LGBT people and political dissidents murdered by fundamentalists in Bangladesh [1/2]


In a country where the vast majority of the population is Muslim and where Islamic extremism is steadily gaining popularity, LGBT people, atheists, and other ‘undesirables’ are an easy target for Islamic fundamentalists. For several years the murders have been piling up.

On 25th April 2016, two Bangladeshi friends, Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy and Xulhaz Mannan, were murdered in the latter’s own home. They had been beaten to death by six individuals who were disguised as delivery drivers and who were armed with machetes. Their crime: defending the LGBT community, which is incredibly marginalised in a country shrouded by conservative Islam.

The director of the country’s only LGBT magazine murdered

Xulhaz Mannan was the director of Roopbaan which, in 2014, became the country’s first (and only) magazine aimed at LGBT people. Mannan, who worked for the US embassy and for the United States Agency for International Development, was also a member of the Boys of Bangladesh, the main group defending LGBT rights in the country. According to this group, the Roopbaan editorial board has received threats ever since the magazine was first established and these threats are mainly from Islamic groups. Furthermore, Mannan had contributed to the organisation of the “Rainbow Rally”, an LGBT demonstration which was held ten days prior to his death. His contribution brought him threats; threats which were carried out a little under a year ago.

The LGBT community is suffocated by religious fundamentalism

Ansar-al-Islam, a group linked to Al-Qaida, claimed responsibility for the double murder, and confirmed it was carried out on homophobic principles. LGBT people are trapped in between both religious fundamentalist violence, and societal symbolic violence which is accompanied by the law criminalising homosexuality. LGBT people in Bangladesh are liable for arrest and regularly receive death threats. Sometimes they have no choice but to flee their country to seek refuge in countries such as Sweden, or the United States. Those who speak out against the persecution are threatened themselves.

LGBT activists in Bangladesh have to remain in the shadows, even online. They censor themselves and erase all traces of themselves on social networks. Why? Because if social networks and internet access allow minorities and activists to reach a wider public, they also make them more visible to others.

The link between the arrival of universally accessible social networks, the rise of the progressive voice from activists from all persuasions (notably LGBT), and a radical Islam which is taking the country by storm, forms a lethal triangle in Bangladesh. However, the LGBT community is not the only one to suffer at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists.

A phenomenon affecting the whole society

Many sociological profiles attract the wrath of the country’s fundamentalist Muslims. Attacks are also aimed at members of religious minority groups, such as Shia Muslims, Sufi Muslims, Christians, and Hindus.

Cohabitation between conservative Islam and various types of activism does not run smoothly. Since around 2013, numerous murders of atheist students, university teachers, bloggers, and secular people have been carried out, sometimes in plain sight: shot with firearms or stabbed with machetes. The attacks are aimed at Muslims and non-Muslims alike who advocate a peaceful, moderate Islam or who hold ideas considered to be “anti-Islamic”.

Rexaul Karim Siddique, an English teacher at the University of Rajshani, was killed by Islamic State for having “called out for atheism” two days before Mannan’s death. Earlier that month Nazimuddin Samad, an atheist blogger, was murdered near the University of Jagannath where he was studying law. In total, according to Champa Patel, the head of Amnesyt Internationa in southern Asia, four murders have been counted in a single month.

These murders are one of the signs of the tension that reigns between the followers of political Islam and the others: often young people and students, atheists, or advocates of a moderate Islam and a secular State. There is currently a separation of State and Islam in Bangladesh but it is regularly challenged. For instance, a statue depicting justice as a Greek goddess, which was erected in front of the Supreme Court in the capital Dacca, was dismantled in May 2017 under pressure from militant Islamists. Although it was admittedly put up again a few days later, it was placed in a location were allegedly no one would see it.

The impossible separation of State and religion

Throughout the whole of February in 2013, at the time of the demonstrations on Shahbag Square, up to 500,000 protested for the death penalty to be given to Abdul Quader Molla, rather than life imprisonment as was decided by the judge. Molla had been accused of multiple war crimes committed during the War of Independence in 1971. Some of the demonstrators also called for a ban on Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s main Islamic party of which Molla was one of the leaders.

Jamaat-e-Islami organised a counter-demonstration in response to protest against these attacks and against the death sentence of Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, the party’s second in command. This sentence was perceived by Islamic fundamentalists as unjust and motivated by political objectives. The violent confrontations that followed, by both proponents and opponents of fundamental Islam, and by the law enforcement agencies caused nearly 60 deaths.

Going completely against the principle of the separation of politics and religious forces in Bangladesh, the ruling Awami league, animated by an electoral strategy, shows itself to be leaning more and more towards Islamic fundamentalism. This explains that such fundamentalists increasingly have the feeling that they can kill with total impunity it was reported by the BBC.

A hit list

Islamic extremists even wish to extend their battle abroad. They have published a hit list of some 84 people, among which nine live in the United Kingdom, eight in Germany, two in the United States, one in Canada, and one in Sweden. The list was circulated by Ansarullah Bangla Team, or Ansar Bangla, one of the most active terrorist groups in Bangladesh, according to Ajit Kumar Singh, a researcher and expert in terrorism.

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