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
[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.
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.