Death and life in Iraq: Obama death cabs, vampires, Ministries, and murder

Choose your weapon: Iraqi anti-emo graphic

If you want to know what life and death are like in Iraq, here’s a story. When a colleague and I went there during the killing campaign in 2009, among those we met were three men, best friends, all calling themselves “gay” in English, though two had wives.  I’ll name them (as I did in HRW’s report of that year) Hamid, Majid, and Idris. Hamid could barely talk to us: he’d developed a severe speech impediment after his partner’s murder, three weeks before. Armed, black-masked raiders had taken the man from his parents’ home. The next day, his corpse was found thrown in the garbage, castrated, with his throat torn out.

The following night, they came for Hamid.

They entered my house and they saw my mother, and one of them said: “Where’s your faggot son?” There were five men. Their faces were covered. Fortunately I wasn’t there but my mother called me after they left, in tears.

He went into hiding. His two friends took care of him. Their homes had been raided too, but they’d escaped; the three moved from cheap hotel to cheap hotel, till they got our phone numbers through some still-serving grapevine.

We were trying to help the most endangered men we encountered get out of Iraq. We offered to assist the three — we almost begged — but they hesitated. They wanted to be sure they would stay together, wherever they were ultimately accepted as refugees. The two married men wanted to bring their wives.  I could promise all that with reasonable certainty; but I couldn’t promise that, if they filed refugee claims based on sexual orientation, their wives wouldn’t be told the grounds. They went back to Baghdad to consider it;  after a week or two we couldn’t reach them by phone anymore. It was one of the worst stories we heard in Iraq, made worse by the fact that we couldn’t do enough.

I’ve spent the last few days posting on 500 or so gay Iraqis’ personals ads on various websites, warning them about renewed killings, trying to get additional information. Idris was one who replied.

He told me that in 2009, about a week after Hamid finally returned to his family home, militias broke in and kidnapped him. His body appeared in the neighborhood next day, his head and penis chopped off.  And Majid? Last year in December, a group of Iraqi policemen beat him up on the street. His skull injured, he lay on the sidewalk for two hours before anyone helped him; some passersby insulted him as jeru (puppy, slang for “sodomite”). Emo was another, newer word they used. He died two days after. Idris managed to flee to a European country a month later. Now he is seeking asylum.

The terrible thing in Iraq is that violence is everywhere. It turns from side to side from time to time like a lighthouse beam, and casts its ghastly attention on a new target. The killing, though, seems a uniform impulse, almost indifferent to who is killed. It’s irrational and unintelligible as background noise.

Here are some things I’ve learned about the emo killings in Iraq:

1) The Ministry of Interior has blood on its hands. It’s the ubiquity of violence the makes the Ministry’s actions unforgivable. As I’ve noted here, in mid-February the Ministry issued a statement designed to whip up hatred and fear of “the phenomenon of ‘EMO’ or Satanists.” It wielded the loaded language of “eliminating” the problem. The Ministry then followed up, on February 29, by announcing a “campaign” against emos in Baghdad’s Kadhamiya neighborhood, after finding a shop that sold emo “clothing and accessories” there: “The phenomenon is contrary to the customs of Iraqi society and has destructive effects on the structure of communities.”  By that time, murders had already started. They merited no Ministry condemnation.

Instead, faced by public indignation and a demand by members of Parliament to investigate the killings, the Ministry came out with a third statement on March 8. It warned “radical and extremist groups attempting to represent themselves as guardians of morals and religious traditions” not to engage in “any conduct against people based on fashion, dress or hairstyle.” At the same time, it baldly claimed no violence was happening. “There have been no cases of murder,” it said; “the Ministry of Interior categorically denies all these lies.” Menacing the messenger, it threatened “necessary legal action against those who try to highlight this issue and blow it out of proportion.” The bullying wasn’t a bluff: Iraq’s police have dealt with dissent increasingly harshly. To press the point, a few days later Baghdad police arrested a Russia Today news team trying to film a story about slaughtered emos, confiscating their footage.

The moral panic about straying youth in Iraq certainly predated the Ministry’s brusque interventions. I have seen a memo from the Ministry of Education, apparently dated August 2011 (it was shared in confidence and I can’t show it here.).  “In response to the emo phenomenon insinuating into our schools,” it urged steps including:

  • Male and female students should be barred from leaving school grounds during the school day on flimsy excuses, as they have been seen congregating in nearby cafes, shops, and arcades to engage in these foul practices.
  • Female students should be barred from wearing immodest clothing and should comply with the approved uniform. …
  • The parents of students (in Emo cells) should be advised to cut off Internet service in their homes because it is a prime cause of this deviancy …
  • Deterrent legal and administrative measures should be taken against students who engage in this deviancy inside schools.

November 4, 2011: Moqtada al-Sadr on emos

It wasn’t until February, apparently, that the Education Ministry decided to invite the police into schools to further the work. But in the meantime, mosques and media helped fan the fears.  In November 2011, the Shi’ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr condemned emos. In Q & A form like most fatwas, his statement is worth quoting in detail:

Q: Sheikh Ali al-Sa’ady: It is obvious now that there is a new social phenomenon in our society known as the “the emo” which means being “rebellious and sensitive.” This emo thing was first known in North America years ago, among teenagers from both sexes calling themselves “devil’s friends.” Some of their weird thoughts are sadness, grief, depression, pessimism, silence, shyness, drawing tattoos, wearing black and dark outfits and tight pants …. They also like to take certain hallucinatory drugs. …. So, Sir, as you know, while this awful occupation is still in place, these kinds of groups are now appearing in Iraq. What would you say to religious figures and parents in order to prevent such social manifestations?

A: Moqtada al-Sadr: Regarding what you mentioned, Sir, in your question, they are a group of lunatics and are a disease in a Muslim society, so those who are responsible should get rid of them from the outset, in accordance with the law.

However, “in accordance with the law” is a key phrase. It helps explain why the Ministry of Interior’s irresponsible proclamations last month not only incited but legitimated violence against emos. Here were the law enforcers, urging “elimination”!

In fact, all the evidence suggests the Ministry’s interventions had a key impact. Al-Sadr’s website approvingly republished and expanded on the Ministry of Interior’s first February statement — explaining how emos were linked to drugs, prostitution, and homosexuality. And after its second February statement, the “head of the security committee of the Kadhimiya local council, Ali Al-Shammari,” told reporters that “detachments of national security and community police in the area informed us about suspicious movements of people who imitate the emo.” He added that the fiends “absorb blood from each others’ wrists.”  “Vampires in the Holy City of Baghdad!” Al-Sumariya News headlined it.

Moqtada Al-Sadr, at least, has distanced himself from the violence. In a new statement he reiterated that the phenomenon should be dealt with “by the relevant authorities,” not vigilantes, and “in accordance with the law.”   But the Ministry is still in denial.  You don’t talk about “elimination” in a country filled with death squads, and expect nothing to happen. The Ministry carries a heavy burden of guilt.

2) Who and how many? Nobody knows exactly who’s inflicting the violence. Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and a breakaway Shi’ite militia, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) are often mentioned; but that seems to be simply because they loosely control areas of eastern Baghdad where several deaths have been reported. Militias in Iraq, in any case, are not tightly structured military entities. They’re loose agglomerations of angry young men; people come and go, and the pattern of belonging is as diffuse and random as the prospect of death.  Men affiliated with a militia might be killing without central control; different groups, Sunni as well as Shi’a, may copycat one another. (Contrary to what some bloggers write, Sunnis may well be involved. I’ve heard reports of attacks in the Adhamiya part of Baghdad, which is decidedly Sunni.) Most major Shi’ite militia forces have infiltrated the police, and officers sometimes wear their official hats, sometimes moonlight in the murder racket.

Police have apparently actively participated in the crackdown. One story repeated to me by two sources  had officers arresting several emo girls at an intermediate school in the Karrada district; no one could say whether they had been released.  However, there have also been instances of sheer mob violence. Al-Sharqiya TV said on March 7 (in a report I’ve cited here before) that a crowd brutally beat two young women in the al-Mansour neighborhood, because they wore  “fashionable clothing.” They had to be taken to a hospital.

Nor can anyone say how many have been killed. Human Rights Watch has confirmed 6 gay-identified people murdered — “confirmed” in the sense of having the deaths reported by a source with direct knowledge. By the same standard, I know of two non-gay people killed. Anonymous sources in the police gave the Associated Press numbers:

An Interior Ministry official said 58 young people have been killed across Iraq in recent weeks by unidentified gangs who accused them of being, as he described it, Emo. Sixteen were killed in Sadr City alone, security and political officials there said. Nine of the men were killed by bludgeoning, and seven were shot. No arrests have been made.

Al-Sharqiya claimed 90 dead a week ago. Rumors in Iraq run as high as 100 or 200. Those figures are probably too high. But stigma certainly dissuades the families of dead children from reporting a killing as emo- or gay-related — so that no exact figure will ever be forthcoming.

What we have are images and stories.  Several Iraqis sent me a video this week that purported to be an emo kid strung up from a bridge: slowly twisting like an broken pendulum.  YouTube removed it as “shocking and disgusting.”  Another video offers a tribute to Saif Raad Asmar Abboudi, a 20 year-old beaten to death with concrete blocks in Sadr City on February 17:

I spoke to a heterosexual man in his twenties, from a city outside Baghdad, who had started a heavy metal band with three friends some years ago. They found themselves ostracized in town for their long hair, black clothes, and angry sound. “People everywhere started calling us Satanists.”  Last week, he heard that two of his fellow band members had been murdered on the street. He’s in hiding, unable even to speak to his family, desperately afraid. “Why are they doing this to us?”

“I am facing killing threats from armed militant groups,” a 23-year-old gay man in Baghdad wrote me. “I don’t know where to go or live.”  Several people reported getting direct death threats.

I have been threatened with death on my personal mobile if I don’t cut my hair and change the way I dress and start wearing loose-fitting clothes instead of tight clothes and jeans. If I don’t do as they say I will be imprisoned or killed. I am a beautiful lady boy … I cannot do as they say. So I ask you please to help me urgently, I want to live in dignity and freedom away from threats and terror.

Then there are the rumors. This warning appeared on an Iraqi emo webpage: “About the killing of emo and metal and rap. A  Chrysler 300C (Obama) yellow-colored (taxi) was seen driving away in the Zayouna district [a wealthy, mixed Sunni-Shi’ite neighborhood] near Tariq ibn Ziyad Junior High. They are killing young innocent people.  Please beware of them and publish this alarm … you might save a boy or girl’s life.” The Chrysler 300c is one of the most popular cars in Iraq: it’s nicknamed “Obama” because Barack once drove one.

And there are the lists. The fliers spring up like fungus on the walls in mainly poor Shi’ite districts like Sadr City — though some have shown up in tony Zayouna too. They’re never signed. The same thing happened in the killings of gays in 2009: the threats are anonymous, the threatened named. “To every licentious man or woman, we are warning you: in case you don’t stop these filthy actions within four days God’s punishment will come upon your heads by the hands of those who fight for His own name. Remember that we warned you.” Here are some pictures sent me from Baghdad (the photos spread fear more widely than the posters themselves), all with more or less the same message, and slews of nicknames (Allawi the Brassiere, Mohammed the Rose):

3) What is to be done? Let’s be honest: nobody really knows. Given the degree that Iraqis see “deviance” among the young as a Western disease, spawned by military occupation and cultural invasion, I doubt that asking Western leaders to speak out against the persecution will get you anywhere. If demanding it makes you feel better, then by all means feel better. But don’t imagine your signature means the situation is on the way to being solved.

The one hopeful sign is that prominent Iraqis — religious leaders and politicians — have spoken out against the killings. Both Moqtada al-Sadr and the revered Ayatollah al-Sistani have condemned vigilantism. And Sawt al-Iraq reports that even a government spokesman sounded considerably more liberal than the Interior Ministry’s hard-line written posture, when confronted on the issue at Tigris University:

Ali al-Dabbagh said during a conference …  “there is no prosecution for belonging to the phenomenon of EMO in the country,” saying it was “personal freedom”; stressing the state’s duty to protect them as citizens exercising their freedom, he said, “The security agencies are obliged to protect freedoms.”

Good for him. Few dared be so outspoken back in 2009, when gay and “effeminate” men were being killed. The atmosphere then throughout Iraq was more inflamed, the militias more powerful, the state weaker; but the moral opprobrium upon the victims was also even stronger. Now the fact that children are dying gives parents, parliamentarians, and others both cause and courage to speak up.

For that reason, as I’ve said before, an exclusive emphasis on the gay side of the present killing campaign is unlikely to help anybody in Iraq much: not gay men, who will find the murderers’ attention to them only increasing as the skewed perspective filters through the media, and not emos, who will find stigma only intensified. The one thing that will curb the campaign is to strengthen and amplify the Iraqi voices who are already speaking out. Quiet support for their courage, by governments and by international civil society, is crucial.

If you want to offer help to emo or gay Iraqis, well, go online and do so; it’s what I’ve been trying to do myself, in my lone capacity. Visit them on manjam.com, or on the emo pages on Facebook, and try to communicate. I’m impressed, too, by how vampire, goth, and emo communities in the US and elsewhere have been collecting and spreading information on what has been going on: amazing solidarity work. There’s something else that can be done, though — pressure North American and European governments to offer accelerated acceptance to victims of the moral panic when they apply as refugees.

The US has a special category, called “P-2” (Priority 2) for refugees “in particular need of resettlement.” The category offers accelerated approval to applicants, as opposed to the cumbersome procedures the US (like other governments) usually imposes.  Only a few groups qualify for it, mostly determined by highly political critieria: they include Cubans, Iranian religious minorities, and Vietnamese.

In Iraq, the US now extends P-2 status only to applicants who can prove they have worked with the US occupation forces. This is a sensible admission that we have a moral obligation to people who sacrificed for what we billed as a liberatory project — but which put their lives in desperate danger.

For people facing a sudden, swift-moving moral panic, though, accelerated refugee acceptance may be the only way to save their lives. They need to get out of the country fast, because the threat is imminent; they can’t wait on bureaucracy. By a quirk, the 2007 US law on Iraqi refugees (one of Senator Ted Kennedy’s last generous works) gives the Secretary of State the exclusive power to designate new categories of Iraqis as eligible for P-2 (whereas with other nationalities, Congress must approve the move).

If you want to assist emo Iraqis and others who face persecution and panic because of their nonconformity, sexuality, or gender, you can urge Secretary Clinton to extend P-2 status to them — or find another solution to get them quick refugee relief.  Great Britain joined the US-led invasion; it has the same obligation to the invasion’s victims. And other European countries that pride themselves on liberal domestic policies on sexual orientation and gender should move just as fast.

One gay Iraqi wrote me, about the killing:

thanks for that but If you want the truth your People Brought that with them … so please don’t come talk about human rights because you do not know anything about it, sorry for that but is the truth

It’s not as though there wasn’t ample violence wrought on Iraqis under Saddam Hussein. But the state held the monopoly on it; you at least knew who had the guns. The US unleashed the pent-up anger of a population trained in the ways of violence by its constant infliction. In that sense, Americans and their allies brought the killing with them. No one can undo that, and we can’t pose as saviors a second time to clean up the mess of death we made; but the onus is on the guilty governments to do what they can for the victims.

 

CORRECTION: Human Rights Watch got the figure of six deaths (cited above) from news bureau contacts, not from family or friends of the deceased, so it’s not precisely fair to say they’ve been “confirmed” as killings due to the campaign. Wildly different figures float around depending on whom you read or talk to. I should think it’s best not to take any of them as fully informed or valid, but to concentrate on combating the atmosphere of violent paranoia about “deviance” that the Ministry has helped create.