Can Bangladesh become a secular state?


Legal situation on religious freedom and its actual application

In Bangladesh there is the specialty that the state organs are subject to a paradoxical constitution, which on the one hand recognizes secularism as a fundamental political principle and on the other hand Islam as the state religion. Article 12 of the Constitution (“Secularism and Religious Freedom”) - which had been suspended in the past but was re-enacted in June 2011 with the 15th amendment to the Constitution - states: “The principle of secularism is implemented as follows: (a) Communalism in any form is to be eliminated; (b) the state does not confer political status on any religion; (c) Religion must not be misused for political purposes; (d) Any discrimination or persecution of people on the basis of their religious affiliation must be prevented. "1 Article 2A again states: "The state religion of the republic is Islam, but the state guarantees the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and other religions the same status and the same rights with regard to their practice."

The country has been dealing with this contradiction for a number of years. On March 28, 2016, the Supreme Court in Bangladesh confirmed the status of Islam as the state religion.2 This judgment was preceded by an application that 15 eminent personalities had already submitted to the court in 1988 after Islam was made the state religion by a constitutional amendment. They questioned the legality of this constitutional amendment and justified their complaint by stating that the recognition of a state religion was contrary to the principle of a secular state. The plaintiffs finally gave up, assuming that the judges would reject their complaint. But in August 2015 the debate was revived when the lawyer Samendra Nath Goswami also filed a constitutional complaint against the said amendment, which anchored Islam as the state religion. In 2016, the judges were faced with a serious decision: What position should Islam occupy in society in the future? At the time, Bangladesh was shaken by religious tensions and faced with growing Islamism, and the court ultimately ruled that Islam's special status in the constitution should be maintained.

The question of whether Bangladesh defines itself as a secular or an Islamic state has preoccupied the country since its declaration of independence in 1971. Sunni Islam undoubtedly occupies an important position, and the country looks with pride on its tolerant and moderate currents. However, the constitution that Bangladesh adopted in 1972 was based on a linguistic and secular identity. The declaration of Islam as the state religion was passed in 1988 by a military regime (under dictator Hussein Muhammad Ershad). Since then, a strong political and intellectual movement has been fighting for the restoration of the original principle of secularity - but so far without success.

This identity conflict has spawned two opposing ideological camps: on the one hand there are the "secularists", on the other the "Islamists". "The relationship between religion and state already played a central role in the history of the division of India and Pakistan in 1947, but also in the history of the nation-building of Bangladesh since the state was founded in 1971", says Samuel Berthet, historian and lecturer at the Indian Shiv Nadar -University.3 In fact, Bangladesh was called East Pakistan before it split off from the western part in an extremely bloody war of liberation - the human losses are estimated at 300,000 to 3 million, depending on the source.4 Pro-Pakistani militias who fought for the idea of ​​an Islamic nation in this war wanted to destroy the secessionists.

"When Bangladesh was founded, religion was associated with paternalism on the part of Pakistan, while secularism was associated with the project of an independent nation, Bangladesh," explains Berthet.5 “However, under the influence of the Middle East and with the development of trade, balances and perceptions have gradually shifted. After an authoritarian regime enshrined the concept of a state religion in the constitution in 1988, religious majority relationships were increasingly used as a justification for this concept. This influence has shaped large parts of the population and has considerable political weight in a democracy based on a majority electoral system. In addition, the principle of a state religion also has an impact on the situation of the minorities. And for those in favor of a Bangladesh based on the original constitution, renouncing the establishment of a state religion is still indispensable. For them, this demand has meanwhile become synonymous with the guarantee of the right to freedom of expression, but also to the free exercise of belief regardless of religious affiliation. "6 In view of the latest political and social developments in Bangladesh, however, it is clear that the secularists are losing influence in the longstanding constitutional debate.



In contrast to Pakistan, there are no blasphemy laws in Bangladesh. The current law goes back to the penal code of the British colonial power from the year 1860 and only states the "violation of religious feelings"7 Others under penalty (Articles 295A and 298). Furthermore, according to the Information Technology Act of 2013, the publication of content on the Internet that harms “public order and the law” or that could be interpreted as defamation of a religion is prohibited.8

The Islamist organization founded in 2010 as an interest group Hefazat-e-Islam (Protector of Islam) presented a 13-point charter in 2013 calling on the government to align legislation and public policy in Bangladesh more closely with Islam. Some of these demands have been complied with. In January 2017, for example, the Ministry of Education equipped around 20,000 schools and madrasas in the country with new textbooks. Teachers soon noticed that certain secular features had been eliminated from Bengali textbooks in favor of an "Islamically correct" frame of reference. Had in April 2016 Hefazat-e-Islam explicitly asked that school books should be more oriented towards Islam, and in particular called for the removal of 17 “atheistic” poems and epic stories that came from non-Muslim authors.9 This measure met with violent protests in intellectual circles. The human rights activist and educational expert Rasheda K. Chowdhury spoke of "a form of poisoning" in the education system: "I will not use the term 'Islamization', but it is undeniably a measure against secularism."10

In recent years, Bangladesh has been hit by a wave of targeted attacks. In addition to the attack by an Islamist terrorist squad on a café in Dhaka on July 1, 2016, in which 22 people (including 18 foreigners) were killed, around 40 prominent figures were murdered by Islamists in the capital and other parts of the country. The victims (who in most cases were stabbed) were intellectuals, academics and publicists who were considered “atheists”, as well as supporters of religious minorities. On March 3, 2018, the renowned physicist Muhammed Zafar Iqbal, who has also made a name for himself as a children's book author and is one of the pioneers of Bengali science fiction literature, was attacked with a knife. The 64-year-old suffered stab wounds to his head and hands. The 25-year-old assassin said after his arrest by the police that he wanted to silence "an enemy of Islam".11 Bangladesh's Prime Minister promised that the government would ensure that the perpetrator was brought to justice and that intellectuals like Dr. Iqbal could live in greater security. According to Msgr. Bejoy Nicephorus D’Cruze, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sylhet (in the north-east of the country), such attacks show how alive Islamism is in Bangladesh: “The legislature claims that the problem has been solved. The police take action when an attack is committed, but then remain inactive until the next attack. The police must admit their failure in this case. She failed to find Dr. Iqbal to protect, and she has to take concrete measures so that something like this does not happen again. "12

According to various organizations such as Human Rights Watch and AmnestyInternational the Bangladesh International War Crimes Tribunal will not address the current issue of violence; the tribunal was set up by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed in 2010 with the aim of bringing justice to the victims of the atrocities of the 1971 War of Independence. The special court has sentenced dozens of people to death and life imprisonment, including Delwar Hassain Sayedee, a leader of the Islamist party, in May 2017 Jamaat-e-Islami.13 Some Islamist parties in Bangladesh are accused of supporting the Pakistani army in 1971 and of having committed war crimes. But even if such judicial processes ensure that some Islamist leaders who are in league with the national-conservative Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) disappear from the political stage, they cannot stop the rise of Islamist fundamentalism in the country. According to the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council) there were 1,471 cases of violence against ethnic and religious minorities in 2016, compared to 262 incidents in 2015.14

In this difficult environment, Pope Francis paid a visit to the capital Dhaka from November 30th to December 2nd, 2017. He had previously spent six days in Myanmar and came to Bangladesh to comfort the small Christian minority. In particular, he demanded that Catholics must be able to preserve their “freedom” in a country that can look back on a long tradition of interreligious “harmony”. At the same time, however, the Pope did not hide the fact that Bangladesh had a terrorism problem.

He also called for urgent help for the Rohingya, underlining "the gravity of the situation" and asking for "immediate material help".15 The fate of this predominantly Muslim ethnic group - hundreds of thousands of which have fled western Myanmar from a threat classified by the United Nations and humanitarian organizations as "ethnic cleansing" - is a major challenge for Bangladesh. In preparation for the upcoming monsoon season, which usually reaches its peak in July / August, the Bangladeshi authorities have started to relocate tens of thousands of Rohingya to slightly higher altitudes. According to reports from aid organizations, a large number of the refugees are also to be brought to the island of Thengar Char (also called Char Piya), which is off Chittagong; however, there are concerns that the island is unsuitable to accommodate such a large number of people due to the risk of flooding during the monsoons.16


Perspectives for Religious Freedom

Since parliamentary elections are to take place in Bangladesh before the end of the year, it is unlikely that the already tense political situation will calm down in the near future. In mid-February 2018, Khaleda Zia, leader of the opposition party BNP and a long-term rival of the incumbent Prime Minister, was sentenced to five years in prison for corruption. At the time this country report was being prepared, it was still questionable whether she might be released on bail before the elections. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed von der Awami League in turn, the growing influence of Islamist groups in the political landscape will have to be taken into account. Therefore, it is currently unlikely that the constitutional status of Islam will be called into question again. With the BNP as an opponent, whose allies include the influential Jamaat-e-Islami heard, the main concern of the officially secular Awami League is to get Muslim voters on their side. A decline in social tensions is therefore not to be expected for the time being - and their first victims are always religious and ethnic minorities.

  1. Bangladesh’s Constitution of 1972, Reinstated in 1986, with Amendments through 2014,,, (accessed May 7, 2018).
  2. David Bergman, “Bangladesh court upholds Islam as religion of the state”, Aljazeera, March 28, 2016,, (accessed on May 7, 2018).
  3. “La Cour suprême examine the statut de l'islam dans la Constitution”, Églises d'Asie, March 17, 2016, supreme-examine-le-statut-de-l2019islam-dans-la-constitution /, (accessed May 7, 2018).
  4. Mark Dummett, “Bangladesh war: The article that changed history,” BBC Magazine, December 16, 2011,, (accessed June 13, 2018).
  5. “La Cour suprême examine the statut de l’islam dans la Constitution”, op. Cit.
  6. Ibid.
  7. The Penal Code, 1860 (Act No. Xlv Of 1860), Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs (Bangaldesh),, (accessed June 13, 2018).
  8. “Des manuels scolaires modifiés pour les rendre plus conformes à un contenu jugé 'islamiquement correct'”, Églises d'Asie, February 16, 2017, des-manuels-scolaires-modifies-pour-les-rendre-plus-conformes-a-un-contenu-juge-ab-islamiquement-correct-bb, (accessed on May 7, 2018).
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. “Bangladesh police say writer was attacked as 'enemy of Islam'”, The Express Tribune, March 4, 2018, , (accessed May 7, 2018).
  12. “Les intellectuels en colère après l'attaque d'un universitaire”, Églises d'Asie, 7 March 2018, -colere-apres-lattaque-dun-universitaire, (accessed May 7, 2018).
  13. “Bangladesh court rejects calls to hang Jamaat-i-Islami's Delwar Hossain Sayeedi”, The Dawn, May 15, 2017,, (accessed May 7, 2018).
  14. “Violence against minorities in Bangladesh on the rise”, UCANews, May 3, 2017,, (accessed May 7 2018).
  15. “Le pape demande une aide internationale urgente pour les Rohingyas”,, November 30, 2017,, (accessed on May 7, 2018 ).
  16. “Les réfugiés relogés à l'approche de la mousson”, Églises d'Asie, April 6, 2018, -lapproche-de-la-mousson, (accessed May 7, 2018).