Dhaka, Wednesday, January 15, 2005
THE UNCENSORED REPORT
Freedom of religion and role of government
Every government has a moral responsibility to protect the minority. A democratic government has a constitutional obligation to do so. Bangladesh is a secular democracy. All citizens of Bangladesh – regardless of their faith and religion – have the constitutional protection to lead their spiritual life the way they want. If an individual or a group of people belonging to a particular faith or religion tries to impose their will on others, the former clearly crosses the line breaking the law that provides for equal protection to the citizens of Bangladesh
One doesn’t have to work so hard spending day after day to write a research paper or an article on the religious freedom of the minority community in Bangladesh. Just read a few leading newspapers of this country – either their online or hardcopy editions – you will be on your way with enough material to produce a piece on this subject for any purpose.
The well-written headlines of Bangladesh’s leading newspapers will speak for themselves on your subject matter. ‘Another ultimatum as zealots rally against Ahmadiyyas,’ writes one newspaper giving a broad hint of what is going on with the minority religious community in Bangladesh. ‘Ahmadiyyas live on their nerves,’ writes another highlighting the gravity of the situation. ‘Ahmadiyyas vow to resist fundamentalism,’ writes yet another giving an idea of how a minority community is fighting back.
Yes, Ahmadiyyas representing a minority Muslim religious community of Bangladesh have been fighting for long just for their basic rights – religious freedom or the right to practice their religion freely, religious non-discrimination or their entitlement to a religious life without any bias and equality before law which means equal protection of law as enjoyed by the members of other communities in the country. Interestingly, all these rights are fundamental and guaranteed to each and every citizen of Bangladesh under the constitution of the country.
But shockingly, one can argue on the basis of the recent happenings in Bangladesh that the members of the Ahmadiyya community – despite being the citizens by birth of their own country – do not enjoy those rights or they do only minimally. Whereas articles 27, 28, 31 and 41 of the constitution of the country are quite explicit on the above-mentioned fundamental rights, which are, of course, guaranteed to all citizens of Bangladesh.
Under the Fundamental Rights section of the Constitution of Bangladesh, article 27 guarantees all citizens of Bangladesh an equal protection of law while article 31 states that the protection of law is an inalienable right of every citizen of Bangladesh, wherever he or she may be. According to article 28, the state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds of religion while article 41(1) states that (a) every citizen has the right to profess, practice or propagate any religion and (b) every religious community or denomination has the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions.
So, as per the Constitution of Bangladesh the Ahmadiyya community members have their rights guaranteed to practice their religion freely as well as to establish, maintain and manage their religious institutions, for example, their mosques or other places of worship anywhere in the country. However, some radical Islamic groups of Bangladesh – principally an organization called International Khatme Nabuwat Movement – have been repeatedly violating their constitutionally guaranteed rights. Not only have their fundamental rights been violated, the members of the minority Muslim community have been the victims of unchecked religious persecution in the hands of some Islamic extremists in Bangladesh.
The recent incident of a failed attempt by zealots to forcibly occupy a mosque of the members of Ahmadiyya community in Mymensingh is a stark reminder of how they are being denied their fundamental rights to practice their religion freely and victimized in the hands of the religious fanatics of Bangladesh. It was not the first time their place of worship was to be captured by extremists; they went through similar experiences in different parts of the country in the past as well. After the abortive bid to occupy the Ahmadiyya community’s mosque in Mymensigh on February 10, the leaders of the Bangladesh Chapter of International Khatme Nabuwat Movement have threatened to forcibly take over their mosques again on March 24 in Sylhet and May 12 in Satkhira.
The leaders of the extremist religious organization have further announced that they will observe what they call ‘Mosque Freeing Day’ throughout Bangladesh on April 17. The organization has been asking the government to enact a law declaring the members of the Ahmadiyya minority community of Bangladesh non-Muslims. The International Khatme Nabuwat Movement has been named after the Prophet Mohammad. But paradoxically, the leaders and members of the movement haven’t been following the ideals of the Prophet of Islam who had preached for peace, tolerance, moderation, compassion and all other great qualities throughout his life. Instead, they have chosen a path of persecution, disturbance, intolerance and extremism that clearly runs counter to the peaceful path of true Islam.
In an utter shock and disbelief of any sensible Muslim and non-Muslim alike, the religious fanatics last month held up burial of a 70-year-old woman belonging to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community of Bangladesh for a day and didn’t allow her body to be buried in a Brahmanbaria village graveyard. As press reports suggest, the fanatics themselves had handed down their verdict on her: She was infidel in their view. Her two sons later lamented all their predecessors were buried in that graveyard but they faced obstruction against their mother’s burial at the same place. The elderly woman was finally laid to rest in a government land near her home but not at that graveyard – more than a day later. This single incident speaks volume on how far the fanatics have already gone in Bangladesh raising one big question to the minds of all: What has the government done to those who denied burial of that woman at the graveyard where other members of her family have been buried in the past?
The situation facing the members of the Ahmadiyya community as a result of the activities of the religious fanatics in Bangladesh gives rise to a host of many other relevant questions: Who are patronizing them? How are they getting away time and again with what they are doing in Bangladesh? How does a group of religious zealots decide as to who is Muslim and who is non-Muslim? Who has given them this authority or the decision-making power? What has the government done so far to put a stop to the religious persecution of the Ahmadiyya community members? Why shouldn’t one say that the rights of the minority community in Bangladesh are being violated? Why isn’t the government clarifying its position with regard to the demand of the religious bigots that the Ahmadiyyas be declared non-Muslims? Why isn’t the current government saying in clear terms that such demands are unacceptable and every citizen of Bangladesh has a constitutionally guaranteed right to practice his or her religion freely?
Every government has a moral responsibility to protect the minority. A democratic government has a constitutional obligation to do so. Bangladesh is a secular democracy. All citizens of Bangladesh – regardless of their faith and religion – have the constitutional protection to lead their spiritual life the way they want. If an individual or a group of people belonging to a particular faith or religion tries to impose their will on others, the former clearly crosses the line breaking the law that provides for equal protection to the citizens of Bangladesh. In that case, it becomes an imperative for the government to punish the lawbreaker thus upholding people’s religious freedom as guaranteed in the constitution.
The writer is a Bangladeshi journalist based in North America