Bangladesh Needs to Sort Out Its Rampant Machete Attack Problem

The gruesome deaths of two LGBT activists are the latest in a spate of anti-secular violence in Bangladesh, where homosexuality remains a criminal offense.

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Apr 27 2016, 4:30pm

The bodies of Xulhaaz Mannan and Tanay Majumdar, who were hacked to death, are brought down from Mannan's apartment in Dhaka on April 25, 2016. Photo by Sony Ramany/NurPhoto via Getty Images

After a lull of several months, machete killings of writers, editors, and academics have returned to Bangladesh. On Monday, 35-year-old Xulhaz Mannan, the editor of the country's only LGBT magazine, Roopbaan, was hacked to death in his apartment in the upscale Kalabangan neighborhood of the capital city, Dhaka. The reported five or six attackers gained entry into the apartment by posing as couriers. Mannan worked at USAID and launched the magazine in 2014 to promote LGBT rights and visibility in the predominantly Islamic nation, where homosexuality remains a criminal offense.

A friend of Mannan's, an openly gay activist and local actor, Tanay Majumder, or "Tonoy" to friends, was also killed in the attack. In 2014, the two men organized the country's first "Rainbow Rally" to fight for LBGT rights and acceptance, though this year the event was canceled on orders from police, who cited security concerns.

Hardline Islamists continue to feel emboldened in Bangladesh, where the ruling party, though nominally secular, actively courts fringe religious elements to bolster its electoral support. The attack comes only two days after the murder of Rezaul Karim Siddique, a 58-year-old English professor who was hacked to death by men carrying machetes as he walked home from the bus station in the provincial city of Rajshahi. ISIS claimed responsibility for Siddique's death, accusing him of atheism. His daughter strongly disputed the charge, and she said she had no idea why he was targeted, as he was not an outspoken secularist, either in print or on social media.

This new spate of killings started earlier this month, when 28-year-old law student Nazimuddin Samad was hacked with machetes and then shot, reportedly for his social media activism on behalf of secularism. The latest murders mark a sudden escalation after the killings of several prominent bloggers and activists in 2015, including the October 31 murder of the publisher Faisal Deepan, who was also hacked to death in his office by a group of young men wielding machetes. The killers still have not been caught.

The global media response to the resurgence in extremist violence against writers, activists, and intellectuals in general has been predictably strong. In Bangladesh, following Siddique's murder, a scathing editorial appeared in the Dhaka Tribune, accusing the government of failing to stop the killings and "appeasing [the killers'] supporters by pointing fingers at victims and feeding the mind-set that people need to watch what they say and write, or suffer the consequences."

The ruling Awami League Party continues to send mixed messages: condemning the murders but refusing to come to a full-throated defense of Bangladesh's founding secular principles. As recently as April 14, a week after Samad was hacked to death, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that "offending religious sentiments shows a perverted mind-set." On the day of the killing itself, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said he would investigate "to see whether [Samad] has written anything objectionable in his blogs."

Though Sheikh Hasina went on to condemn the killing, her conciliatory statements, along with others from her government, have contributed to a rising sense of impunity among those fringe Islamist elements, which are largely believed to be behind the murders. It has also led many to question her government's commitment not only to preventing future attacks but to bringing to justice the killers currently on the loose.

The Bangladeshi American writer and secular-rights activist Mahmud Rahman characterized Hasina's comments as essentially "the government giving a green light to targeting already marginalized people in the society." Terror attacks by homegrown Islamist extremists in Bangladesh date back to the 1990s, and recent claims by ISIS of their involvement, whether or not true, mask a larger issue: Bangladesh's murky relationship between terror and politics. While the current government maintains that it is committed to the ideal of a secular nation, it has continued to court hardline Islamist votes by arresting so-called atheist bloggers and often failing to sufficiently protect those currently under threat of murder.

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Only hours after the murders of Mannan and Majumdar, at a party meeting in Gonobhaban, Sheikh Hasina laid the blame for the killings with her political opposition, the Bangladesh National Party and Jamaat-e-Islami. "They have been burning people dead and committing other terrorist acts to destabilize the country from the time of the last general election," according to her press secretary Ihsanul Karim.

But, as the editorial in the Dhaka Tribune argued, the time for pointing fingers is over. "It doesn't matter whether they are from transnational terrorist groups like IS as they have claimed, or part of locally based militant networks, as the government argues," the editorial read. "What matters is that such fanatics are targeting individuals in Bangladesh to be slaughtered in public in cold blood. And they are acting with impunity. They are murderers who need to be brought to justice."

What's especially scary about these new killings, as Mahmud Rahman pointed out to me, is that they potentially represent a broadening of the targets. No longer is it just so-called atheist bloggers, but also members of the liberal elite of Dhaka, as well as provincial professors who seemed to have no connection to the broader call for strengthening secular voices in the public sphere. Now it seems almost any marginal voice in Bangladesh, whether an intellectual or activist, is a potential target. If this sudden spike in murders is an indication of things to come, the continued failure of the government's defense of minorities and secularism will only mean a descent into a widening cycle of violence and terror, an outcome only the extremists would welcome.

Follow Ranbir Singh Sidu for Twitter.

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