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Last week a Bangladeshi High Court ruled that all judgments and punishments outside of the legal system, including those made by religious authorities, are illegal. (Full story here)
The Court asserted that rulings and punishments made by people without proper judicial authority or on the basis of extrajudicial precepts are illegal. The court further directed authorities to take punitive action against anyone making such judgments and/or enforcing them, as well as against anyone involved in, taking part in, or simply observing the proceedings of such cases.
In particular the court noted that punishments such as caning, whipping or stoning are in direct violation of the Bangladeshi constitution that states no one shall be subject to cruel, inhumane, or degrading punishment.
This ruling is a direct blow against religious authorities who issue fatwa based upon their understanding of Shari’ah law. Bangladeshi civil rights groups are, rightfully, hailing the verdict as a victory for rule of law, and for women’s rights, as fatwa are disproportionately made against women.
While this ruling received scant attention in the worldwide media, it is a huge step forward for Bangladesh. It not only upholds the rule of law in Bangladesh, but also sets the tone for the entire Indian subcontinent where religious authorities and extremists have been taking matters into their own hands for years, and secular authorities have been all too willing to let them do so. Whether it is a vigilante militant throwing acid in the face of women who do not veil, or local councils passing religious judgments on their villagers, such extra judicial punishments and rulings are at best prejudicial as they subject certain groups to additional laws. At worst they are barbaric attempts to coerce religious observance and compliance to their own understanding of Islamic law.
The Qur’an tells us that there is to be no compulsion in religion; it is wonderful to see a Muslim country upholding this basic principle and standing firmly for religious freedom. The Qur’an also tells us we are all equal in the court of law, with equal duties and equal responsibilities; more kudos to Bangladesh for upholding this precept as well, and insisting that all its citizens should be subject to the same, duly formulated laws. One can only hope more Muslim nations follow their example.