Xulhaz Mannan, an LGBT Activist in Bangladesh, Is the Latest Victim in a String of Brutal Killings

Xulhaz and Tonoy. Image from their Facebook profiles.

Xulhaz and Tonoy. Image from their Facebook profiles.

Two more progressive thinkers have been hacked to death in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka.

Thirty-five year-old Xulhaz Mannan was the editor of Bangladesh's first LGBT magazine, and worked with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and as a protocol officer for a former US Ambassador to Bangladesh. He was murdered along with his friend Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, who was a theatre activist.

The gruesome murders come two days after university professor Rezaul Karim Siddiqui was killed in a northern district of Bangladesh. This month, four progressive Bangladeshis have been hacked to death, allegedly at the hands of Islamist militants.

Since 2005, at least 23 bloggers, publishers, editors and activists have been killed and scores of others attacked or threatened with death for their progressive and secular views. These bloggers and intellectuals were not advocating or perpetrating violence. They were writing about the complex, political climate in Bangladesh and promoting the protection of human rights.

The latest attacks

According to local reports, on April 25, at around 5pm, a man posing as a deliveryman arrived at Mannan's building, pretending to deliver a package. As Mannan took him inside, a few more of his accomplices entered the house and they lethally attacked Mannan and Tonoy with machetes, signs of trained killers, leaving both of them dead on the spot. The attackers fled after firing blank shots from their guns, shouting Naraye Takbir, Allahu Akbar” [Shout it out: God is great]. On their way out they fought off a security guard and a policeman who arrived on the scene.

Mannan's LGBT magazine Roopbaan was launched in 2014 to promote greater acceptance of LGBT communities, who face widespread discrimination in Bangladesh. Mannan had been arranging an annual Rainbow Rally since 2014. It was cancelled this year after police received threats against the group; four LGBT activists were even briefly detained.

Bangladesh's untouchable Islamic militants

In a tweet sent twenty hours after the attack, the local militant organisation Ansar Al Islam claimed responsibility. The group claims to be Bangladesh's unit of al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent. The tweet claimed the victims were “promoting homosexuality in Bangladesh since 1998 with the help of their masters, the US crusaders and their Indian allies.”

Bangladeshi Islamist militants have been blamed for more than a dozen murders of secular bloggers and online activists since 2013. Many of these killings have been claimed on the Internet or on social media by accounts believed to be linked to ISIS, Ansar Al Islam or Ansarullah Bangla Team.

Bangladesh's Minister of Home affairs Mr. Asaduzzaman Khan has tried to distance the situation in his country from international militant organisations like ISIS and Al Qaeda. He maintains that home-grown militants are behind the attacks and claims that local militant groups might share the ideology of international militant organisations or may be imitating them.

The Prime Minister Hasina Sheikh has blamed the opposition, saying that they are orchestrating the attacks to destabilize the country and upset her secular rule. She recently was critical against the writers who write about religion and “offend religious sentiments” and added that anyone “killing another person in response to what they have written is not Islamic”.

People, as usual, showed their frustration and anger online and protested the murder:

Moshiul Alam asks who is next in an oped in Bangla Daily Prothom Alo:

ব্লগার থেকে পুস্তক প্রকাশক, তারপর নিরীহ সেতারবাদক। এরপর কে? যে ছবি আঁকে? নাটক-সিনেমা বানায়? গল্প-উপন্যাস লেখে? কিংবা স্রেফ বই পড়ে?

From bloggers to publishers to this innocent Sitar player. Who is next? A painter? Film director? A novelist? Or merely a reader?

Blogger, lawyer and activist Rayhan Rashid is critical of virtual activists who aren't coming out on the streets to protest:

ব্লগার মরছে, একটিভিস্টি মরছে, প্রকাশক মরছে, শিয়া মরছে, ধর্মান্তরি মরছে, ভিন্নধর্মী মরছে, বিদেশী মরছে, সাধু মরছে, সন্নাসী মরছে, সেতারবাদক মরছে, শিক্ষক মরছে, সংস্কৃতি কর্মী মরছে, অধিকার-কর্মী মরছে। যথারীতি প্রতিবার আমরা আবেগ ভরা বাক্যবাণ ছুঁড়ে দিচ্ছি ইথারে আর ফেসবুকে।

Bloggers, activists, publishers, shias, apostates, atheists, Hindus, foreigners, priests, saints, sitar players, professors, cultural activists, rights activists, none are being spared. And after every killing, we are venting only in Facebook and elsewhere online.

What are the militants thinking?

Blogger Nijhoom Majumdar read the documents published by the radical groups and analysed their ideology and threats. He writes in an explanatory post:

ওরা তাদের এই বইয়ে পরিষ্কারভাবে বলে দিয়েছে যে এই “ম্যান মেইড” (তাগুতি) আইন বা গণতন্ত্র ওরা মানে না এবং এটিকে তারা ধ্বংস করবেই। ধ্বংস করে ওরা খিলাফাহ প্রতিষ্ঠা করবে। ওরা কোরান ও হাদীসের থেকে সেগুলোর কম্পাটিবল আদর্শ থেকে আইন বানাবে এবং এবং বাংলাদেশের মাটিতে ওরা এটা করবেই। [..]

আনসার আল ইসলাম কোরান শরীফের বিভিন্ন সূরা বিশেষ করে সূরা তওবা, সূরা আহজাব ও সূরা বাকারার নানাবিধ আয়াত দিয়ে স্পস্ট দেখিয়ে দিয়েছে যে বর্তমান সময়ে যারা নবী, রাসূল কিংবা আল্লাহ সম্পর্কে প্রশ্ন উত্থাপন করে কিংবা সমালোচনা করে তাদের জন্য একটাই “ঔষধ” আর সেটির নাম হচ্ছে “তরবারী”। [..]

এই বই পড়ে বুঝতে পারলাম যে এই যে কয়েকটি অল্প দলে দলে ভাগ হয়ে এই ব্লগার, লেখক, শিক্ষক, ম্যাগাজিনের সম্পাদকদের হত্যা করা হচ্ছে এই পুরো নিয়মটি তারা ফলো করছে নবীর সময়কার “আবু রা’ফে” কে যে পদ্ধতিতে হত্যা করা হয়েছে সেই পদ্ধতিতে। এই পদ্ধতিতে একটি দলে ৪ থেকে ৫ জন থাকে। এরা অনেকদিন ধরে টার্গেটের বাড়ী রেকি করে, খোঁজ খবর নেয় এবং একদিন সুযোগ বুঝে ছুরি বা তলোয়ার নিয়ে কোপায়। [..]

এইরকম খুন যে তারা আরো করবে সেটি তারা তাদের ওয়েব সাইটে লিখে দিয়েছে পরিষ্কার ভাবে। হতে পারে সেটি লেখক, কবি, সাহিত্যিক, ব্লগার, সমাজ কর্মী। যে কেউ। এইসব খুন, খিলাফাহ প্রতিষ্ঠার জন্য এই নৃসংসতা সব কিছুরই একটা যুক্তি তারা দিয়েছে। সেটি হচ্ছে- মৃত্যুর পর তারা আল্লাহর কাছে “কোন মুখ” নিয়ে দাঁড়াবে কিংবা নবীর সামনে কিভাবে দাঁড়াবে যদি নবী বা আল্লাহ তাদের জিজ্ঞেস করে যে দুনিয়ায় তারা কেন আল্লাহর আইন প্রতিষ্ঠা করতে পারেনি। আর তারা এইসব ব্যার্থতার দায় নিয়ে পরকালে “জাহান্নামী” হতে চায় না, সে কারনেই তারা দুনিয়ায় এসব করছে।

They have stated their ideology clearly in that book that they do not accept democracy or man made (Taguti) rule of law. They will do anything to destroy these and establish a Caliphate. They will make laws in line with the Quran and Sunnah and establish their writ in Bangladesh. [..]

Ansar Al Islam misconstrues a few chapters in the Quran, claiming that for those who question the prophet Mohamed, other prophets and God or criticise them, there is only ‘medicine’ for them – that is the ‘sword’ or machetes.

I also understood from their book that the way they kill bloggers, writers, professors or magazine editors is copied from how Abu Ra'af was killed during the prophet's time. In that tactic each team consists of four to five assailants. They take regular surveillance of the target's life, gather intelligence and attack with machetes or swords.

They have stated on their website that they will kill more people: writers, poets, artists, bloggers or activists. They have provided their reason for these killings and establishing a Caliphate with violence. They say they have to answer God and the prophet if they fail to establish God's rule. They don't want to go to hell for their failures, so they are doing all this in their lifetime.

A tremendous loss for the LGBT community:

Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim nation, criminalises homosexuality. The colonial-era British anti-sodomy law punishes gay sex with hefty fines and prison sentences of ten years to life in jail.

Xulhaz Mannan was well-known and well regarded in the gay community in Dhaka. He was openly gay and fearless. Pakistani columnist Sabrina Toppa recalls her conversation with Xulhaz:

We talked at length about why it was so important for Roopban, Bangladesh's first LGBT magazine, to be underground, to be in Bangla, to be low in subscription numbers as long as the people who needed it found it, why no journalist needed to report on the difficulty of creating an LGBT magazine if it meant imperilling the lives of all the members involved. Xulhaz was a pragmatist, but fundamentally open to the world, regardless of its prejudice and hostilities

Xulhaz was optimistic in an interview to the Guardian:

In a country where the whole concept of sex and sexuality is a taboo, we are learning to navigate our ways by highlighting ‘love’ as the center of all, as a human right that can't be denied, hoping for better, and may be ‘faster’, acceptance.. some day!

The LGBT magazine Roopbaan, had not been condemned by the government and received some support from foreign embassies. The community had been careful to protect their identities; but it seems Xulhaz was exposed too soon.

Singer Armeen Musa writes:

Can they silence our outrage, our protests, our cries,
By making sure one by one we will die ?
It's 4:30am.
And I know you're awake.
Wondering who could be next.
Is it I?

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