What was once a fledgling lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka is now destroyed. In 2014 and 2015 the Bangladeshi gay scene was cautiously becoming more open. ‘Rainbow Rally’ pride parades were held and a gay magazine called Roopbaan was in print. But the LGBT community has since been scared back from the streets, and to be openly gay in Bangladesh is now life threatening.
Islam is on the rise in Bangladesh. The number of devout Muslim adherents in the country has grown over the past two decades with 90 per cent of the population now Muslim.
Intolerant and extremist forms of Islam are also on the rise. Bangladeshi Islamist and fundamentalist groups include international offshoots of the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, as well as home-grown organisations such as Ansar-al-Islam, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Islami Chhatra Shibir, Ansarullah Bangla Team, Hefazat-e-Islam, Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen.
This rise of political Islam in Bangladesh can largely be attributed to the opposition’s (and to a lesser degree the ruling party’s) use of religion as a political tool. The main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), is a religiously inclined, right-of-centre party. The BNP is said to instigate religious intolerance and to ‘ride the Muslim bandwagon’ in order to gain and maintain support. Some of its political allies are indeed Islamist, like the Jamaat-e-Islami party (which is now barred from taking part in elections).
The ruling party, Awami League, is professedly secular. But behind its ‘war on terror’ and heavy clamp-down on militant Islamism (which it has also used to justify restrictions of civil and political rights), the Awami League has toned down its secularism and become more ‘Islam friendly’. In a Muslim-majority country with a strong Islamic revivalist movement, the Awami League is fearful of losing support by offending Islamic sentiments.
The ‘revival’ of Islamic fundamentalism and related political manoeuvres have had severe negative implications for human rights in Bangladesh. Machete-wielding radicals have slaughtered at least 50 people deemed to be ‘enemies of Islam’, including secular bloggers, academics, women rights activists, gay activists and innocent bystanders. The most publicised attack on foreigners took place in July 2016, when a gunmen raid on a cafe in Dhaka left 28 people dead.
Members of Bangladesh’s LGBT community regularly receive threatening messages via telephone, text and social media from various radical Islamist groups. Extremist groups like Basher Kella, Salauddiner Ghora and Hizb ut-Tahrir post extensively about the LGBT community online, calling on the people of Bangladesh to resist the ‘evil’ of LGBT.
In February 2015 Avijit Roy, a secular blogger and the author of a book on homosexuality in Bangla language, was murdered by Islamist extremists. The secular author and publisher Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury (also known as Tutul) was critically injured in a similar attack in October 2015.
In 2016, the Bangladesh Olama League and Hefazat-e-Islam (both close to the ruling Awami League) and 13 other Islamist organisations put forward a 15-point list of demands to the government. Among the list are demands for the government to enact the blasphemy law and to take action under Section 377 of the Bangladeshi Code of Criminal Procedure (which bans ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison) against named groups supporting LGBT rights.
Then, later in 2016, assailants allegedly linked to al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent killed the founder of Bangladesh’s first and only LGBT-themed magazine Roopbaan, Xulhaz Mannan, and his friend Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy in Mannan’s home using machetes.
Extremist Islamist groups have successfully created an environment of fear in Bangladesh, and because of this fear most Bangladeshis do not publicly protest the killings.
The situation is exacerbated by a strong, pre-existing social stigma against homosexuality in Bangladesh. Same-sex sexual activity is illegal under the Bangladeshi criminal code, and although the law is not systematically applied and no cases have led to legal proceedings or convictions, there is significant harassment, public exposure and stigmatisation of homosexuals by the police and the media.
There are no anti-discrimination laws applicable to LGBT people in Bangladesh and instead of offering protection in the face of threats and murders the police have urged them to be ‘less provocative’.
The situation has forced non-governmental organisations in Bangladesh that advocate for LGBT rights to take a low profile. The non-registered and non-funded group Boys of Bangladesh has slipped even further off the radar. They no longer update their official website (only their Facebook), and their tweets are sent rarely and from outside of Bangladesh.
The internet has largely supplanted physical meeting places for Bangladesh’s LGBT community. There are no longer any ‘gay-friendly’ social meeting places like restaurants or bars in the capital, and individuals visiting known pick-up places risk becoming the targets of police harassment.
The situation for LGBT people in Bangladesh has taken a turn for the worse over the last two years. Repeated threats, killings, mass arrests and continuous police harassment have shattered Dhaka’s fledgling LGBT community. People are hiding behind closed doors or have fled into exile, and the situation is unlikely to improve for the foreseeable future.
Inge Amundsen is a senior researcher with the Chr. Michelsen Institute, an independent development research institute based in Norway.