“A war against me, inside and outside”: Security forces, denials, and emos in Iraq

Graphic picture of murdered emo Iraq

From a video allegedly showing a murdered emo youth hanged from a bridge in Iraq

In the Iraqi media, Sawt al-Iraq and Al-Mada both reported on Friday, March 23, that “security sources” are suggesting there will be a lull in attacks on emos until the Arab League Summit in Baghdad, scheduled for this week, ends. The sources also said, though, that girls will be targeted when the attacks resume:

Informed sources warned that the coming days will see the targeting of girls under the pretext of belonging to emo, indicating that the militant groups that carry out these actions are waiting for the end of the Arab Summit to be held in Baghdad in order to resume their activities.

A security source said early yesterday that  “the militant groups reduced their operations against emo youth in this period in conjunction with the proximity of the Arab summit in Baghdad at the end of this month,” emphasizing that they are “waiting for the completion of the summit and then they will launch a new campaign.” … The source did not rule out  “the involvement of some elements of security operations in targeting emo,” expected “to begin a new campaign in the coming month of May.”

If the delay is true, it’s presumably not because the killers want to spare Iraq embarrassment during the summit, but because security measures imposed since last week’s massive bombings have the capital on lockdown, with checkpoints and traffic jams slowing traffic to a standstill.

The papers noted, though, that in official statements “security authorities played down the significance” of civil society groups’ claims that up to 100 may be dead, “denying the existence of cases of killings.”

Kamil Amin: Nothing to see here, move along

Al-Shaafaq spoke last week to Kamil Amin, director general for monitoring and protection in the Ministry of Human Rights. He reiterated the official denials.  “There are no cases of murder. This was confirmed by the Ministry of the Interior”:

“Today if an emo young man or teenager in Iraq is killed, real information will be available about his death. The situation has been confused. A story circulated in Sadr City of a young man who was accused of being a homosexual or effeminate man and kidnapped and  killed there; the work of the Ministry of Interior has proved the case was criminal.”

The last reference is presumably to Saif Raad Asmar Abboudi, a 20-year-old murdered in Sadr City on February 17. It’s not quite clear what the final comment means; but it seems Amin is trying to distinguish between killings for emo “identity” and killings for suspected homosexual conduct. Of course, as many Iraqis have pointed out, the two blend into one another as linked forms of “deviance” in the popular mind. Amin admitted, on the other hand, that names — along with death threats — had been posted on walls in Baghdad neighborhoods. “I don’t deny that thing, this talk; banners were circulating, it is easy, there are computers and printers everywhere, and you can easily write up names and existing lists. The issue came up because of ideological extremist groups.”

Graphic picture of emo death in iraq

Saif Raad Asmar Abboudi

Asked what the Human Rights Ministry was doing about the situation, Amin temporized and called on the shrinks for aid:

“I think the Council of Ministers offered assurances that personal freedoms are protected, and that there was no spread of the phenomenon of emo in Iraq, only individual cases most of which don’t go beyond a matter of fashion, which is not aggressive.  On the contrary, we found that a lot of emo have talent — for example, poetry or drawing. Some of them are superior people and they imitate emo only in terms of dress and  accessories …

“Emo is a phenomenon between the ages of 12-17 years. If it continues with the teenager after this age, it is a medical condition, and the parents should send their children to doctors and psychologists to stop it.”

Meanwhile, according to Al-Mada, the chair of the parliamentary committee on displaced persons, Abdul Khaliq Zangana, accused security forces of “arresting and intimidating young people under the pretext of the emo phenomenon”:

“Restoring security has become a pretext and an excuse for the security services to arrest young people, who are supposed  to be the future of Iraq … Some young people who had agreed to return to Iraq through the parliamentary committee have expressed sorrow that they returned to suffer from these arrests and intimidation, under the pretext of establishing security.”

This long and horrible video has been circulating inside Iraq and out; it claims to show an executed emo hanging from the railing of a bridge. I cannot vouch for what it claims to be: any number of what are, in effect, snuff videos or close to it emerge from Iraq regularly, spoor of the regularity of death there. US soldiers used to pick them up on Bluetooth (or, where their relationship to the atrocities was nearer, film them themselves) and bring or send them back home, like trophies.

Finally, what follows is a long letter I received from a gay-identified man in Baghdad. It describes both the immediate fears caused by the killing campaign, and a longer and deeper burden of anxiety. I have edited it slightly for continuity and to eliminate all identifying references.

You can’t imagine my delight when I received the message you sent me on [a gay website]. I was so happy I started crying because there are others in this world who sympathize with our suffering and the dark life we’re living here in Iraq. …  I’ve almost lost any hope for living the free and fulfilling life I aspire to and I remain confined to my home…

I live near Al-Sadr city [Baghdad’s huge Shi’ite slum] … I was born just over 30 years ago and from early in my life, I started feeling that my sexual leaning is different from that of other members of my sex. I started discovering that I’m attracted to men- yes, I started discovering that I was homosexual  (mithly al-jens) or a sexual deviant (shaz jenseyan). At this point my torment started in the conflict with my family and the society I live in on one hand, and with myself on the other. There was a conflict between me as a man and my sexual desire. I kept repressed inside me that feeling which tormented me all my life, especially at the beginning of my youth. I was supposed to be enjoying the best years of my life like others, but I was far from this. …

My problem now is that someone has photographed me having sex. That person blackmailed me and when I refused to pay him, he published the photos online. I’m in constant fear that one of my relatives or co-workers might find out about these photos, at which point they will have no mercy on me and might even kill me. I was threatened that the photos will be sent to everyone that knows me and to my family and relatives. I’m always afraid when I go down the street to buy bread, for example, or when the door bell rings. I fear that someone came to assault me. That feeling of fear dominates my life almost daily.

I’ve encountered many horrors that I was saved from almost miraculously. I was once walking on Palestine Street, when a car stopped beside me. There were three scary looking men in the car and one of them got off the car and approached me. He asked me why I had insulted his friend, because the way I was walking would attract attention in the street. The three started attacking me, so I said let’s go to the police. They were nearby. As I walked before them, they left me and went back to their car. I ran away to the side streets but they were chasing me with their car. I was running while crying and was scared to death they might catch me again. The concrete blocks  in the middle of the road saved me however, because they were not able to go through these with their car.

Concrete barriers being installed on a Baghdad street as an anti-car-bomb measure

I was assaulted and robbed of my wallet many times when I went out at night. I can’t describe the fear I feel whenever leaving my house, which makes me stop going out most of the time. One day I was at al-Zawra’a Gardens [the biggest park in central Baghdad] with a friend of mine when a policeman noticed us and then came over to arrest us. They took us to the police center where we met a[nother] police officer. The policeman who brought us said that we were “practicing sodomy” in the park, which was not true. They interrogated me and my friend separately and said they would put us in jail. We had to pay them for our release.

I was raped many times by policemen under the threat of their guns. They also threatened to surrender me to extremist groups if I refused. For me, the previous era was a golden era, because homosexuality was tolerated. I’m scared now because I expect death or beheading at any moment. Islam considers homosexuality to be a sin and the Shi’ite authority Ayatollah Al-Sistani published on his website a call to kill homosexuals. …

We as gays do not exist in this country and we have nobody to represent us. We’re vulnerable prey for whoever wants to attack us and nobody will protect us or stand by our side. We’re excluded by most people, including our own families. One day when I was at work, my sister looked into my stuff and found a CD that had a gay porn movie on it. She knew about me, especially because she used to try to listen to my conversations on the phone with friends. She told my parents about what she found and they turned on me with hate and disgust. They  began seriously thinking about forcing me to marry a female cousin to prevent any possible scandal. They pressured me and even threatened to kick me out of the house and expose me to others if I didn’t marry her.

Worse than all this is that a few days ago I received a phone call from someone who said he knew where I live and [where I work]. He said he has a film of me having sex and threatened to send it to my workplace and to my family if I didn’t agree to what he was asking. He wanted me to give him the names of my emo friends so they can target them. Now in Baghdad young people who wear black tight clothes and have pics of skulls and let their hair grow long are called emo female “wannabes.” These people are being killed by gangs called “Asa’ib” [presumably Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the “League of the Righteous,” a Shi’ite militia whom some blame for the current attacks] and by the Iraqi police. To these gangs emos and gays are two faces of one coin. Photos of their victims were published online and a lot of dead bodies were found in different areas of Baghdad.

ubiquitous mobiles in Iraq

I refused to give any names to that caller who threatened me, and I blocked his number. However, I still receive threats through other numbers that I don’t recognize. I’m scared to death that these criminals might find out about my full name and my address through my account with the phone company I receive service from. Because if you know somebody that works at the phone company, you can very easily obtain more information about any number you have. This has happened to me once when I talked with someone on the internet and we exchanged numbers. It was only a few days before that person called and told me my full name and address. He obtained that information through my my mobile number.

The Iraqi government stands with the criminals by denying the brutal murders which take place now in Iraq and which they cover up. Gays have always been the easy victims who can’t resort to anyone to protect them — because everyone in this society excludes and ostrasizes gays. As I’m writing, my tears are pouring, because I know I might die for being gay. I wish I’d never been like this, to a degree that makes me want to die and think about suicide constantly. Sometimes I meet a close friend of mine and we hug each other and cry for how miserable our lives are. I’m a human being and we have a right to live with dignity. Why do they kill and slaughter us in the most brutal ways?!  …

Iraq today is governed by people of religion who do not tolerate any dissent and kill people with no mercy. I have friends in many places who were killed in the most brutal ways and in public for being gay. The number of people killed in the latest wave has risen to more than twenty people. Until recently I had some hope that my country’s conditions might improve and that the human will be respected in Iraq. But after what’s been happening recently I’ve lost all hope and realized that my country is heading towards the unknown…. I’m scared that I might be exposed at time at work or that my family might find out about me. I’m threatened with death because of the  murders that target emos, because society here believes that gays are emos and that they’re responsible for such lifestyles. I can’t leave home without trying to hide. It’s a war against me, inside my home and outside.

(Thanks to Samir, an Egyptian activist, for translating this. Be sure to read his own remarkable blog, on secularism, sexuality, democracy, and other cogent issues, here.)

“You are killing the nation, not emos”: more from Iraq

An Iraqi holds up pictures of his friend Saif Raad Asmar Abboudi, before and after his murder: Saad Shalash, Reuters

1. Rumor and responsibility

What do we know about the anti-emo campaign now?

For a start: Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior, you’ll recall, sent forth a statement on February 13 calling for “eliminating” the “phenomenon” of emo youth in Iraq. This offered an official imprimatur, and arguably incitement, to vigilante violence against “deviance.”  One result of the uproar against the killings, and against the Ministry’s weird words, came about this week. The incriminating statement vanished from the police website.

You could argue this is an attempt to quiet the fears their warnings roused. Or you could say, more plausibly, they’re trying to cover their tracks. I feel mildly prescient for having imagined they’d do this; I screensaved the original proclamation. You can find it here.

Even if you take into account the impromptu comments of  government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, last week –that “there is no prosecution for belonging to the emo phenomenon  in the country … The security agencies are obliged to protect freedoms” — it doesn’t particularly sound as if the state is backing away from its anti-emo rhetoric. The Ministry of Interior’s February 29 statement, accusing emos of “destructive effects on the structure of communities,” is still up there on the Web. And this week the Ministry of Education stepped up its actions. Those bureaucrats, as I’ve noted, were responsible for a still-secret memo I’ve seen dating all the way back in August 2011: it urged prompt action “in response to the Emo phenomenon insinuating itself into our society”:

  • Deterrent legal and administrative measures should be taken against students who engage in this deviancy inside schools.
  • Cooperation and coordination are necessary between school administrations and the Interior Ministry’s social police, by reporting these cases to eliminate them and take legal measures against the perpetrators.

Wear what I tell you to: Iraqi schoolkids, from Al-Shaafaq

Last week, according to Al-Shaafaq News, the Ministry of Education followed up with a circular urging schools to impose uniforms “of gray and yellow colors” for all students, because those hues  “please the eye” according to a Quranic verse (found in Sura al-Baqara, for the curious). This should protect kids from “exotic trends.”  Killing them also helps, as we now know.

The army also got into the act — with a message exploiting Iraq’s sectarian divide. Lieutenant General Hassan Baydhani, Chief of Staff of Baghdad Operations Command, told Al-Sumariya News that “unconfirmed intelligence information” suggested that the reports of murdered emos were not just lies but a Sunni plot. Claiming that “security forces have not recorded any cases of killings of these young people,” he accused the President of the Association of Muslim Scholars, Harith al-Dhari, “in coordination with al Qaeda,” of spreading these rumors. Their motive?  “To confuse the security situation in Baghdad prior to the Arab summit.”

Harith al-Dhari

Let’s unpack this for a moment. Harith al-Dhari is one of Iraqi Sunnis’ most respected religious figures; his family has a long history of leading insurgencies against British imperialism. The post-Saddam Shi’ite governments have repeatedly accused him of collaborating with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (he’s denied it, claiming the group killed four dozen of his relatives).  At month’s end, Iraq is hosting an Arab League summit for the first time in two decades, a considerable source of national pride. Al-Dhari has urged the region’s leaders not to lend legitimacy to the increasingly repressive Shi’ite leadership now in power. The general’s slightly paranoid story suggests the government is exploiting the emo reports as a handy chisel to chip away at al-Dhari’s credibility before the summit starts.

Curiously, Dan Littauer and his unreliable website Gay Middle East have spread the exact mirror version of the same rumor, which they got from an (equally sectarian) anti-Shi’ite blogger outside Iraq. According to that side of the story, the killings are really happening, but it’s all the extreme Shi’ites fault: Moqtada al-Sadr, head of the Mahdi Army militia, “wants to embarrass Prime Minister Al-Maliki [by] exposing him and his party’s Bard organization, as unable to protect their own people in front of the Arab League.” (He means the Badr Organization, associated with both the government and Shi’ite religious leader Ayatollah Sistani.) So the Sadrists are murdering emos to make the government look bad in front of other Arab leaders.

Are you following all this? Lord, I hope not. It’s all speculative and slightly ridiculous. It’s highly unlikely the anti-emo campaign was meant to embarrass the government: if it were, the killers would have worked much harder to get publicity from the start. (Instead, it was pretty much quiet bloodshed until the end of February.) Any militia wanting to expose the fragile security situation could do so far more spectacularly and with greater economy of means than by slaughtering some obscure kids. For instance: they could embark on the monstrous bombings in 20 towns and cities across the countries yesterday, terror attacks that killed dozens. (Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has apparently claimed responsibility.)   But the way these twin rumors, precise inverses of one another, appeal to credulous people inside and outside Iraq indicates both the matching fears that fester on either side of the Sunni-Shi’ite divide — and the tenuous state of truth in an uncertain country where hard facts are hard to attain.

 2.  Voices of opposition to murder

Grand Ayatollah al-Najafi

In Najaf on March 12, Ayatollah Bashir Najafi (one of the highest Shi’ite leaders) joined Moqtada al-Sadr and Ayatollah Sistani in condemning the killings. In a fatwa issued by a spokesman, he said that the “proper position” toward the young is “advice and guidance, and religious institutions and the ministries of education and culture carry full responsibility in this regard…. The position toward emo is not to murder them, but to support our youth through reformation and direction.”  There is “no permission for this spilling of blood.”

The controversy over emos continued in Iraqi media all week — though driven from the headlines today, to be sure, by the bloodbath of bombings yesterday.  And the public, political indignation over the pattern of killings has been the only hopeful thing about the whole horror.

MP Khalid Shwani spoke in Parliament, claiming that 53 emos had been killed across the country, including 13 in Baghdad, and repeated demands for an investigation. A spokesperson for the Iraqi List — a party mainly representing secular Shi’ites — accused “unnamed actors of sponsoring campaigns to  to intimidate young people. She declared that “the children of Iraq are not demons or taking directions or instructions from Israel or other countries,” and demanded that “we respect and value the youth population”:

We should look at the big dreams they hold in their heads, the  aspirations and faith and courage in their hearts, and give care and support for their future.

Youth identifying as emo smoke a pipe in the southern city of Najaf: AP

In the press, one commentator drew on Wikipedia to answer the question “What is the difference between emo and Satanists?” — finding that there was one, at least.  Even in addressing less sensational concerns, though, a certain sociological disdain continued to media approaches to the issue. As in most moral panics — such as 1950s fears in the US about comic books, or 1960s paranoias about mods and rockers in the UK — a consensus persists among liberal thinkers in Iraq that the kids in question are a Problem, and even if violence is not the answer, some kind of professional intervention is. Some emos were given space to speak in the media: but their words were filtered through a heavy layer of Concern.  One emo girl “denied that the emo phenomenon was linked to worshipping Satan,” but “members of the group confirmed a tendency to commit suicide as a result of chronic depression, which eventually leads to psychological disorders and perhaps to an inclination to abuse drugs.”

There are three voices I want to echo, though. Writing with both sympathy and sophistication, Nazmi Kamal Fares, an academic and researcher, tried in Al Rafidayn to place the “emo stigma” in a larger context — that of the “chronic Iraqi fear of freedom.”

The emo crisis today alerts us again to the need for sustained determination to raise the issue of civil liberties in Iraq, specifically the question of the relationship of the majority to the minority …  Once again, there has been made clear the inability of the majority to structurally absorb the freedom of the minority, and the failure to establish a humanitarian perspective toward the difference of others.

And in the columns of Al-Seyassah in neighboring Kuwait, an Iraqi writer issued a j’accuse: “You are killing the nation, not emos.”

Finally, with all this going on around him, a seventeen-year old emo boy opened a page on Facebook.  The defiant darkness of what he wrote on it in English has its own kind of stylized courage:

♥ Put On Your Armour ♥
♥ Ragged After Fights ♥
♥ Hold Up Yours Sword ♥
♥ Your Leaving The Light ♥
♥ Make Your Self Ready ♥
♥ For The Lords Of The Dark ♥
♥ They’ll Watch Yor Way ♥
♥ So Be Cautious,Quit And Hark ♥
♥.♥ A Thousand Years Gone By ♥.♥
♥.♥ Too Late To Wonder Why ♥.♥
♥.♥ I’m Here Alone ♥.♥
♥.♥ If In My Darkest Hour ♥.♥

 

He headed it:

 ►►►┼ BE CAREFULL YOU ENTER MY ZONE OF DEATH ┼◄◄◄