After nearly five years, the Dhaka High Court will resume on Sunday the hearing of a petition seeking reforms to drop Islam as Bangladesh’s state religion.
The court decision comes amid concern over recent killings of foreigners and locals belonging to minority groups by extremists and efforts by Prime Minister Sheikh Hazina’s government to safeguard secular views, protect lives and eliminate terrorists.
But a religious group Hifazat-e Islam has threatened to bring Bangladesh to its knees if the high court repeals Islam as state religion in its verdict on the writ petition.
“This hearing will be a blow against peace, it will be a blow against law and order,” said Mufti Fayezullah, the joint secretary general of Hifazat, to The New York Times. “The Muslims of this country will not stand for it. Their conscience would not allow it.”
Hifazat leaders said the petitioners are ‘insane’ and called for a referendum, if needed.
The petition was filed 28 years ago by 15 eminent citizens, including former judges and academicians most of whom are now dead.
According to Dhaka Tribune, the matter was on the back burner until August 1 2015 when Supreme Court lawyer Somendra Nath Goswami filed a fresh petition with the High Court challenging the state religion provision as, according to him, it was against the basic secular structure of the state.
The court heard his petition on August 30 and rejected it on September 7.
On February 29 2016, Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha formed a three-member bench to hear the 1988 petition following a plea submitted on behalf of the petitioners. The new bench headed by Justice Naima Haider withdrew a previous order to hear opinions from over a dozen amici curiae.
Secularists welcomed the announcement of a fresh court hearing while Islamist groups have issued a stern warning to drop the provision or face nationwide protests.
After Friday prayers, Hifazat-e Islam threatened to paralyze the country if Islam was dropped as state religion. They held protests in Dhaka, Chittagong and some other places along with activists of Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Chhatra Shibir. They have been campaigning on social media against the legal move.
Secularists, on the other hand, blame the recent terrorist killings on the recognition of Islam as state religion and the lifting of ban on religious parties.
Recently, Bangladesh had witnessed a wave of deadly attacks by Islamist militants on secular bloggers, religious minorities and foreigners. The Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for most of the killings.
Police, however, blame it on local militant groups who, according to them, are giving the IS tag to the killings to make themselves noticed.
Sheikh Hasina’s government says it will not tolerate any form of religious extremism and violence.
In 1988, the 15 petitioners had warned that naming Islam as state religion would encourage fundamentalists to attack minorities. But the military leadership of the time ignored their concern and the petition.
The petitioners included former chief justice Kamal Uddin Hossain, Poet Sufia Kamal, National Professor Kabir Chowdhury, Prof Khan Sarwar Murshid, Prof Mosharraf Hossain, retired Maj Gen CR Duttta, Prof Serajul Islam Choudhury, writer Badaruddin Umar, journalist and writer Faiz Ahmed, Borhan Uddin Khan Jahangir and Prof Anisuzzaman.
Of them, only five are alive.
About 90% of Bangladeshis are Muslims, 8.5% are Hindus and the rest are Buddhists and Christians.