, system of government, judiciary and laws of a State in accordance with the principles and beliefs of a particular religion among multi-religious citizens, people of other faiths in such a State perceive discrimination on the basis of religion.

Many linguists say secularism is not a good English substitute for the Bengali word “Dharmanirepaksata”, meaning a State remains neutral in matters of religious theory, doctrine, and practice.

Neutrality with religion is to be distinguished from non-involvement with religion. Neutrality implies governmental engagement with religion for the purpose of treating all religious groups fairly, equally and equitably, while non-involvement implies governmental isolation from matters of religion. Neutrality with religion in other words is religious pluralism.

It is argued that in the background of festering and destructive communal politics in British India, religious pluralism and Bengali-language based nationalism constituted the spirit of the Liberation War of 1971.

The basic fabric of Bangladesh Constitution is the “solemn expression of the will of the people” (Article 7.2 of the Constitution) and religious pluralism is a golden thread running through the Constitution that was adopted on 4th November 1972.

The concept of freedom of religion as stipulated in Article 41 of the Constitution is as follows:

“(1) Subject to law, public order and morality-

(a) every citizen has the right to profess, practice or propagate any religion;
(b) every religious community or denomination has the right to establish, maintain, and manage its religious institutions

(2) No person attending any educational institution shall be required to receive religious instruction, or to take part in or to attend any religious ceremony or worship, if that instruction, ceremony or worship relates to a religion other than this own”.

Article 41 is founded upon on the belief that the state neither allows to favour nor to discriminate any religious faith. The idea may be called “equidistance”.

Bangladesh people of various faiths are deeply religious and most devoutly religious people are also the staunchest defenders of religious pluralism. If the State is given the power and authority to favor one religion over another, then it is given the power and authority to do the opposite as well.

Bangladesh, despite a few extra-constitutional bumps in the road, has been very successful in keeping harmony among people of all faiths which is consistent with long-standing political and cultural history of Bengali people.

Given the above context, one may argue strongly it is doubtful if a political party can exist under the Constitution (after the illegality of the Fifth Amendment of the constitution declared by the highest court ) when it wants to change the basic structure, laws and judicial system of Bangladesh on the basis of one religious doctrine to the exclusion of other religions or faiths.

A political party can exist with an Islamic or any religious name prefixed or affixed so long it respects the existing constitution with religious pluralism and equality, multi-party based parliament, existing system of laws and judiciary in the country.

United Pakistan fell apart in 1971 because Muslim soldiers of Pakistan perpetrated barbaric atrocities on Bengali –speaking people in former East Pakistan which constituted about 88% Muslims and demonstrated that common religion did not act as unifier in United Pakistan.

In the above context, whether religion can act as bond of a nation-state. Many scholars argue against it because 22 Arab countries are separate nation-states although they speak the same Arabic language and their populations are overwhelmingly Muslims. Why could not they be merged as one State on the basis of religion?

Furthermore, Islam is not a monolithic religion. It is made of a variety of strands of thought and multiple interpretations of the Holy Qu’ran. The Muslim world is arguably severely fractured along ethnic lines–all having very different views on precepts of Islam. It demonstrates that Islamic ideology is not uniform or rigid. .

Then the difference of practices of Islam between Arab Muslims and non-Arab Muslims remains. Many of the practices of Islam in non-Arab Muslim majority countries have their undepinnings on local customs and traditions that are very different from those of Arab Muslims. One can witness the variation of performance of Islamic rites and practices in non-Arab Muslim countries from Iran to Indonesia where about 80% of total Muslims live.

Finally, let me quote former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohammad who said at the OIC Summit in 2003: “ We are now 1.3 billion strong. We have the biggest oil reserve in the world. We have great wealth…..We see more helpless than the small number of Jahilliah converts who accepted the Prophet as their leader. Why? Is it because of Allah’s will or is it because we have interpreted our religion wrongly or failed to abide by the correct teachings of our religion or done the wrong things?”

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva

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