Life Only Gets Worse for LGBT Iraqis

by Seth Michael Donsky

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday June 2, 2009

Two young gay men were found dead recently in Baghdad's Sadr City slum, wearing diapers and women's lingerie--at least according to reports. The bodies of four other men, beaten to death, were discovered by Iraqi police, each bearing signs reading "pervert" in Arabic on their chests. Additionally several coffee shops in Sadr, that were popular with gay Iraqis have been set on fire recently.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs believes as many as 30 people have been killed in Iraq in the last three months because they were gay or perceived to be gay. In an open letter posted on its website, the human rights group Amnesty International has called upon Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take "urgent and concerted action" to end the violence against the Iraqi gay community.

John T. Fleming, who heads public affairs for the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, takes pains to point out that homosexuality is not a crime in Iraq. "Homosexuality," he pointed out in a recent e-mail to EDGE, "is outlawed by more than 85 countries and is punishable by death in several Islamic states... but Iraq is not one of them."

The fact that homosexuality is not a crime punishable by death "would be an interesting fact if the law, or the rule of law, mattered in Iraq," counters Scott Long, director of Human Rights Watch's LGBT Rights Program. "As it stands, there is no law against being Sunni, but it doesn't stop Sunnis from being killed. In fact, the violence against gays is widespread."

Long recently returned from a fact-finding mission on the ground in Iraq, where he found reports of targeted violence that dovetail with those coming out of Iraq for several years. "It's been almost impossible, though, for us, or any other human rights organizations to verify them fully by making contact with eyewitnesses, victims, or others who could testify to them directly," he ruefully adds. "This time, we were able to find people who had accounts of violence they had experienced and it seemed incumbent on us to go to Iraq to speak to as many of them as possible and see how we could help."

As a consequence of the horrific reports coming out of the country, Human Rights Watch has been organizing ways for as many LGBT Iraqis as possible to get out of the country. If the evacuation sounds like attempts to get Jews out of Germany in the late 1930s--well, the situation may be not quite as dire, but certainly compares in the eyes of some observers.

Long describes the situation on the ground for LGBT Iraqis as a "crackdown" targeting both men who have sex with men and men who are merely seen as "effeminate." The latest series of incidents began in late February-into-early March.

He says that it appears to be primarily driven by the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr, known as Sadrists. Now, other militias have been joining in.

'It's always easy to score points by assaults on a group nobody likes.'

Long spoke face to face with over 25 survivors of violence from Baghdad and other cities, including Najaf, Basra and Samarra. Those survivors testified to brutal killings - sometimes of their friends and boyfriends, to abductions, to gang rapes by kidnappers, and to torture by militias to get victims to name names of other homosexuals, to death threats and to murder attempts.

Longs states that the Sadrists primarily went underground when the U.S. surge began but that they are now trying to regroup and recoup their political influence. There is speculation that attacking gays is a way of their recasting themselves as moral crusaders. Some observers have compared it to what the Republican party did here in the early '90's with their defense of marriage legislation. "I

However, the Sadrists, like most militias, are loosely defined groups and definite accountability for the killings is difficult to trace. "What is clear," says Long, "is that this is an organized and extensive murder campaign and must involve some degree of high-level direction."

Long reports that people from the Sunni areas of Baghdad, or Sunni cities such as Samarra or Diyala, also spoke of the involvement of groups such as Al-Qaeda militias to see who can kill the most homosexuals, to see who can be the "most righteous," the most bathed in blood.

Long does not believe that the killings are part of a religious fatwa, as many have claimed or speculated. "Nobody in Iraq needs a fatwa to kill people they don't like," says Long. "Although there are substantiated reports that Shi'ite mosques started preaching about the dangers of homosexuality earlier this years in neighborhoods such as Medinat Sadr and Karrada," strong Sadrist centers, "they do not appear to have directly called for killing. The orders to exterminate, if there were orders, came from high in the militia leadership and were political orders, not fatwas, per se."

It is true that Ayatollah Sistani carried a fatwa on his website in 2005 that restated Quranic doctrine on the death penalty for liwat, or homosexual conduct. Long believes, however, that the publicity this has received in the West has misinterpreted--somewhat--what a fatwa is.

"Sistani's website," Long says, "is effectively an advice column, with answers to random questions forwarded to him over the internet by thousands of ordinary folks. Junior imams in his service provide many of the answers. The 'fatwa' was in answer to one such question It was buried in a back section of his website and was never publicized on the site by Sadr's followers or even by the Iraqi press.

Most of the publicity it received was given to it by Western activists." Most of the Iraqis Long spoke to who know of the fatwa at all knew of it only from Western sources.

NEXT: How the Iraqi government is colluding with the death squads--and what the United States is (not) doing about it.