The Emo killings in Iraq: The police and their smoking gun

Seal of Iraq's Interior Ministry: The Eye of Barad-Dur

An ordinary scribbler or blogger — a Bruce Bawer, say — would probably react if something rabid and ferocious he wrote, calling down violence on the heads of offenders, were followed up in a few days by somebody murdering the offenders in question. He’d try to deny the connection, or even delete the offending words.   However deceitful, this mendacity at least shows a healthy sense of shame.   But one thing that police have in common, around the world, is an utter absence of a sense of shame.  Never apologize, never explain!  Never understand, either — I mean, never even grasp how somebody might deduce that you’ve done something bad.  The stupidity of the constabulary is, with death and taxes, one of life’s fixed points.

I’ve spent the evening writing to Iraqis, and looking for information on the Iraqi murder campaign that targets “Emos” — harmless, Gothy teenage punks. And right on the website of Iraq’s Ministry of Interior is a press releasedated February 13: a smoking gun.  Here it is in rough translation: 


Ministry of Interior waging a campaign to eliminate the “EMO”

The Director of Community Police of the Ministry of the Interior has been following up on the phenomenon of “EMO” or Satanists, and they have official approval to eliminate them as soon as possible, because the dimensions of this community have begun to move in another direction, and are now threatening danger.

It is noteworthy that the phenomenon of “EMO” derives from the word “emotional” in English. It is a widespread experience among adolescents, not just in Iraq, but in the majority of communities. They rely on appearance and movements as a means to express their feelings and embody their behavior and outlook on life.

Colonel Mushtaq Talib Mohammadawi said: “The EMO phenomenon was discovered by members of the Directorate in the capital, Baghdad. They have studied it, prepared reports and research, and gone to the Ministry of the Interior to obtain approval to follow up this case and determine how to eliminate them.”

He added that the Ministry of the Interior recognized the importance of this, and a priority was obtaining the approval of the Ministry of Education specifically for the preparation of an integrated plan that would let them enter all  he schools in the capital.

He continued that they had marked the spread of the phenomenon specifically in the schools of Baghdad, but that they faced great difficulty because of the lack of a women’s cadre in the district that would permit them to pursue the issue in detail, especially as the phenomenon had spread most among girls aged 14 to 18 years. Signs included the following:  they wear strange, tight clothes with skull-like decorations, and use school implements in the form of skulls, and put earrings in their noses and their tongues, along with other manifestations of the exotic.

“Eliminate.”  Who can say exactly what that was meant to mean, in a country brutalized to the root over the last forty years? Toward the end the statement morphs into an analysis of the schools: but the Emos aren’t a “phenomenon” merely to be left to the Ministry of Education; otherwise why would the cops want unimpeded entry to their corridors?

Militias have been killing kids suspected of being “Emos” for several weeks now, in Baghdad and apparently several other cities. The scope of the killings is unclear, with figures from 56 to 90 dead traded in the media in the last three days.  The best you can say of this press release is that it echoes with the cry of Henry II — you know, the English king who talked overloudly to himself about his Archbishop: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” His knights overheard him, and the priest turned up dead.  The statement, by the most generous interpretation, sends a perhaps-inadvertent message to the militias that the Ministry wants the problem eliminated, and is looking for help. By a more sinister reading, it says the Ministry is eager to get its own hands bloody as well. Given the thuggish brutality of Nouri al-Maliki’s administration, the second is hardly unlikely.

just you try

And who are the Emos? They’re kids addicted to weird music; they’re girls with earrings in strange places, or guys with their hair too long. In the midst of a moral panic galvanizing a demoralized and degraded country, these adolescents become the emblems of evil and the aliens to be extirpated.

I confess, four days ago I had no clue what Emos were. (Emus? Ewoks?) I’m too old and too tired to know how youth are living, or what they’re dying for. But they’ve become a New Thing in many Arab countries. Here, for instance, is an account of Emos in Damascus from just over a year ago:

With skinny bodies, oddly-combed hair, tight trousers and striped shirts, Syrian Emos are proving to the world they are not myth but indeed, a real phenomenon in Syrian society. …

Things changed drastically with advent of the third millennium; a communication boom accompanied by satellite TV and Internet invading Syrian society. All of a sudden, new ideas and trends began to infiltrate society, at every social level and in every age group—but mainly, the youth. … One of the novelties in Syrian culture, as a result of this social revolution, is the Syrian Emo. This community, revolved around young Syrians aged 14-17, brings people together regardless of their social background, who are all dedicated to a particular form of Western music.

Syrian Emos stand are introvert, like most of their peers, championing isolationism and alienation from society at large. The truth about them, nevertheless, has become indeed very blurred, attracting some because of the mysticism and scaring many away because all of what is said about their dabbling with suicide, sex and drugs. What best sums them up is, “Revolutionary teenagers with sensitive psyches.”

That pretty much sums up the anxieties: porous borders, infiltrated economies, technologically abetted invasions.  Oh, yes, and sensitivity: the myths of penetration always take on the mask of gender.  Good boys from the proper Ba’athist revolution, after all, don’t cry. I’m sure if Assad thought an anti-Emo campaign would discombobulate the opposition, or even be noticed amid his massacres, he’d be lining the strange-haired children up before his firing squads.

Or check this out, from a slightly censorious regional blog:

I don ‘t really know much about what is going on at the moment for western teenagers but all I know is what I have been seeing this year in the Middle East region. ….  I look around, and I see the streets are literally packed with kids that seriously lack style and etiquette. They walk in the Middle of the streets as if they don t care to be run over since they are fearless (EMO) …

One should not talk much and be extremely emotional, the pain felt by EMO is a pleasure and not actual pain as they tend to deep cut their arms and legs and do some major physical damage. As for the trend, the hair should at least cover 30% of the face/forehead, dark colors to be worn, tight jeans, scarves and jackets, all seasons!! And for the girls, make up should be dark with dark or multicolored nail polish.

The style is livelier than Colonel Mushtaq Talib Mohammedawi, but the sentiment runs parallel. The kids are bundles of contradictions: they’re in equal measure vulnerable to pain and “major physical damage,” and fearless.  The contradictions sum up a kind of collective vulnerability, a sense of society wandering at widdershins with itself, both defenseless and defiant.  Out of such mixed-up signifiers, violent hatred is born.

And now, in Iraq, they’re dying; kids are dying, and along with them other people who got sucked into the morass and maelstrom of hate.  I almost wish the police would cover their tracks; it’d help me forget. In case they come to their senses and try to, though, I screensaved their confessional statement. Here’s the original:

“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

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.