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.
Inge Amundsen wrote this op-ed for East Asia Forum, 23 March 2018 (a forum of the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University).
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.
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