“Gay killings,” emos, and Iraq: What’s going on

Emo in Iraq: From Shafaaq News

One thing about human rights work that human rights organizations don’t like you to talk about is the politics of place. Violations happen in violence, but mostly they are described, consumed, in peace. The flow of information is not just from North to South but from chaos to calm.  Sometimes the distance between where the abuses happen and where the information is absorbed may be only a few miles or blocks — from 125th Street to the Empire State Building, say. But emotionally it’s unbridgeable. How can these human rights reports, written generally in the style and diction of a brokerage analysis, capture the horror in which lives are broken into pieces? Wordsworth said that poetry was emotion recollected in tranquility. But this isn’t poetry.

For going on eight years there have been recurrent reports of killings based on sexual orientation in Iraq. My colleague Rasha Moumneh of Human Rights Watch and I are, I believe, the only foreign rights activists actually to have gone to Iraq specifically to investigate what was happening, in 2009, and we wrote the only full report about the murders so far, in English and in Arabic.  It’s a dire situation in which a panic about gender, masculinity, and foreign influence led to brutal, murderous targeting of men who didn’t fit traditional norms of manhood. And I can say: the experience of being there overflows what the report could encompass.

There’s a new wave of reports about “gay killings” in Iraq.  The stories published so far in the Western gay press are fragmentary, sometimes inaccurate, and naturally only capture a bit of what is going on. I’ve been in touch with Iraqi colleagues, mostly gay-identified, in the last few days, and here’s what I know so far.

There’s a huge panic happening in Iraq at the moment — again, around Western influence and gender roles. The announced target seems to be “emos.”  That’s a US-originated term for a goth-like punk subculture associated with raw emotion.   It has a few adherents in Iraq — a year ago the Los Angeles Times did a story about a 15-year-old emo in Najaf:

In the sacred Shiite city …  where women hide themselves behind dark robes and head scarves, 15-year-old Ban wears the wrong kind of black. She likes dark, ripped gloves, silver butterfly shirts and white dice on a chain. She paints her nails black and brushes on matching eye shadow. …

“It’s the duality of being simultaneously cheerful and bored with life,” she says. Like a 15-year-old anywhere, she fidgets, giggles at the mention of a favorite band and brags about her defiance before blushing at the thought of such brazenness. The Baghdad transplant proudly calls herself Najaf’s first emo. At her private school, she talked her friends into following her lead of veiled rebellion: copying the sneakers that peek out from her robe, a skull sketched on one shoe and an angel on the other.

Fundamentalists have been whipping up paranoia about the punk/goth acolytes, calling them Satanists and adulterers.  This isn’t an uncommon kind of panic in the region. In Egypt, as I documented, the crackdown on homosexual conduct around the famous Queen Boat case was preceded a couple of years before by the arrest of dozen of young heavy-metal fans in an affluent Cairo neighborhood. Their “devil-worshipping” practices were held up as the sins of a Westernized bourgeoisie. Similar local panics have happened in Lebanon and Turkey. The main difference is that in Iraq there are a lot of people with weapons who, in a devastated country, are prepared to kill.

Al-Sharqiya TV –Iran’s first private station — says that 90 men and women, mostly young, have been murdered in the last six weeks. “Who is killing our children?” asks Sawt al-Iraq (“Voice of Iraq”). Unquestionably men who have sex with men have ranked high among those swept up by the murders. The panic expands to assault anybody who doesn’t fit “normal” definitions of what’s masculine or feminine: people who look different, by virtue (or vice) of how they dress or how they walk.  And gays, like goths, are visible. But others, among them many kids of many identities, have been caught up in the killing too.


Al-Sharqiya TV reports on killings of 90 emos, March 7

A friend in Iraq writes:

[T]he first monitored attack takes place in Baghdad at 6 February 2012 that was to male victim in Sadr City district in Baghdad. The last monitored one was yesterday [March 7] to two female victims in Shaab district in Baghdad. At least 45 victims had been killed [in Baghdad] according to the info from families & medical st[a]ff in some hospitals. The total number of victims who killed & injured reach around to 90 persons until yesterday based upon local media reports.

He adds that the 45 were “mostly gay men in Baghdad only.” Iraqi media reports have described two methods of killing: beating people with concrete blocks, or pushing them off roofs of buildings.  The colleague I cite above says he knows someone who witnessed a murder by the first technique. He also says (via a “confidential witness”) that militia members attacked a hospital and killed five survivors of a previous attack.

He also writes:

Most of the monitored attacks happened in Baghdad and some southern provinces of Shia majority population (Mainly in Basrah). Most of attacks in Baghdad taken place in the eastern part of the city (Rusafa) especially in districts that considered as the stronghold of Islamic Shia Militias like  Jaish Al-Mahdi “JAM” (Mahdi Army) and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq “AAH” (League of the Righteous).

The Rusafa district (by the Tigris, on the site of medieval Baghdad)  neighbors Sadr City, the vast Shi’ite slum that is a stronghold for the Mahdi Army — Moqtada al-Sadr‘s militia– and a base of operations for Asa’ib Alh al-Haq. Most people we talked to in 2009 in Iraq blamed the former group for the wave of killings of gay and gender-nonconforming men that were burgeoning then.

Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is a breakaway from the Mahdi Army that has operated independently since 2004.  In January, AAH announced it would lay down its arms and enter the political process. The deal was brokered by authoritarian premier Nouri al-Maliki’s associates: Maliki apparently hopes the group will provide his government a new constituency, and new muscle. Rumors abound that both the Mahdi Army and AAH have strongly infiltrated the government’s security forces. And stories are now circulating that the security forces are either joining in, or turning a blind eye to the new killings: they provide an excellent distraction from the Maliki regime’s security failures and suppression of dissent. If the AAH is spearheading some of the present killings, it’s probably their Imam al-Hadi brigade –operating in east Baghdad — that’s mainly responsible.

Emos: From shatnews.com

Neither Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq nor the Jaish al-Mahdi have claimed any responsibility for recent violence. The same e-mail says that “both of them rais[e] the same slogan of “Cleanse the Salacious & Adulterous” according to list of names of 33 LGBTQ persons that have hanging in walls and streets in the capital.” Similar posted lists of people to be killed were reported in 2009.  Still, since I haven’t yet spoken to anyone who’s seen these ones, it’s not clear to me whether they actually single out “LGBTQ” people — or other kinds of dress-and-conduct dissidents, “emos” included.

Another e-mail notes that last night (March 7) a police spokesman on state TV denied that a wave of targeted killings is taking place.  Dawlat al-Muwatin repeated this today, saying that the police claimed these were ordinary murders unrelated to emos. On March 6, though, Shafaaq News cited a source in the Ministry of Interior acknowledging that 56 emos had been killed.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shi’ite leader in Iraq, condemned the killings on March 7 through his spokesman Abdulrahim Al-Rikaby, saying the emo phenomenon needed to be addressed through dialogue.

Whoever’s behind the killings, gay people are among those being killed. But the panic encompasses other identities, and I don’t see how Westerners who stress the gay side help any of those at risk.  To the contrary: to the extent Iraqis read these accounts (and, in the Internet age they will) it may exacerbate the risk and expand the violence. The best strategy is to call on Iraq’s authorities to disarm all militias, and stop depending on extragovernmental forces to provide their peculiar version of security. They need to acknowledge the extrajudicial killings, and condemn assaults based on privatized versions of morality rather than on state (or, for that matter, shari’a) law. They must investigate the crimes and punish those found responsible. All those actions — which amount to establishing and respecting the rule of law — are a big enough stretch in Iraq. An Iraqi colleague also asks for another fact-finding mission to determine the extent of the violence, exactly where the panic came from, and who is targeting and being targeted.  I think our own reporting on Iraq in 2009 had the effect of embarrassing the Mahdi Army, which enjoyed its own aspirations to become a respectable political player. If there’s a chance that shaming could happen again, somebody should get the fact-finding underway.

23 thoughts on ““Gay killings,” emos, and Iraq: What’s going on

  1. im from iraq ^^
    and im not an emo but !
    they are now killing the gay boys and the emo ones !! not just that and they are taking names from the identities from everyone who his haid is tall or western style !!!
    they killing them with concrete block !!

    they are not humans !! i can tell that they don’t have even a soul !

      • Hi my friend,
        Your email bounced back. Thank you for writing here. I am a human rights activist who did research
        on killings of gay people in Iraq in 2009. You can answer me by writing to scottlong1980@gmail.com. I promise I’ll keep anything you say private unless you say otherwise.

        Where are you? Are you safe? Has anyone threatened you directly?

        Do you know people who have been threatened or hurt?

        Please let me know if you can. If you’ve got any information, like
        links to news articles in Iraq, that would be really helpful too.

        Please stay safe. Best, Scott

  2. Are you saying LGBT media should not report Gay killings in Iraq because others are targets too? We know Gays are targets. Do you really believe silencing international media is going to help? How specifically does it make it worse? There is a duty to report, surely?

    • Well, I’m not sure how much we really know at all, including who’s responsible and what their motives are. Certainly no one is talking about silencing anyone; but surely t there’s a duty to report context accurately. If the panic in Iraq is first of all about emos and “deviant” kids, then just talking about “gay killings” doesn’t give the right picture. And surely killing children is not less important to us than killing gays. How can we start to respond unless we figure out where this is coming from?

  3. Hahahah Gay Emos in Iraq? What the fuck is going on ?? Hahhaah emo iraqis i can’t imagine that shit lol .. we should stick dildos up their asses and fucking set them on fire

  4. Pingback: The Emo killings in Iraq: The police and their smoking gun | a paper bird

  5. The problem is much bigger than this ….about two weeks ago, a spokesman for the Iraqi interior ministry has declared a state of hard crack down on the “Emo phenomenon”. It has been falsely associated with homosexual orientation as well as Satanism by Radical religious factions. This has government finger prints all over it. As an Iraqi, we have gotten used to these routines and methods. I have been collecting pictures of the victims (highly graphic) before and after the murder. My goal is to increase awareness. I have also tried contacting a TIME magazine author who has written an article about violence directed toward a trio of “Emo” teenagers in Mexico City in 2008. this is in the hope of getting some media support. As an Iraqi Canadian, I know it is a long shot of achieving this goal just because this is happening in Iraq and killings are happening by 100’s to civilians on daily basis since 2003 and it has become a normal thing but, the reality remains that 90 mothers have buried their children for absolutely no reason what so ever. I have lived the reality of civilian causalities in a war zone in 1991 desert storm. I have learned to live with hearing news about losing childhood friends in Iraq and relatives due to sectarian violence on daily basis. I have also coped with the murder of former Tennis teammates for wearing shorts on the street after practice to grab a refreshing drink. However, what I can not understand nor accept is the loss of 90 youthful lives who might have grown up one day to rebuild a torn up country. Was this the freedom these people were promised?! Iraq was never like this, we had those musical trends throughout history, from the grooves of the 70’s, the Breakdancers in the 80’s, hip-hop in the 90’s and Emo today. the only difference was killings and violence was never there !!

  6. I beleive those are pure murderes.. who need to be punished!
    Thank you Human rights..you are doing a great job..please investigate and shame all responsible.

  7. wondering what was meant by “monitored attacks” – does the source mean simply that he saw the attacks? Also there is a somewhat garbled story in al-Akhbar reprinted in al-Arabiyya – looks like they read yr. blog, but it claims that “morals police” of the MOI committed these murders. We are just FB readers trying to get this straight – hope HRW can find out if there really is an MOI connection. sherifazuhur@earthlink.net

  8. Pingback: Graphic pictures from Iraq’s anti-Emo killing campaign | a paper bird

  9. all of that bcoz of our soft, fake, stupid Gov the iraqi gov have no idea how to control iraq, we need some1 like Saddam to rule Iraq again, Im from South Iraq and now they start to kill Emo kids 1by1

  10. Pingback: Iraq police and officials lost in “emo” explanation | Roads to Iraq

  11. Pingback: Graphic pictures from Iraq’s anti-Emo killing campaign « Persian Fairy

    • hony there is 2 kind of muslims one is shi3a and othere one is suna.the shi3a ppl are crazy there are jork and they donot know any thing crazy shi3a :P.shi3a are killing emos in baghdad and in a veryyyyyyyy bad way if they call them self islam they are not eslam uz islam hates cilling ppl spesualy kids.just surch for shi3a in google and see how much they are crazy.

  12. Pingback: La "sacrosanta" strage degli emo in Iraq | agora-vox.bluhost.info

  13. Pingback: La “sacrosanta” strage degli emo in Iraq «

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