LGBTQ2 Community Facing Increased Risks in Bangladesh:
AQIS Shifts Focus from Politics to Anti-Transgender Campaigns
In a striking shift within Bangladesh's online propaganda landscape, violent extremist (VE) influencers are increasingly focusing their campaigns on anti-transgender rhetoric. This surge in hostility, led primarily by influencers associated with Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), marks a significant intensification of threats against LGBTQ2 rights activists. The current climate echoes the events of 2016, when AQIS-linked actors assassinated LGBTQ2 activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, signaling a worrying escalation in targeted violence.
This intensified focus on anti-transgender messaging coincides with the run-up to Bangladesh's national election on January 7, 2024. In contrast to their heightened activity against transgender rights, VE groups and AQIS influencers have notably dialed back their discussions about the upcoming election. This shift suggests a strategic choice to avoid direct confrontation with the government, potentially as part of a broader maneuver by AQIS to operate under the radar of security agencies. This approach marks a departure from their previous pattern of overtly criticizing the government and engaging in anti-Hindu rhetoric from 2019 to 2022.
The rise of anti-transgender propaganda
The online targeting of LGBTQ2 rights activists notably increased in 2023. On January 21 2023, AQIS’ official Bangla news portal, Al-Firdaws Media, published an article highlighting the introduction of a transgender quota for undergraduate admissions by the University of Dhaka. AQIS condemned the act, describing it as an effort to transform Bangladesh into a “society of animals”. That same month, VE groups condemned the inclusion of themes related to transgender identity and rights in school textbooks. VE influencers argued that the government was undermining Islamic principles by promoting homosexuality under the guise of transgender rights. AQIS claimed that these efforts formed part of a wider conspiracy to promote secularism, aided and abetted by Hindus in India.
In addition to their online activism, VE influencers distributed leaflets attacking the new curriculum, and urged imams to preach against the new textbooks during Jumma (Friday prayers). Throughout June 2023, VE groups escalated their online attacks against LGBTQ2 rights in the run-up to Pride Month. VE influencers complained that the government, the media, and with Western actors were seeking to normalize transgender rights in order to undermine Islam. They issued threats against anyone publicly supporting LGBTQ2 rights. By late May and early June 2023, VE channels on Facebook, YouTube, and Telegram published memes urging supporters to assassinate LGBTQ2 activists.
Figure 1: Screenshot of a meme from a Facebook page propagating VE ideology. The meme uses footages from a movie named “American Psycho” (top-left corner and bottom), picture of Hochemin Islam (top-right corner), and Bangla poetry by renowned poet Sukanta Bhattacharya. The meme basically indicates the killing of Hochemnin Islam for sharing her views as a transgender woman. The footage at the bottom shows the actor killing someone with an ax while the Bangla poem talks about making the world a better place for children by cleaning up the mess.
The online targeting of LGBTQ2 activists has generated offline outcomes. On November 24 2023, a group of North South University students protested and stopped Hochemin Islam, a trans-woman and transgender rights activist, from giving a talk at a campus event entitled Women's Career Carnival 2023. The organizers dropped Hochemin Islam from the panel citing security concerns and Hochemin was heavily cyberbullied on social media. A core group of AQIS supporters from various universities in Bangladesh and Malaysia played a central role in mobilizing propaganda against Hochemin. It is worth recalling that students from North South University carried out the most atrocious terrorist attacks of the recent past, including the Holey Artisan Bakery attack and killing of blogger Rajib Haider.
Animated by the targeting of Hochemin Islam, VE influencers rapidly expanded their online assault against LGBTQ2 activists in late 2023. AQIS supporters have launched a targeted campaign to dehumanize transgender community both online and offline. The offline campaign includes the dissemination of transphobic and homophobic booklets and leaflets. It also includes measures to influence Islamic preachers and Imams across Bangladesh to mobilize anti- transgender sentiment. VE influencers have likewise conducted public seminars on the issue together with Islamist leaders who were previously arrested for involvement in terrorist activities. Online activities included disseminating memes on social media and inciting violence against transgender communities.
On 21 December 2023, a video was published on Facebook, YouTube and Telegram by the VE influencer network that had previously tagged Hochemin Islam as a gay rights activist and a blasphemer. The video accused Hochemin of deceiving the public about transgender and intersex themes. Further, it claimed that while Islam allows for intersex people who are biologically born with defected genitals it does not permit transgender people to select their gender without an underlying biological condition. The video was widely shared on social media by the VE group and other third party networks. On the same day as the post was released, students at University of Dhaka protested against the admission quota for transgender candidates. The administration conceded and declared that the transgender students will be ineligible for the quota.
Figure 2: Screenshot from a video published by a newly opened channel on YouTube that declared Hochemin Islam as an Islamophobe, blasphemer and gay. It was immediately shared by the VE influencer network on Facebook, YouTube and Telegram. The video puts Hochemin in the same ranks of Asif Mohiuddin (left), Taslima Nasrin (right), Avijit Roy, and Asad Noor - all of whom were violently attacked by extremists for their secular writings and activism. Avijit Roy was hacked to death in 2015 by Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists.
Meanwhile, Dawahillallah, the official online AQIS forum in Bangla language, simultaneously published an article recalling the targeted killing of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy in 2016. In late November 2023, AQIS forum members explicitly threatened that a similar attack could be repeated against current LGBTQ2 rights activists. As SecDev and others have reported elsewhere, LGBTQ2 rights are a sensitive topic in Bangladesh, and Al Qaeda has garnered public support from social conservatives in the past in the wake of killing LGBTQ2 activists.
On December 24 2023, several leading Islamic madrasas in Bangladesh issued Fatwas (Islamic ruling) condemning the LGBTQ2 community. They declared that support for transgender rights is equivalent to “revolting against God”. The Fatwas called on Muslims to reject the promotion of transgender rights. In the wake of the Fatwas, several local influencers declared online that anyone who knowingly supported transgender rights would be treated as infidels (this is called a Takfir whereby terrorist groups tag Muslims as Kafir or infidel before sanctioning violence against them).
What is more, SecDev also identified an increasing incidence of cyber-attacks and cyberbullying targeting transgender rights activists in Bangladesh. For example, a handful of VE-influenced hacker groups recently attacked social media pages of LGBTQ2 activists and in some cases successfully took down content and accounts. They accused the activists of promoting blasphemy and corrupting muslims. SecDev detected anti-trans memes that were created and shared among Facebook and Telegram groups, several of which urged the killing of activists.
Although there is no evidence of a documented targeted attack by AQIS in Bangladesh in the last five years, the risk is considered to be significant. Indeed, the possibility for a physical incident is real, particularly during election season and when emotions are running high on transgender-related issues. Indeed, in the past, AQIS has explicitly targeted and killed LGBTQ rights activists, secular writers, and publishers on the grounds they had committed blasphemy. This serves not only to build support among some social conservatives but also to help polarize societies.
Intriguingly, the latest furor over transgender rights in Bangladesh is being driven first and foremost by a number of university-educated students. Some of them are actively reaching out to Islamic scholars to spread awareness and use them to amplify their bigoted messages. University students propagating extremist ideology are increasingly mingling with extremist Islamist preachers and widening pathways toward radicalization. Their offline campaigns are reaching youth groups in and outside major cities at the sub-district levels. The ongoing campaign against transgender rights shares similarities with previous efforts seeking to ban celebrations of the new year, Valentines day, and education on teen sexual health. In the process, it is likely that VE groups are helping indirectly establish youth networks that may eventually support their ideologies and activities, even if not explicitly engaging in armed violence.
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