Riaz Osmani

January 21, 2019

This talk was given by me at a conference in London on January 20, 2019 titled “LGBT & Secular Rights At Risk: Bangladesh Perspective”. I had the honour to be among eminent secular and LGBT rights activists such Rafida Ahmed Bonya, Gita Saghal, Maryam Namazie, Ajanta Deb Roy, Sadikur Rahman Rana, Sadia Hameed, James Bangash etc..

Thankyou ladies and gentlemen. Thankyou Syed Isteak Hossain for asking me to speak today. I would like to take a moment to pay my deepest respects to the late author Avijit Roy and many more free thinkers and atheists in Bangladesh who have been murdered by Islamic fundamentalists a few years ago. I feel blessed to stand near Avijit Roy’s widow Rafida Ahmed Bonya today who has been carrying her late husband’s and her own torch ever since the grisly murder in Dhaka, the evening of 26th February, 2015.

I would like to take a moment also to pay my deepest respects and love to the late Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tonoy who were also murdered by Islamic fundamentalists in Dhaka, in a late April evening in 2016. Xulhaz was a prominent gay rights activist in Bangladesh, and his friend Mahbub was a gay cultural activist. I would also like to remember other secular and atheist bloggers, religious leaders belonging to Bangladesh’s minority faiths, culturally minded academics and several international development partners who lost their lives at the hands of Muslim radicals in Bangladesh over the last few years.

Avijit Roy wrote the first ever book on homosexuality in the Bangla language (that we know of). His work signifies the symbiotic relationship between atheists and gay people. This gift from a freethinking scientific author showed us that acceptance of an inherent sexuality, which is outside of the heteronormative majority, requires stepping out of the narrowness of perceptions and definitions obtained from religious doctrines.

This cannot be truer today in Bangladesh and the rest of the world. As an online gay rights activist based here in London but focusing on the LGBTQIA population within Bangladesh, I have obtained some insight into how religious upbringings and thought processes have acted as the principal barrier to establishing any recognition, let alone human rights of gay and lesbians in the country.

I have come across too many people who have lifestyles that would not resemble anything like that of an Orthodox Muslim as some of us may understand it. Moreover, Bangladesh’s society and economy is replete with incidents that would never be congruent with Orthodox Islam as some of us may imagine it to be. I am talking about things like sexual and physical violence against women by men, bribery, cheating others for one’s own benefit, rampant corruption, marital infidelity among heterosexuals, boy rape by Madrassa teachers, girl rape by practically any male, theft, mugging, robbery and the list goes on. Yet the very same people often engaged in these acts, would be the first ones to claim that homosexuality is against Islam and we cannot tolerate such things in a Muslim country.

This thought process is as ingrained in them curry powder is in a bad restaurant. One cannot argue with a belief system. Logic has no place in this sphere. If one believes in something, then that is the final word on the subject. Moreover, what one believes and thinks on the subject (or any other) seems to be clearly defined by the narrowness of the scriptures as preached by all the priests called Imams. Hardly anyone has actually read the Quran (the words of Allah) or Hadith (the words of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)), in a language that they actually understand. No emphasis is given to reading the Quran and Hadith in Bangla or English. Everyone learns instead to recite the Arabic script like a parrot, thus having no first hand understanding of what is actually being said in those books. To think outside of this box seems to be impossible for most, and to even try, is considered heresy. And no matter how hard one may try to fight against this, the perceived wisdom from Allah as has been revealed by Prophet Muhammed is not to be questioned. Under these circumstances, I have found it hard to proceed keeping both my Islamic upbringing and my discovered sexuality intact.

Today I am an ex-Muslim; a gay Bangladeshi and British national, who feels strongly that squaring the circle, of restrictions of thought imposed by Islam, and truly accepting one’s supposedly deviant sexuality, is hypocritical at best. It is a far more honest endeavour to chuck it all in the bin, and join hands with all the wonderful, freethinking, Godless heathens that have sprung up in Bangladesh ever since the invention of the internet 😊

Now, there is such thing as a gay Muslim, practicing ones too. Many of them live here in the West and derive their strength from a new interpretation of the story of Prophet Lut or Lot in the city of Sodom. While conventional wisdom is that Sodom was destroyed because of homosexuality (hence all the tyranny against gays ever since), some Muslims scholars in the west have explained that it was incidents of male rape that was cause of the God’s wrath, not consensual same-sex activities between adults. Well that’s all fine and dandy. Perceptions of gays or homosexuality in Bangladesh (or Iran, or Saudi Arabia) depend very much on which fairy tale is believed the most. The nicer and revisionist version is not likely to get much traction any time soon.

Gay Muslims may look to Quran Only Islam for solace. The destruction of Sodom (for whichever reason) was described in the Quran but no punishment for gays can be found any where explicitly mentioned. In fact, it is questionable if gays have been mentioned in the Quran at all.

But they have indeed been mentioned in the Hadith (i.e. the compiled sayings of the Prophet during his lifetime). There is an array of punishments for homosexuality in the Hadith. If one is to follow Quran Only Islam, then it can be fairly easy to just chuck all the books on Hadith in the bin and ignore all the punishments for gays. But if any of you think Quran Only Islam is a viable alternative to Islam’s orthodoxy then you are a fool. I can vouch for the fact that in countries like Bangladesh, the Prophet is often held in a similar esteem to God himself and anything that has been declared by ancient clerics to be an authentic saying of the Prophet, is sacrosanct.

This is despite the fact that Hadith had been compiled into book form 200 years after the Prophet’s death. Generations of people verbally passed down what had supposedly been uttered by the Prophet to his associates. Have any of you heard of the game called Chinese Whispers? Do you believe that it is possible for the compiled version to contain anything authentically said by the Prophet 200 years prior to being written down? Interestingly enough, 90% of what was initially compiled from hear-say had been declared erroneous by Muslim scholars who took it upon themselves to collect Hadith in the first place. Only 10% of the collected gems were considered authentic. Clearly there must have been a criterion based on which the scholars determined what was authentic and what wasn’t.

One such criterion was most probably misogyny by men. These scholars were almost invariably male and since a man can enter a woman by virtue of biology, these men considered women to be the weaker and more vulnerable species. If a man entered another man on the other hand, that would tantamount to the utmost insult to notions of masculinity and mankind for that matter. How can a man ever be like another women, and by extension, how can a man lie with another man like a woman? More importantly, how was the Muslim religion going to get spread across Arabia and the rest of the world if all men started to sleep with other men only and thus not producing children?

Clearly scientific and medical findings about sexual orientation had not reached the levels then that we find today. But the mindset above as has been passed down through generations, results in a perpetual sense of being a sinner among many a young gay in Bangladesh today, brainwashed with all the trappings of Islam (or other faiths) since early childhood. Just like as used to be in the West, we have incidents of depression and suicide among the young LGBT people. And until the recent proliferation of mobile internet (and cheap Chinese smart phones to go with them), most of them had to accept the eventuality of fake marriages to the opposite gender, not always in a forced manner from other relatives, but often out of a lack of awareness of an alternative.

That awareness is finally here. But religion is getting in the way like there is no tomorrow. It turns out that pious Muslims or those veering towards being classed as a Mullahs but also as closet gays, are the biggest threat to gays in general. These people often engage in same-sex activities at night and yet spew bile against homosexuality the next day in public, sowing fear in the minds of questioning young boys and girls and hatred of homosexuals in the minds of the general population. Part of the journey to achieving gay rights in Bangladesh will be to call these people out, not just these closet gays but also pedophiles since they too speak loudly against gays in a Muslim country, and since mainstream society often conflates pedophilia with homosexuality.

I will now venture into Bangladesh’s domestic politics, since it is not possible to separate the prospect of secularism and LGBT rights in Bangladesh, from the various misadventures of country’s politicians. Upon gaining independence from Pakistan in 1971 through a blood soaked war, Bangladesh’s first constitution drafted in 1972 by the likes of Dr. Kamal Hossain (an eminent international lawyer) was completely secular. After the assassination of the Father of the nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family in 1975, we had a succession of military rulers who started corrupting the secular constitution to placate the Muslim majority and thus solidify their unconstitutional reign over the country.

General Ziaur-Rahman in the late 70s issued a proclamation order amending the constitution, beginning the process of Islamization. In the preamble, he inserted the salutation “Bismillahir-Rahmaanir-Rahim” (“In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful”). In Article 8(1) and 8(1A) the statement “absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah”‘ was added, replacing the socialist religion free commitment to secularism. General Ershad in the late 80s, continued this travesty by bringing in amendments to the constitution of Bangladesh which declared Islam the state religion, abandoning state secularism altogether.

One of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s surviving daughter Sheikh Hasina took over the reigns of a political party called Awami League that was led by her father and was instrumental in the struggle for Bangladesh’s liberation. Ziaur-Rahman formed the political party called Bangladesh Nationalist Party or the BNP and shortly after his assassination in 1981, his widow Khaleda Zia took over the reigns of that party. This began the duel of the two political dynasties that has been both a blessing and a curse for Bangladesh till today.

Along with some flourishing of democracy in the country since 1991, we have seen further creeping Islamisation under the auspices of both these parties that have alternated to power through elections, some free and fair, some not so. But it was during the period of 2001-2006 that we saw the most noticeable change in Bangladesh’s society. Under the coalition rule of the BNP with a political party called Jamaat-e-Islami, we saw fashionable ladies with gorgeous sarees and free flowing hairstyles shun their modern and Bengali outfits, embracing the hijab and burka borrowed from the arid sands of Arabia. Well known media personalities (both male and female) started ostentatiously showing off their religious credentials either through their outfits or their annual Hajj trips.

Jamaat-e-Islami wanted to tactfully turn Bangladesh into an Islamic republic over time, almost as a consolation prize for having lost a united Pakistan in 1971. Jamaat’s justification for their stance against Bangladesh’s independence was the preservation of Islam in what was then East Pakistan. Separation from what was then West Pakistan (on the other side of India) would have meant the gradual degradation of Islamic values in the east under a Bengali culture that had its roots in Hinduism. This allowed them to fully cooperate with the Pakistani army to conduct the genocide and rape of the Bengali mass, and the targeted killings of Bengali intellectuals that took place before the intervention of India which brought the whole mayhem to an end and gave birth to Bangladesh in December of that year.

BNP and Jamaat walked a very communal line during their time in office between 2001-2006 which may have changed the face of Bangladesh permanently. We saw mass migration of the Hindu population to India. We also witnessed 500 bombs setting themselves off simultaneously across the country in the name of Islam. We can only conclude where the patronage of the militants came from.

But some major surprises and disappointments came later on, under Awami League’s time in office since 2008 till now. While Sheikh Hasina has fulfilled one of the most pressing demands of the time, i.e. that of putting Jamaat leaders who where collaborators of the Pakistani army in 1971, to trial, our hopes of a truly secular and non-communal Bangladesh has been dashed severely since then. As a counter punch to the staunchly secular and all-encompassing Shahbag movement by various bloggers and students supporting the War Crimes Trial of Jamaat leaders and others, we witnessed the rise of a medieval religious cult based in Chittagong called Hefazat-e-Islam (the name literally meaning Protection of Islam). Their threats of destroying secularism from Bangladesh, asking for laws to hang all atheists, separating women from men in the public sphere, relegating women back to the kitchen and burning the country down should the government not listen to their pleas were a little too much for Sheikh Hasina.

To our surprise and dismay, instead of crushing them like she crushed Jamaat, she started cajoling them, in the name of pacifying them. This began a process that sycophants of Awami League till today explain away as a mere political tactic. A little pacifier here will not only keep the peace in the country, but will also be a major vote winner in a country populated by pious Muslims. In the minds of the sycophants, Awami League is still a party that believes in secularism, and Bangladesh future as such a country is best ensured by the leadership of our esteemed leader, daughter of Sheikh Mujib.

These sycophants are deluding themselves and others at best. They are liars at worst. For why else would we have to witness the changing of children’s textbooks from a secular curriculum to a somewhat Islamic one? Why have Bangla poems and stories written by some Hindu authors, those that I read in Bangladesh when I was a kid, been omitted now? Why has a Degree from a Quomi Madrassa been given the same status as that of a secular degree without any of the reforms that the government initially asked for? Why did Hasina yield to Hefazat’s final word on that subject? Why did she yield to Hefazat’s demand to remove a saree clad beautiful statue called Lady Justice first erected in front of Bangladesh’s Supreme Court? Why is she about to build 1000 “ideal” mosques in the country with state funds boosted by Saudi donations? Didn’t she know that once you let this genie out of the bottle, you have no way of putting it back in? Haven’t the experiences of Pakistan and some other countries not taught her  anything? To cap it all off, Sheikh Hasina has repeated gone on record saying that her government will never pass laws that go against the Quran and Hadith. Why not have Shariah law altogether in that case? Why this half in and half out for political expediency?

Shortly after she came to power in 2008 with her party having two-thirds majority in Parliament, she initiated reforms of the Bangladesh constitution to take it back to the spirit of 1972. As I have mentioned earlier, the constitution had previously been bastardized by two military generals Ziaur-Rahman and Ershad. Her attempt to bring secularism back into the constitution was laughable. Instead of getting rid of the blasted state religion from the constitution as had been put in by Ershad in the late 80s, she retained it with a new caveat that all other religions will be practiced equally in the country. How can all religions in a country enjoy the same status in the eyes of the state, if one of them is nominated as the state religion? Is it lost on most Bangladeshis, that once you have declared Islam as the state religion, you have relegated people of all other faiths and NONE, to second class citizens? More to the point, how can a country with a state religion EVER be classed as a secular country? When was the last time Bangladesh was indeed a secular country? I must have been in diapers. To achieve true secularism as we understand in the west, the state must be blind to all faiths, kind of like the situation in France. Secularism in Bangladesh means something completely different. “Dhormoneeropekhota”, the Bangla word it actually means the state patronage of all prevalent religions in the country, albeit with a balanced approach.

Looking back at the last 10 years of the current government we find that the status of secularists, atheists, freethinkers, religious minorities and sexual minorities has been solidified into being second class. The role of the government during the following incidents were absolutely disgusting. Those incidents included the serial assassination by violent Islamic terrorists, of freethinkers, atheist bloggers, famous writers like Avijit Roy, LGBT activists like Xulhaz and Tonoy, some cultural figures hailing from the ‘Lalon’ and ‘Baul’ creed, and some religious leaders belonging to the Hindu, Christian and Buddhist faith. To our dismay, we repeatedly heard at that time from the country’s Home Minister that these were “isolated incidents”. The Prime Minister herself tried to avoid responsibility by shifting it on to the opposition political parties and blaming the victims themselves for their fate, for writing against Islam in the first place. She is on record saying that her government will not take responsibility for these atheists. The terrorist murderers were indeed further encouraged by this stance of the government.

The way matters were progressing, it was only a matter of time before the barbaric attack on the upscale café in Gulshan in Dhaka took place. And it was only after immense international pressure that followed, that the administration conducted several specialized raids to capture and eliminate many of the terrorists, whose existence Sheikh Hasina vehemently denied until up to then. Had it not been for the previous damn care mentality of the government which included playing politics with the fate of freethinkers and atheists, the attack on the Gulshan café may not have taken place. And along with that would have been alive those Japanese engineers and some jewels of Bangladesh who were up in arms against the scourge of blind faith and the resultant social injustices.

Looking at today, Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League is back in power for another 5 years after a ludicrously rigged election last December. In a politically divided Bangladesh, one can never get such a laughable result where 95 percent of all the 300 seats in Parliament go to one party or the alliance that it leads. And yet, that is what has happened. Competing against the government was a coalition of parties, called Jatiya Oikya Front, translated as National Unity Front. Led by the eminent Dr. Kamal Hossain who I mentioned at the beginning, he managed to bring together his own party along with a few others to contest the election. The biggest party in this coalition was the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The BNP through an act of moral and political crime, refused to sever all its links with Jamaat. Twenty five of Jamaat’s former members ran as MPs under the same symbol as that of the BNP since Jamaat is no longer a registered political party in Bangladesh and cannot contest elections under its own symbol.

It is the stark choice of the BNP-Jamaat people returning to power under the umbrella of Oikya Front, versus the Awami League continuing for another 5 years that provided secularists, atheists, freethinkers, religious minorities and sexual minorities in Bangladesh the ultimate dilemma during the recently held elections. If voting were compulsory, many of us would have not known whom to vote for. Both were unpalatable. We can never expect a secular Bangladesh to spring out of BNP-Jamaat’s administration even if it was cloaked under the moral and secular leadership of Dr. Kamal Hossain. Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina on the other hand handed us the ultimate betrayal of her secularist credentials as I described earlier. One could thus be forgiven for having looked at the leftist political parties in Bangladesh who’s stance on removing the state religion from the country’s constitution and banning religion based political parties is music to our ears. Unfortunately, these same leftists are still busy reading books written by Karl Marx and General Mao of China. They refuse to embrace globalization and free markets. Trusting Bangladesh’s economy at their hands doesn’t seem to be a very enterprising idea 😊

Speaking of the economy, it would take a die-hard Hasina hater to deny the tremendous economic progress Bangladesh has experienced over the last ten years. The wheels of the private sector led by the textile industry, pharmaceuticals, the nascent IT industry etc. has been complimented not only by the hard-earned money sent in by Bangladeshi migrant labourers and professionals all over the world, but also by tremendous investment by the government in the country’s infrastructure, and the introduction or continuation of much needed social programs. Today Bangladesh can be proud of all the economic and social indicators and a great deal of this credit can and must go to the current government.

Sheikh Hasina has banked on this fact a little too rigidly to the detriment of freedom of speech, political space for others, investigative journalism and many of the constitutionally guaranteed things like protection from and by the law and living one’s life safely without fear of opponents whoever they may be (often in this case, the government). Despite severe objections from various quarters, the government through sheer parliamentary majority, passed a black law called Digital Security Law.

This law criminalised many forms of freedom of expression and imposed heavy fines and prison sentences for legitimate forms of dissent. Section 25 of this law provided special protection to the state, and thus was intended to be used to prohibit or punish legitimate political expression. Section 28 stated that the publication or broadcast of “any information that hurt religious values or sentiments” was a criminal offence. The law gave the police absolute power to arrest anyone, without a warrant, simply on suspicion that a crime might have been committed using digital media. The law also authorised prison sentences for up to 14 years for anyone who secretly recorded government officials or gathered information from a government agency using a computer or other digital device.

We kept hearing “reassurances” from the government that journalists had nothing to fear, freedom of speech had not been curtailed, etc. etc.. As we predicted and as we have seen, those words were nothing other than bluff. The law is already being misused, journalists have been arrested for reporting on the irregularities of the last election, people have been arrested for poking fun at the Prime Minister on social media. Most importantly an eminent photographer journalist and professor in Bangladesh called Shahidul Alam was recently arrested and incarcerated for 100 days before obtaining a difficultly achieved bail. He had severely criticised the government in an interview with Al-Jazeera and continued the same on Facebook during a recent student uprising that the government attempted to then crush with the help of Awami League’s student wing and the police. He was charged with treason. Since when is speaking out against your government the same as being a traitor? I will tell you when. It is when that government becomes a pig headed, thin skinned, shameless dictator.

We have to keep these circumstances firmly in mind before we ask ourselves how to proceed with a movement in and out of Bangladesh that will aim to achieve the rights of secularists, freethinkers, atheists and the LGBTQIA community in the future. Where is the space? We certainly will not find them among politicians of any stripe (except among some left wingers). The stigma of BNP-Jamaat notwithstanding, I found some aspects of the manifesto of the Oikya Front during the last election quite appealing. They included steps that could ensure the separation of the country’s Judiciary from the Executive. Currently the Judiciary is embarrassingly at the hands of the government. Another feature in the manifesto was the complete removal of the Digital Security Law which would then at least give our voices back. Granted, most manifestos are never fully implemented in Bangladesh and they end up being empty promises to win votes in an election. But Awami League did not even have such items in their manifesto and these half-baked intentions by all political parties were all we had to go by to decide whom to vote for.

So I supported the Oikya Front in their effort to win this election which was criminally stolen from them by a farcical election and we now have another 5 years ahead of us with our voices being strangled. Most secularists could not even see through the binary choice here. Many voted for the incumbent for the next 5 years anyway. From my perspective, I cannot imagine bringing litigation during this time against section 377 of Bangladesh’s penal code which criminalises sexual activities “against the laws of nature” and thus makes each and every one of us gays and lesbians a criminal in the eyes of the state. For such an attempt to succeed, we would need proper independence of the country’s Judiciary. Since more recent times, we need the scrapping of the Digital Security Law so that any random Muslim in Bangladesh does not litigate against me for hurting that person’s religious sensitivities in any way or shape he or she imagined. Homosexuality is against Islam remember? And Islam is still Bangladesh’s state religion.

I, along with a fellow LGBT activist and lawyer in Bangladesh recently enlisted the help of Human Dignity Trust (HDT) in London, a charity devoted to instigating local litigation in various countries that have laws that criminalize same-sex relations. Incidentally, these laws are always relics of British colonial rule and they were implanted locally at that time by the British. Be it as it may, HDT conducted some research into the prospect of bringing such a litigation in Bangladesh. One of the overwhelming reasons why HDT felt strongly discouraged to proceed in the country was the lack of independence of the Judiciary. Success of such a litigation was remote under the current circumstances. Hefazat-e-Islam must have been pleased to hear this. Shortly after the recent historic trashing of India’s 377 which we can all be proud of, Hefazat Mullahs in Bangladesh went on record during sermons saying that any attempt to achieve the same in their country will be resisted to the point of killing all gays and burning down the country. Digital Security Law does not apply to these thugs in the eyes of Sheikh Hasina.

Due to lack of sufficient political space in Bangladesh in the near future, we may be forced to confine our work to social media to reach out to the broadest possible audience. You Tube videos in Bangla covering gay and secular issues are already having a noticeable impact in turning heads among the connected youth in Bangladesh. This effort must continue and must have maximum reach. As the chief editor of a website called Boichitro Dot Bangla, I am providing as much information about us gays to fellow gays in Bangladesh in a language that will have maximum impact. I would like to take this moment to commend the efforts of atheist bloggers and vloggers Asif Mohiuddin and Arifur Rahman who have developed a huge Facebook live video following among Bangla speakers around the world.

I will finish with the following thoughts. In order for the LGBT+ and secular people to gain full equality in Bangladesh, we need to achieve the following:

  • Removal Of the State Religion From the Constitution
  • Full Independence Of the Judiciary
  • Removal of Section 377 Of the country’s Penal Code

It is not clear to me how we are going to achieve any of these objectives. What I can say is that the journey of freethinking atheists and that of the LGBTQIA community are borne out of the same sense of purpose and destination. You cannot have one without the other. One will feed the other and together we will create a world free from the closed mindset that has made a mockery of human civilization. I ask of all the Godless heathens out there to create social space for thoughts free from the confines of religious text books which will then allow us gays to keep our heads above water. In turn you will discover that a society that accepts gays, accepts atheists equally. Thank you very much and Joy Bangla.

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