Bangladesh fires minister after he says the hajj was a ‘massive waste of manpower’

DHAKA, Bangladesh—The government removed a senior minister from his post over the weekend after he made controversial comments about the value of one of the pillars of Islam, the Hajj pilgrimage.

Abdul Latif Siddique lost his job as minister for post and telecommunications, after telling a gathering of Bangladeshis in New York in September that the Hajj was a “massive waste of manpower.” Mr. Siddique was in the U.S. as part of an official delegation led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Mr. Siddique was removed by a presidential order Sunday evening after Ms. Hasina requested that President Abdul Hamid terminate his appointment, cabinet secretary Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan said.

Mr. Bhuiyan didn’t offer a reason for the decision, but in a speech delivered shortly after Mr. Siddique’s dismissal, Ms. Hasina said his comments were “unacceptable” and didn’t reflect her party’s views.

In his remarks in New York on Sept. 28 carried by Bangladeshi TV channels, Mr. Siddique, 71 years old, said he was “totally against” the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

“About two million people are now in Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj,” he said. “These people have no work, no production.”

His comments sparked protests in Muslim-majority Bangladesh. Islamist parties staged demonstrations and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party called for Mr. Siddique to be punished for his comments. Dozens of cases were filed in courts around the country accusing Mr. Siddique of hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims.

The protests threatened to inflame religious tensions that have gripped the country since last year.

Mr. Siddique, a veteran politician who has been with Ms. Hasina’s Awami League since the 1970s, also was removed from the party’s central committee.

Mr. Siddique, who hasn’t returned to Bangladesh after his controversial speech, couldn’t be reached for comment. In an interview with the BBC in September, he stood by his remarks and said he had been expressing his personal opinion.

“The Awami League has been accused of being anti-religion by rival parties in the past, so for a senior minister to make public comments like this is acutely embarrassing,” said Shahiduzzaman, a political analyst at the University of Dhaka who goes by one name. “The prime minister had to act to limit the damage.”

Tensions over the role of religion came to the fore last year after opposition parties trying to unseat Ms. Hasina’s government used Islam as a rallying cry. Islam requires able-bodied Muslims who are in a position to do so to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetimes.

The Awami League styles itself as a defender of secularism, while the center-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its Islamist allies draw heavily on the Muslim culture and heritage of the South Asian nation, which has 150 million people.

The BNP has accused the Awami League of seeking to limit the role of Islam in the public sphere. The Awami League was at the forefront of a push in 2010 that resulted in secularism being added to the constitution as a principle of the state.

War-crimes tribunals set up by Ms. Hasina to look into atrocities committed during the country’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan are trying more than a dozen senior Islamists for alleged crimes against humanity. Several have been sentenced to death.

Ms. Hasina’s detractors say she is using the war-crimes issue as a tool to hound her political enemies, a charge she denies.

(Photo: Bangladeshis protest in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Oct. 3 against Abdul Latif Siddique’s remarks)