Virginia Beach Human Rights Commissioner Raj Islam had just worked an overnight shift as an EMS captain for the city’s Department of Emergency Medical Services on April 25 when he received a phone call from his mother. She told him that his uncle, Xulhaz Mannan, had been killed inside the apartment in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka in which he lived with his elderly mother.
“I got the phone call and I was just like, ‘What?’” Islam told the Washington Blade on June 18 during an interview at Hampton Roads Pride’s annual festival in Norfolk, Va. “At first I thought it was a random thing because it was in my family’s home.”
Islam spoke with the Blade less than two months after members of an al-Qaida branch in Bangladesh hacked Mannan and his friend, Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, to death.
Mannan was a prominent activist who founded Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine. He also worked for the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka for eight years before joining the U.S. Agency for International Development last September.
Islam told the Blade that Mannan’s mother was inside the apartment when the militants attacked his uncle and Tonoy. He said they “took both of (Mannan’s) eyes out in front of her.”
“She still asks, ‘Where is he at?’” said Islam, referring to Mannan’s mother. “She still calls my aunt in Florida [to ask,] ‘Where’s your brother at? I can’t find him here.’”
Islam spoke with the Blade shortly after Hampton Roads Pride presented a scholarship in honor of Mannan. The murdered activist’s younger sister, older brother, his wife and their two daughters and Islam attended a USAID ceremony in D.C. earlier this month that honored Mannan.
“To see and hear from my brother about what (Mannan) was doing I was like, ‘wow,’” Islam told the Blade. “I never highlighted it because that was his work. That’s not something for me to push out over here in the States because its also dangerous over there.”
“It’s illegal to be homosexual,” he added. “As we see being the editor of the first LGBTQ magazine…the results (are what we saw happen.)”
President Obama last month personally expressed his condolences to Mannan’s family. USAID Administrator Gayle Smith and other U.S. officials did the same when they traveled to Dhaka less than two weeks after the attack.
Mannan and Tonoy are among the growing list of activists, secular academics, writers, bloggers and members of religious minority groups who have been killed by Islamists since early 2015. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her government have come under increased criticism from those who feel it has not done enough to effectively respond to terrorism in the predominantly Muslim country.
“They want to turn away any sort of ownership of having terrorist groups in their country,” Islam told the Blade, referring to the Bangladeshi government. “They call them gangs or hooligans. They don’t call them as organized groups.”
Islam spoke with the Blade six days after a gunman killed 49 people and injured 53 others inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla.
The gunman pledged his allegiance to the so-called Islamic State during a 911 call he made from inside the nightclub, but there is no evidence to suggest the Sunni extremist group prompted him to carry out the massacre.
The gunman’s father told reporters that his son became “very angry” when he saw two men kissing in Miami. The Los Angeles Times on June 23 reported federal law enforcement officials have found no evidence to support claims that the gunman visited the Pulse nightclub or used hookup apps to contact gay men.
“This is a disturbed individual,” Islam told the Blade.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in the days after the Pulse nightclub massacre reiterated his call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and suspend immigration from areas where “there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe and our allies.” The billionaire also boasted that he would do more to protect LGBT Americans than Hillary Clinton if he were elected president.
“I will fight for you while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs,” tweeted Trump on June 14.
Islam, who is Muslim, described Trump as a “straight-up bully.” He also told the Blade that the billionaire’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric simply bolsters the so-called Islamic State and other militant groups.
“He’s feeding fear and more fear inside our country,” said Islam. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s no better than them.”