Threats and Killings Striking Fear Among Young Iraqis, Including Gays

Published: March 11, 2012

BAGHDAD — A recent spate of killings and intimidation aimed at gay Iraqis and teenagers who dress in brash Western fashions is sending waves of fear through Iraq’s secular circles while casting doubt on the government’s will to protect some of its most vulnerable citizens.

Many details of what Iraqi newspapers have called the “emo killings” are murky, but the uproar comes at an awkward moment for Iraq. The country has been preparing to showcase itself to the world as host of a high-profile meeting of Arab leaders in late March, the first major diplomatic event here since American forces withdrew in December.

But the news that young men in tight T-shirts and skinny jeans are being beaten to death with cement blocks and dumped in the streets has threatened to overshadow the new palm trees and fresh paint. The violence offers a reminder that the government has been unable to stop threats and attacks against small religious sects, ethnic groups and social pariahs like gay men.

An Interior Ministry security officer said that in the past two weeks, officials had found the bodies of six young men whose skulls had been crushed. Reuters reported the toll to be 14 or more, citing hospital and security officials, while rights groups say that more than 40 young men have been killed, but have provided no evidence for this figure.

Human rights advocates say the threats and violence are aimed at gay men and at teenagers who style themselves in a uniquely Iraqi collage of hipster, punk, emo and goth fashions. The look, shorthanded here as “emo,” has flourished on Baghdad’s streets as an emblem of greater social freedom as society has begun to bloom after years of warfare. But it has drawn scorn and outrage from some religious conservatives, and is often conflated with being gay.

Verifying the reports of the killings has proved nearly impossible. In most cases, no family members or friends have come forward, and Iraqi officials deny that there is any campaign targeting gay men or emo teenagers. They call the stories a media fabrication designed to drum up hysteria and embarrass Iraq.

But it was the Iraqi government that first labeled emo youths a public menace.

On Feb. 13, the Interior Ministry released a statement that condemned the “phenomenon of emo” as Satanic. The rebellious teenage fashions of dark clothes, skull-print T-shirts and nose rings, the statement said, are emblems of the devil.

The ministry said its Social Police would be sent to investigate “the emo” and added that its forces had also received the authority to go into all of Baghdad’s schools to find them.

“They have official approval to eliminate them as soon as possible, because the dimensions of the community began to take another course, and is now threatening danger,” the statement said.

Emo is short for “emotional hardcore” and its aesthetic sprang from the American punk music scene in the 1980s and has been remixed in Baghdad over the last few years.

Ibrahim al-Abadi, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said the statement had been misinterpreted. He said emo youths were free to dress as they pleased, and said the government would protect them.

But over the past month, threatening letters began appearing in Shiite neighborhoods across Baghdad, residents said.

One of the fliers, scanned and posted online, addresses dozens of gay men by name and nickname. It warns people identified as Japanese Haider, Allawi the Bra, Mohammed the Flower and others: Reform your behavior, stop being gay, or face deadly consequences.

“Your fate will be death if you don’t quit doing this,” one leaflet warns. “Punishment will be tougher and tougher, you gays. Don’t be like the people of Lot.”

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