Bangladesh, home to the fourth largest Muslim population in the world, experienced something that no other Muslim-majority nation has before. A Bangladeshi minister has been sacked after his comments rebuking the annual Muslim pilgrimage triggered uproar in the country.
Last week the post and telecommunication Minister Abdul Latif Siddique said, “I am dead against hajj” while he was exchanging views with expatriates at a New York hotel. “Hajj costs a substantial amount of manpower. About two million people are now in Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj. These people have no work, no production. [They are] only causing reduction [in wealth]. [They are] only having meals [inside the country] and spending money [abroad],” Siddique continued.
The minister, who was accompanying Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the United Nation General Assembly, stopped short of criticizing the Prophet Muhammad as he tried to recount the origin of hajj. According to him, the last prophet of Islam introduced the pilgrimage as an income generating source for then Arab people, whom he labeled “bandits.”
Attendees at that program were dismayed by Siddique’s impetuous rant against one of Islam’s five fundamental pillars. Siddique’s comments drew wholesale condemnation as several TV channels in Bangladesh started to broadcast the video, which soon surfaced online.
As many as nineteen court cases were filed against Siddique for hurting religious sentiment while two separate courts summoned him. Several Islamist parties called for exemplary punishment. Hefajat-e-Islam, one such group that staged massive demonstrations against the government last year, threatened to hit the streets again unless proper action was taken against him. Thursday, police opened fire at a demonstration staged by opposition groups in the southwestern city of Jessore. Some fifteen people were wounded.
Amid mass resentment, the ruling Awami League party dismissed him from the cabinet a day earlier. However, Siddique hailed the sanctity of free speech. In an interview with the BBC, the undaunted minister said he would not offer any apology. As expected, the prime minister declared on Friday that Latif Siddique would be culled from both the cabinet and party. Siddique held a key position in the ruling Awami League.
In New York, Siddique also hurled insults at Tablig Jamaat - an influential group of devout Muslims - as well as the prime minister’s son who is thought to be the successor of his mother.
Bangladesh practices the moderate teachings of Islam. Unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh has no blasphemy law under which Siddique could be tried. Equal right of religion is enshrined in the country’s constitution.
The unprecedented criticism against Islam from a cabinet member of a Muslim-majority nation came as a surprise to many. Abdul Latif Siddique is a follower of the Islamic faith.