The Wall of Separation

Published on Friday, October 14, 2016

On January the first, 1802 the president of the United States Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut " Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state."

"Separation of church and state" is widely used as a metaphor. The metaphorical meaning of the phrase is "religion staying out of the state's affairs and the state staying out of the religious affairs".

In principle, under no circumstances the state should neither tell religious authorities how to practice or when to practice their faith nor it allow the religious authorities to dictate the course of state affairs.

On 28th of March 2016 The High court of Bangladesh rejected a petition looking for direction of the court to remove the constitutional provision that recognizes Islam as state religion. The petition was lodged 28 years ago during the ruling of Army dictator Ershad by a organization called "Shairachar-O-Shampradayikota Pratirodh Committee", formed by a group of academic and civil rights activists.

Since the ruling was being made I wanted to have a discussion about the rationality and the reasonableness of this disappointing ruling.

My argument is based on two simple factor.

The rationality factor in light of the social and political situation of the country when the petition was lodged. And was the decision reasonable in terms of public interest?

The High Court is considered as the guardian of the constitution and it's authority over constitutional matter is almost absolute. The nation relies on the High court for interpretation and examination of the constitution including when questions are asked over validity of a certain provision of the constitution such as section 2A.

That in fact was the question for the court on March 28.

The court ruled "the petitioner did not have locus standi and that is why the petition will be summarily rejected". The organisation "Shairachar O Shampradayikota Pratirod Committee" is not a registered organisation was a matter for the court.

With due respect, I strongly believe that the decision of the court was irrational as the court did not take into account the political nature of the country of the particular period when the petition was lodged which was very relevant.

The organization "Shairachar-O-Shampradayikota Pratirodh Committee" is a civil rights movement formed during one of the worse political period of our nations history- The time of Army dictator Ershad. There were no civil liberty, freedom of expression, free journalism during his nine years of dictatorship.

His use of religion to strengthen grip on power is a proven fact. In such severe circumstances it was impossible for a movement like "Shairachar-O-Shampradayikota Pratirodh Committee" to be registered specially given the fact the entire motive behind the Ershad government's decision to proclaim Islam as state religion was driven by communal power politics.

The question, how many civil rights groups were registered and operated during that time was also an essential consideration.

Even the name of the organisation "Shairachar-O-Shampradayikota Pratirodh Committee" was an obstacle to be registered considering the nature of the Ershad government. The name itself clearly illustrates that preventing dictatorship and communality was the purpose of the organisation.

It was also worth a thought that 28 years ago Bangladesh was a very young country, our institutions were weak including the NGO registration bureau. Even our political parties were not registered organizations 28 years ago.

How important was the petition?

Our constitution is the most important document of our nation. Every word written into it has a direct impact on defining who we are as a nation. It determines the course of our nation's future direction- our proclamation to human rights, equality, freedom including rights of the minority religious groups that calls this hundred and forty four thousand square kilometres of land home.

Secularism as a national ideal in the constitution is itself a commitment to the minority groups. It upholds some of the forging ideals of our nation-equality, freedom, diversity, inclusiveness and we once were proud to say that all the principles of secularism has been proclaimed by our constitution.

The proclamation of Islam as the state religion by the constitution jeopardizes all our achievement as a secular democratic society. It raises serious concerns to our commitment to social justice and social development. If our nation believes, people of all faith should be treated equally by the state then our constitution must not grant special status to one religion over others. Therefore the article 2a of the constitution which states Islam as the state religion and conflicts our secular identity is a serious concern.

Action speaks louder. It took 28 years for the petition to be heard. Why?

Lets just have brief look at what was happening in Bangladesh on the day March 28.

The Islamists were threatening the state aggressively of massacre and vandalism if the court rules in favour of the decision like always.

The state completely surrendered to the threats of the Islamist's once again. Did not take any action to prevent them from gathering aggressively or did not take any action to stop them threatening an on-going matter of the court. They even chanted slogans and displayed posters and banners violating the constitution.

The response of the national and international media outlets and activists groups before and after the ruling puts lights on the reasonableness issue.

The petition received attention from the national media outlets before the ruling and soon after the ruling it was on the limelight of the international media outlets. A tone of disappointment is clearly heard from the International media reports.

Apparently, Bangladesh is defeated by the fundamentalists once again. This defeat delivers a SOS to our secularist politicians. A call of battle to fully re-install the 1972 constitution- the first and most crucial document of our nation which had embraced secularism as forging ideals of our ancestors. It documented a legislative framework to accommodate religious pluralism and equality for every citizen of Bangladesh without preference or discrimination.

The commitments made to the citizens of Bangladesh by the 1972 constitution is a confirmation of democratic rights accordingly with international human rights conventions. We are peaceful. We always were. In the face of rising religious extremism by a small number of people our civil society and broad numbers of religious communities still shows the positive commitment to uphold our century old legacy of harmony and openness.

Why should we have a state religion? And why one religion will get preference over others?

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