Bangladesh

Last Updated 13 October 2020

Though in theory a secular democracy, the government has frequently given into pressure from Islamist parties, and continues to threaten atheists and others on charges of “hurting religious sentiments”. As of 2013 it was estimated that 89.1% of the population were Muslim (the majority of whom are Sunni), 10% Hindu, with the remaining 0.9% comprise Buddhists, Christians, Animists and Ahmadi Muslim and other minority religious groups.1https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bg.html

According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), “[a]midst the Bangladeshi governments’ broader crackdown on civil rights, freedom of
religion or belief continues to be impacted, especially for the country’s religious minorities—including Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and Ahmadi Muslims.”2https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2020%20Bangladesh%20Country%20Update.pdf

Constitution and government Education and children’s rights Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values
 
Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh3http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-367.html and other laws and policies provide for freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as freedom of opinion and expression. However, some laws and policies restrict freedom of religion or belief, as well as freedom of expression and media freedom.

Article 8 of the Constitution includes secularism as one of the four fundamental principles of the state used to guide the governance of the country, including in the creation of all laws.4http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-367/section-24556.html Article 12 elaborates on how secularism is to be ensured:

“The principle of secularism shall be realised by the elimination of –

(a) communalism in all its forms ;

(b) the granting by the State of political status in favour of any religion ;

(c) the abuse of religion for political purposes ;

(d) any discrimination against, or persecution of, persons practicing a particular religion.”5http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-367/section-24560.html

An amendment to the Constitution passed in 2011 established Islam as the state religion however, the article states “the State shall ensure equal status and equal right in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and other religions.”6http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-367/section-24549.html The Constitution includes further provisions elaborating on freedom of religion, making no reference to belief and therefore the non-religious (Article 417http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-367/section-24589.html) and prohibits discrimination based on religion (Article 288http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-367/section-24576.html).

The tension between Islamism and secularism in Bangladesh has resulted in the legal and extrajudicial persecution of freethinkers and minority belief groups, which occasionally erupts into violence.

Between 2015-2018, at least nine humanist writers, bloggers and secular publishers were killed by non-state actors (see “Highlighted cases”, below).9https://pen-international.org/app/uploads/PEN-Case-List-FULL-Web-2018.pdf During this period, the attacks expanded to include civil society actors, academics and religious figures with diverse views.10https://pen-international.org/app/uploads/archive/CASE-LIST-2016-Final.pdf The Bangladeshi authorities have failed to provide adequate protection to secular writers or to bring the perpetrators of such crimes to justice feeding a climate of fear and self-censorship.

Education and children’s rights

Article 41(2) of the Constitution states:

“No person attending any educational institution shall be required to receive religious instruction, or to take part in or to attend any religious ceremony or worship, if that instruction, ceremony or worship relates to a religion other than his own.”11http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-367/section-24589.html

Religious studies are part of the curriculum in government schools. Students attend classes in which their assigned religious beliefs are taught. Schools with few students from minority religious groups often make arrangements with local churches or temples to hold religious studies classes outside school hours.

Outside this system, serious concerns remain that in many of the pervasive Islamic madrassa schools, the entire curriculum may be reduced to a narrowly Islamist programme, fostering extremism and bigotry. Two types of madrassa schools exist in the country Qaumi and Alia, the former operating outside of the government’s supervision.12https://www.dhakatribune.com/opinion/special/2018/01/19/madrasa-students-actually-learning Two of the killers of Washiqur Rahman Babu, captured at the scene of his murder, claimed to have been instructed to kill him as part of their “religious duty” by staff at their two distinct madrassas (see below).

In 2017, following the intervention of Islamic religious scholars, a number of poems and other content deemed to be “atheistic” were removed from textbooks. The changes followed years of lobbying and protests coordinated by Hefazat-e Islam – a coalition of Islamist organizations13https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22424708 – to demand changes to textbooks, mandatory religious education and punishment for “atheist bloggers”.14https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/22/world/asia/bangladesh-textbooks-radical-islam.html

Family, community and society

Religious involvement in state family law

Family law concerning marriage, divorce and adoption has separate provisions for Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. Buddhists are subject to Hindu law.15https://www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/1285661/download

Family laws concerning marriage, divorce, and adoption differ significantly depending on the religious beliefs of the persons involved. Muslim and Hindu family laws are codified in the legal system.

The family law of the religion of the two parties concerned governs their marriage rituals and proceedings; however, marriages also are registered with the state. Until 2012, Hindus were unable to register their marriages.16https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2020/02/01/hindu-marriage-registration-act-a-protective-shield-for-women Regulations also differ between men and women.17https://www.dhakatribune.com/magazine/avenue-t/2018/12/18/interfaith-marriages-and-the-law-of-the-land While theoretically individuals could declare themselves atheist in order to marry, those belonging to the Muslim faith could face accusations of ‘apostasy’. Interfaith marriage is subject to considerable social stigma.

The long out-dated and ambiguous 1872 Special Marriage Act III18http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-details-25.html allows a person of no religious faith to get married. However, both parties must renounce their belief in front of the ‘Registrar’ as non-believers. Couples married under this act are not allowed to adopt; succession, maintenance, custody and guardianship of children and inheritance is not clearly defined either, creating an unclear legal situation.

Islamic Sharia law plays some role in civil matters pertaining to the Muslim community. There is no formal implementation of Sharia, and it is theoretically not imposed on non-Muslims, however this is very high likelihood that some non-religious individuals would be presumed religious and socially pressured to conform to religious arbitration in family matters.

Under the Muslim Family Law Ordinance 1961,19http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-305.html women and girls inherit less than males, and wives have fewer divorce rights than husbands.20http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/uncategorized/bangladesh-women-and-the-equal-distribution-of-inherited-property/#:~:text=In%20Bangladesh%2C%20under%20Islamic%20law,of%20his%20deceased%20wife’s%20property.&text=A%20daughter%2C%20who%20is%20an,her%20late%20father%20or%20mother. Laws provide some protection for women against arbitrary divorce and polygamy without the consent of the first wife, but the protections generally apply only to registered marriages. In rural areas, couples occasionally do not register their marriages. Under the law, a Muslim husband is required to pay his former wife alimony for three months, but the authorities do not always enforce this requirement.

Hindu women and girls also inherit less than their male counterparts under Hindu law.21http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/uncategorized/bangladesh-women-and-the-equal-distribution-of-inherited-property/#:~:text=In%20Bangladesh%2C%20under%20Islamic%20law,of%20his%20deceased%20wife’s%20property.&text=A%20daughter%2C%20who%20is%20an,her%20late%20father%20or%20mother.

Religious tension

Communal violence and political dysfunction remain significant problems in Bangladesh. At least 101 people were reported to have been injured in violence against religious minorities in the first 10 months of 2019. Further, at least 65 temples, monasteries or statues were attacked and 53 homes of religious minorities were attacked and set on fire.22https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/bangladesh/

Violence against Ahmadi Muslims and Buddhists has increased in recent years. The Buddhists mostly belong to indigenous hill tribes in south-eastern Bangladesh (Chittagong Hill Tracts), an area still dealing with the consequences of a twenty year civil conflict between the Shanti Bahini and Bangladeshi military.23https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2020%20Bangladesh%20Country%20Update.pdf; https://unpo.org/article/21682

In October 2018, unidentified individuals destroyed a Buddhist monastery in Khagrachhari District in the Chittagong Hill Tract region. In August 2019, a Buddhist monk was murdered.24https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/dhaka/2019/08/29/protest-held-demanding-justice-for-monk-amritananda-killing

In March 2018, a mob attacked an Ahmadiyya mosque in Jamalpur District, injuring 22 Ahmadi Muslims.25https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2020%20Bangladesh%20Country%20Update.pdf Subsequently, in early February 2019, extremist groups led coordinated attacks against the homes of Ahmadi Muslims in Panchagarh ahead of an annual Ahmadiyya convention known as a Jalsa, despite local authorities having already canceled the three-day event. Approximately 50 Ahmadi Muslims were injured in the attacks.26https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/nation/2019/02/13/sunnis-attack-ahmadiyyas-in-panchagarh; https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2020%20Bangladesh%20Country%20Update.pdf

In November 2017, a ‘Hindu village’ suffered mass arson attacks after a large Muslim gathered to protest rumours that one resident in the village had made Facebook posts ‘insulting the Prophet Mohammed’. The accused was reportedly in a land dispute and there is no evidence that the posts ever existed.27independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/bangladesh-village-prophet-mohammed-insulted-facebook-post-islam-muslim-south-asia-a8051841.html In December 2017, 228 people were charged with the attacks on the community. However, according to media reports, all accused persons were released on bail. Three years since the attack there has been no further progress in the case.28https://www.state.gov/reports/2018-report-on-international-religious-freedom/bangladesh/

Further, the Christian Welfare Trust and other human rights NGOs reported harassment, communal threats of physical violence, and social isolation for converts to Christianity from Islam and Hinduism. In Bangladesh a person’s faith is tied to their last name, despite the person’s constitutional right to change their faiths, sometimes violence could follow them.29https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2020%20Bangladesh%20Country%20Update.pdf

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

The Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, with some restrictions for “public order” concerns, and its media are vibrant and diverse. Bangladeshi authorities impose serious restrictions on freedom of expression in order to suppress criticism. Several legislative restrictions unduly restrict the right to freedom of expression, including provisions within the Penal Code that make criminal defamation,30https://www.thedailystar.net/round-tables/news/use-and-misuse-defamation-law-and-its-impact-journalism-1832056; https://cpj.org/2017/12/bangladeshs-defamation-law-is-avenue-to-misuse-pow/ sedition31https://pen-international.org/app/uploads/Bangladesh_UPR.pdf and religious insult offences, and the Digital Security Act (DSA).32https://www.article19.org/resources/bangladesh-analysis-of-the-digital-security-act/ To date, these provisions have been used to imprison activists, writers, bloggers and journalists critical of the authorities.  This in turn leads to self-censorship on some religious and political topics.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, ARTICLE 19 has observed an upsurge in attacks on media critical of the government’s response.33https://www.article19.org/resources/bangladesh-alarming-crackdown-on-freedom-of-expression-during-coronavirus-pandemic/ By 19 May 2020, 16 journalists had been arrested, many charged under the DSA. Other journalists, medical professionals, students and activists faced harassment and intimidation in order to suppress criticism.34https://www.apc.org/sites/default/files/Statement-30_Days_Audit_of_Media_in_Lockdown.pdf%5d; https://www.article19.org/resources/bangladesh-increase-in-charges-under-dsa-as-government-seeks-to-silence-criticism/

Freethought under threat

The failure of the authorities to bring the perpetrators of murders of freethinkers (see ‘Highlighted cases’ below) to justice and the lack of security provided to any bloggers under threat lead to a stifling climate for free expression. In addition, police and government officials have threatened to arrest the bloggers for writing about “atheism” or simply advised them that they should stop writing about atheism if they wish to be safe.35dw.com/en/atheist-bloggers-flee-bangladesh/a-18708933; arif.eu/archives/424

De facto “blasphemy” laws

Chapter XV of the Penal Code36http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-11.html provides for several criminal offences related to religion, including defiling places of worship, interrupting services and trespass on burial grounds. Several provisions in this chapter have been used to prosecute and imprison atheist and secularist activists.

Section 295A37http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-11/section-3116.html states:

“Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of the citizens of Bangladesh, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”

Section 29838http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-11/section-3119.html states:

“Whoever, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person or makes any gesture in the sight of that person or places any object in the sight of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.”

Article 28 of the DSA,39https://www.cirt.gov.bd/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Digital-Security-Act-2018-English-version.pdf passed in 2018, provides penalties of up to seven years and/or a fine “[i]f any person or group intentionally or knowingly with the aim of hurting religious sentiments or values or with the intention to provoke publish or broadcast anything by means of any website or any electronic format which hurts religious sentiment or values.”

Additionally, Article 8 of the DSA grants the authorities the power to remove or block content that “hampers the nation or any part therein in terms of nations unity, financial activities, security, defense, religious values, public discipline or incites racism and hatred.”

The DSA has been condemned by the international community for its overbroad and vaguely-worded provisions that unduly restrict freedom of expression.40https://www.article19.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Bangladesh-Cyber-Security-act-2018-analysis-FINAL.pdf; https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/07/01/bangladesh-repeal-abusive-law-used-crackdown-critics; https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/11/bangladesh-muzzling-dissent-online/

Enforced disappearances

The authorities are known to have forcibly ‘disappeared’ hundreds of people  since 2013.41hrw.org/news/2017/07/06/bangladesh-end-disappearances-and-secret-detentions In some abductions witnesses say that the perpetrators were identifiable as belonging to the state’s infamous Rapid Action Battalion. As well as the disappeared, an alarming number of people have died in detention. The targets are usually opposition activists or critics of the government and state agencies.

Highlighted cases

In July 2020, police indicated that seeking to arrest human rights activist and secular blogger Asaduzzaman Noor, also known as Asad Noor, after new criminal charges were brought against him under the Digital Security Act on July 14 for ‘spreading rumours’ and ‘defaming Islam’ via a Facebook video.42https://humanists.international/2020/08/bangladesh-should-drop-spurious-charges-against-blogger-asad-noor/; https://rsf.org/en/news/death-threats-against-bangladeshi-blogger-accused-defaming-islam Noor has previously been targeted under the DSA’s predecessor, the 2013 Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act. In January 2017, the then 25-year old was arrested at Dhaka airport and charged with defamation of religion for content he had posted on social media.43https://pen.org/press-release/bangladesh-detained-blogger-asad-noor-released-given-protection/ Though released briefly on bail in August 2018, he was subsequently re-arrested after a radical Islamic organization known as Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh called for him to be imprisoned and subjected to the death penalty. He was only released from prison again in January 2019. These charges against him remain outstanding. He lives in hiding following threats to his life.

Between 2013-2018 several humanist or freethinking authors, bloggers and secular publishers were attacked, many of them killed. In February, 2013, the atheist blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider (pen name: Thaba Baba), was murdered in a machete attack at his home. Avijit Roy, an author of books on humanism and science, was killed in February 2015 outside the International Book Fair at Dhaka University, his wife Rafida Ahmed also seriously hurt in the same attack; Washiqur Rahman Babu, a young blogger known as a “progressive freethinker”, was killed in March 2015; Ananta Bijoy Das, who blogged against fundamentalism, in favour of science, justice, and free expression, was struck down in May 2015; Niladri Chatterjee (penname: Niloy Neel), a humanist known as much for his blogging on minority and women’s rights as much as for his atheistic views, was killed in his own home in front of his partner in August 2015; and on 31 October 2015, coordinated gun and machete attacks on two publishing houses in Dhaka – both publishers of books by Avijit Roy and other secular authors – took the life of Faysal Arefin Dipon (Jagriti publishers), and seriously injured Ahmed Rashid Tutul (Shuddho-Shor publishers), author and blogger Randipam Basu and poet Tareq RahimXulhaz Mannan, founder of the nation’s first LGBTQ+ magazine was killed at his home in April 2016; that same month, writer Rezaul Karim Siddique, an English professor, and Nazimuddin Samad, an atheist blogger, were killed in separate attacks; in 2018, after a year-long break in killings, publisher, blogger and secular political activist, Shahzahan Bachchu was killed.

The feminist author and atheist activist Taslima Nasrin remains in exile from Bangladesh because of the threat of death or government persecution should she return to her homeland.

Testimonies

“[The new law banning “defamation of religion”] has now has become almost a fear instigating tool inside Bangladesh against any Atheist or non-believer. This is the tool Pakistan used to rapidly turn into a fundamentalist, broken nation. That we see today, Bangladesh is not far.”
— Anonymous

“If you are a true activist, you are the most vulnerable person in the country. You could be arrested by the government or be targeted by an Islamist.”
— Bangladeshi secular activist

References   [ + ]

1. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bg.html
2, 25, 29. https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2020%20Bangladesh%20Country%20Update.pdf
3. http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-367.html
4. http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-367/section-24556.html
5. http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-367/section-24560.html
6. http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-367/section-24549.html
7, 11. http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-367/section-24589.html
8. http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-367/section-24576.html
9. https://pen-international.org/app/uploads/PEN-Case-List-FULL-Web-2018.pdf
10. https://pen-international.org/app/uploads/archive/CASE-LIST-2016-Final.pdf
12. https://www.dhakatribune.com/opinion/special/2018/01/19/madrasa-students-actually-learning
13. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22424708
14. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/22/world/asia/bangladesh-textbooks-radical-islam.html
15. https://www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/1285661/download
16. https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2020/02/01/hindu-marriage-registration-act-a-protective-shield-for-women
17. https://www.dhakatribune.com/magazine/avenue-t/2018/12/18/interfaith-marriages-and-the-law-of-the-land
18. http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-details-25.html
19. http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-305.html
20, 21. http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/uncategorized/bangladesh-women-and-the-equal-distribution-of-inherited-property/#:~:text=In%20Bangladesh%2C%20under%20Islamic%20law,of%20his%20deceased%20wife’s%20property.&text=A%20daughter%2C%20who%20is%20an,her%20late%20father%20or%20mother.
22. https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/bangladesh/
23. https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2020%20Bangladesh%20Country%20Update.pdf; https://unpo.org/article/21682
24. https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/dhaka/2019/08/29/protest-held-demanding-justice-for-monk-amritananda-killing
26. https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/nation/2019/02/13/sunnis-attack-ahmadiyyas-in-panchagarh; https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2020%20Bangladesh%20Country%20Update.pdf
27. independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/bangladesh-village-prophet-mohammed-insulted-facebook-post-islam-muslim-south-asia-a8051841.html
28. https://www.state.gov/reports/2018-report-on-international-religious-freedom/bangladesh/
30. https://www.thedailystar.net/round-tables/news/use-and-misuse-defamation-law-and-its-impact-journalism-1832056; https://cpj.org/2017/12/bangladeshs-defamation-law-is-avenue-to-misuse-pow/
31. https://pen-international.org/app/uploads/Bangladesh_UPR.pdf
32. https://www.article19.org/resources/bangladesh-analysis-of-the-digital-security-act/
33. https://www.article19.org/resources/bangladesh-alarming-crackdown-on-freedom-of-expression-during-coronavirus-pandemic/
34. https://www.apc.org/sites/default/files/Statement-30_Days_Audit_of_Media_in_Lockdown.pdf%5d; https://www.article19.org/resources/bangladesh-increase-in-charges-under-dsa-as-government-seeks-to-silence-criticism/
35. dw.com/en/atheist-bloggers-flee-bangladesh/a-18708933; arif.eu/archives/424
36. http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-11.html
37. http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-11/section-3116.html
38. http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-11/section-3119.html
39. https://www.cirt.gov.bd/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Digital-Security-Act-2018-English-version.pdf
40. https://www.article19.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Bangladesh-Cyber-Security-act-2018-analysis-FINAL.pdf; https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/07/01/bangladesh-repeal-abusive-law-used-crackdown-critics; https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/11/bangladesh-muzzling-dissent-online/
41. hrw.org/news/2017/07/06/bangladesh-end-disappearances-and-secret-detentions
42. https://humanists.international/2020/08/bangladesh-should-drop-spurious-charges-against-blogger-asad-noor/; https://rsf.org/en/news/death-threats-against-bangladeshi-blogger-accused-defaming-islam
43. https://pen.org/press-release/bangladesh-detained-blogger-asad-noor-released-given-protection/

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