Toxic allies often end up unintentionally working together with homophobes. Queer people in Bangladesh deserve genuine allyship.
TW/CW: this article contains mentions of queerphobia, homophobia, harassment, abuse, and murder.
By Rasel Ahmed
Queer Bangladeshi community organizers are witnessing another dangerous surge of homophobic attacks online in Bangladesh. Hundreds of people are making anti-LGBTQ+ videos and posting them on YouTube and Facebook. One volunteer, who has been tracking online homophobia, alerted me that their computer crashed while loading a Facebook post with over 27,000 mostly homophobic comments predominantly couched in Islamic rhetoric. And this is just one instance of the hundreds of thousands of hate comments, provocative videos, Facebook lives, images, notes, and other materials posted within a week targeting Bangladeshi gay communities.
The sheer volume of hatred—which, even upon reporting, runs unfettered by Facebook’s hate speech detection algorithms—causes mental health distress to community members, and puts their lives at risk. It resembles a 2016 surge of online homophobia followed by a terrorist attack that killed two gay activists. Though, the emergence of innovative visual contents in 2020 reveals a digitally organized religious network of queerphobia at work. But what was the flashpoint this time? The homophobic onslaught started when a heterosexual cis ally expressed his support for gay rights.
Another Ally Post, v.2020
On June 22, Shamir Montazid, an Oxford graduate student from Bangladesh, posted an image of himself standing in front of a pride flag. He may not have posted in support of gay rights in Bangladesh. But the image went viral within hours in Bangladeshi social media networks, particularly due to Montazid’s affiliation with an online educational platform. Montazid is the former Chief Operating Officer in 10 Minute School that has more than 1.5 million mostly youth following on Facebook.
An award-winning entrepreneurial initiative, 10 Minute School creates and disseminates digital classes, video tutorials, smartbooks, motivational speeches, and skill development content. The founder and CEO of the organization, Ayman Sadiq is very popular, especially among urban youth. Although some international organizations falsely reported 10 Minute School as a “pro-LGBT educational platform,” ‘10 Minute School’ never made a video on LGBTQ+ issues, nor has Sadiq explicitly supported the gay community. The platform had no official connection with Montazid’s Facebook post.
However, homophobes and cyberbullies accused Montazid of indoctrinating the young generation with ‘liberal gay’ values and moved on to targeting the school as well. Instead of condemning hate speech, Sadiq publicly apologized to homophobes on Montazid’s Facebook post. Sadiq stated that Montazid is an ex-employee of 10 Minute School and emphasized that “he lives in a different country and follows a different religion.”
The apology and explanations didn’t pacify the cyberbullies. The situation escalated after a large section of the Ulama (Islamic leaders) community took social media to condemn the 10 Minute School for promoting homosexuality in Bangladesh. Sadiq and his family members received multiple death threats from supposedly Islamic Facebook pages and YouTube accounts. Sadiq hosted another Facebook live accentuating his faith as a practicing Muslim and denouncing gay rights. Finally, Bangladesh’s Counter-Terrorism Unit got involved in the matter. Meanwhile, the outpouring of homophobic memes, comments, and videos continued to surge on social media.
10 Minute School backlash presents us with two vocal social media groups on LGBTQ+ issues: progressive allies and so-called Islamic anti-gay networks. In mainstream discussions, Montazid and queer allies are noble saviors fighting the latter. While the ideological stakes are undeniable, what goes missing in that story is the monetizing landscape of social media business that underpins the circulation of homophobia in this incident. Before getting into the conversation of toxic allyship, I will draw attention to the waz-mehfil community, a religious subset of anti-gay content makers on social media.
Capturing Social Media Market
According to DataReportal, 41% of Bangladeshis (66.4M) are internet users and 22% of them (36M) are active on social media in 2020. The rise in web-citizens has led to a paradigm shift in the professional waz-mehfil community. Traditionally, waz-mehfils are open-air gatherings for Islamic sermons. In the era of social media, religious lecturers are digitizing their waz (sermons) and releasing them through outlets such as YouTube and Facebook. A cottage industry of production houses specifically cater to waz preachers (ulamas), and operate social media pages as micro start-ups.
Waz ulamas can now gain celebrity status overnight through viral sermons. They have price-charts based on their likes, shares, and popularity. In this rapidly-digitizing setting, the waz production community and the 10 Minute School are competing for the same audience of young, digital learners. When Montazid made his pride post on Facebook, the existing digital infrastructure of waz influencers was ready to make Montazid’s seemingly innocuous post viral and draw thousands of reactions.
Understanding the 10 Minute School incident reveals that the Bangladeshi gay community can be both a token as well as a scapegoat for profit-seekers. Montazid was playing a modern and progressive youth icon through sharing a pride post. On the other hand, the ulamas positioned themselves as protectors of tradition which in turn generated revenue for the waz production community. However, this is not to undermine that Bangladesh remains predominantly hostile to gay communities across religion, class, caste, and ethnicity. And although waz ulamas are not inherently homophobic, waz-mehfils often promote anti-LGBTQ+ hatred in a Sunni-dominated Bangladeshi Muslim society.
A Series of Toxic Allies
Given this context, I reject the “liberal ally vs Muslim enemy” framing of the 10 Minute School incident. As the exiled founding editor of the first Bangladeshi gay magazine Roopbaan, and as a community activist, I learned to see through counterproductive allyship that increases our vulnerability in the context of heightened homophobia and authoritarian politics in Bangladesh.
Montazid’s actions call up many examples where self-proclaimed allies profit off of their symbolic support of Bangladeshi LGBTQ+ communities at the expense of the marginalized people for whom they claim to speak. Shammi Haque, a Germany-based Bangladeshi blogger, and self-identified LGBTQ+ champion, organized an online gay pride in 2019. Haque’s actions increased online homophobic attacks on Bangladesh’s LGBTQ+ community, so much so that the Dhaka Metropolitan Police got involved.
In the same year, another Bangladeshi nudist blogger Sazu S uploaded video footage of an LGBTQ+ community event on YouTube without consultation or consent from actual members of the community. Upon asking him to take down the video for security reasons, he refused, saying, “Gay people won’t be free if they don’t risk their lives.” Under community pressure, Sazu eventually deleted the video after a few days.
In 2018, Adnan Hossain, faculty of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, published an article in the Global Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) History with misinformation about Roopbaan magazine. For instance, he cited Roopbaan’s publisher as the magazine’s editor. When I reached out to Hossain over Facebook messenger to address the inaccuracies and how it erases history of grassroots queer labor, he quickly unfriended me.
In 2017, a Germany-based Deutsche Welle (DW) journalist Arafatul Islam of Bangladeshi origin approached me for an interview. When I refused to give him the interview, he became aggressive and bullied me for being a “weak” gay activist.
In 2015, an atheist blogger and self-identified ally Asif Mohiuddin posted a rainbow Kaaba photo while living abroad. Local queer organizers in Bangladesh were afraid for their lives after this image was posted. There is a myriad of cis-hetero photographers, filmmakers, artists, professors, activists, and others trauma-mining our narratives for their work.
Ally support is crucial for achieving gay rights when they are following the leadership of LGBTQ+ organizers. However, toxic allies cancel us when we don’t fit into their minority model. Their unthoughtful actions provide materials that anti-gay networks manipulate to drum up homophobia and weaponize our data against us. Toxic allies, in this way, end up unintentionally working together with homophobes. Queer people in Bangladesh deserve genuine allyship. Allies must learn to trust the leadership of LGBTQ+ Bangladeshis, without undermining their safety and security concerns, and work to protect our communities from more harm.
This Is What We Need From Allies
Please reflect on your privilege. When you want to appreciate queer imageries and symbols, question your intentions, your ego, and behavior. How does it serve or harm queers? Do you know Bangladeshi police routinely extorts low-income koti (effeminate men) and trans sex workers? Think about a koti sex worker losing their livelihood as a result of a spike in national homophobia following your ally handiwork. Defending LGBTQ+ rights from your privileged safety without taking actual queer lives into account is toxic allyship. After Montazid’s post, many queer youths felt called upon to defend their community and identities only to be further bullied, threatened, or stalked. Montazid’s ally support reinvigorated several characters previously linked with Al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). They are now more actively organizing against homosexuality on social media. Last time we saw such uptick in online homophobia, we lost two queer members in a machete attack. Don’t bring back the fear of the machete in our lives.
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Unlearn your savior complex. Prioritize what we deem acceptable and beneficial for us. You are here to support us, not to lead. Your actions have consequences and real-life queers face them. That is why your solidarity warrants scrutiny and critique. Queer communities in Bangladesh are diverse. Talk to us, educate yourself. Learn about systemic oppression, poverty, educational disparity, unemployment, mental health crises, sexual violence, elitism, homelessness, and other forms of discrimination that queer people experience in Bangladesh. Don’t go to the most vocal queer person or find that one queer person who’s your favorite and just listen to them (including me). Commit time to get to know our many voices. Stay beside us. Be an active listener, but don’t force us to speak. Remember, allyship is not about you. Any kind of homophobia, even if it seems to be directed at you, ultimately disempowers queer lives. Hundreds of low-income queer people are right now jobless in Bangladesh because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Donate money to fundraisers for hijra, transgender, and sex workers there. Allyship is work in progress. Don’t expect us to be grateful for any bone you throw our way.
Rasel Ahmed is a filmmaker, community-based archivist, and founding editor of the first Bangladeshi LGBTQ magazine Roopbaan.
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