Bangladesh is a Secular Country?

Here’s a rather baffling report from the New York Times:

Bangladesh’s High Court on Thursday disqualified the country’s largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, from taking part in next year’s general election, saying the party’s charter conflicts with the principles of the nation’s secular Constitution.

You’re prosecuting several bloggers for blasphemy and you think you have a secular constitution? You keep using that word…

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  • nkrishna

    The word “secular” sometimes has a very odd and unfortunate definition in much of South Asia. Unlike in the west, where we interpret it to mean that the government doesn’t endorse any particular religion and keeps its hands out of the business entirely (that’s the definition–whether that’s true on the ground is another matter), in places like India (and apparently Bangladesh), the interpretation seems to have been transformed into “if the government allows equal space for all religions in the public square, it’s secular.” So an openly Islamic party would be verboten as their stated agenda is contrary to that, but outside the political arena, each religious group gets to follow its own internal laws as well as the national laws and they have equal weight in religious matters (conflict, natch, and the most infamous incident is probably the Shah Bano case in India). Of course, since under this model, religion is privileged above non-belief, and “hurting religious sentiment” is criminal (see Sanal Edamaruku), and atheists get left out in the cold, which makes the whole situation really dismaying to see for a South Asian atheist of Hindu background like me.

    Long story short, this doesn’t surprise me at all.

  • Robert B.

    Also, nkrishna, in some cases (I dunno about Bangladesh or India, but I think Indonesia is one) the “all religions” that the government treats evenly are just a short list of major religions, so not only unbelievers but also schismatics, heretics, and minority religionists are oppressed.

  • nkrishna

    @2 Robert B.

    True. Indonesia has six officially recognized religions: Islam, Protestant Christianity, Catholic Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, and I believe every citizen must declare to profess one of those (don’t quote me on that, though). In India, I don’t think the situation is quite so restrictive but for purposes of things like marriage, different groups get their own laws, precisely for the purpose of determining what religious laws you fall under for things like family court or divorce law should a religious dispute arise (again, see Shah Bano). I believe until last year, Sikhs were even subsumed under Hindu law. I don’t know what the situation is like in Bangladesh, but it may be similar.

  • iangould

    Indonesia only recognizes six religions but citizens can leave the religion section of their ID cards blank – which obviously still marks them out.