Middle East Insights

This piece was published at “Middle East Insights” on 20 April 2012.  To view it on that site, click here, otherwise read below.

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KILL HIM FOR HIS HAIRCUT

Ben Taub

Picture yourself exactly as you are, but — if you don’t already embody these traits — wearing skinny jeans, sporting a stylish haircut, and a fan of “emo” music.  In the west, you’re just another angsty teen who listens to dark music and strives toward an androgynous aesthetic.  But in Iraq, this dissident adherence to western fashion could lead to your skull being smashed in with a cinderblock.

In recent weeks, a series of gruesome attacks has cast a dark shadow over the Iraq’s “emos” — darker, even, than the mascara they draw on the rims of their eyelids.  Condemning the subculture as “Satanist” and “devil worshipping,” a statement published on the Ministry of Interior website granted “approval to eliminate the phenomenon as soon as possible, since it’s detrimentally affecting society and becoming a danger.”

The ominous statement was composed by the Director of the Moral Police, Colonel Mushtaq Taleb al-Mahemdawi.  He added that the Ministry of Interior had received permission from the Ministry of Education “to set a plan under my full supervision and to allow us to enter schools in the capital.”

Days later, young men and women were allegedly dragged into secluded areas of Baghdad by armed assailants in plain clothes and murdered in a meticulous, ritualistic manner.   “First they throw concrete blocks at the boy’s arms, then at his legs, then the final blow is to his head.  If he is not dead then, they start all over again,” an escaped witness testified to Al-Akhbar, a Beirut-based news organization.  The bodies were reportedly dumped in trash bins, heaped and discarded by the side of the road.

Consistent as the stoning method may have been, the events following al-Mahemdawi’s pronouncement are shrouded in uncertainty and fear.  As many as 90 “emo” deaths have been reported in major international publications, but other sources attribute the shocking figure to exaggerated hype, citing only two cases for which photos exist online.  Human Rights Watch estimates the death toll to be “several dozen,” with no indication that the attacks have ceased.

That no reliable information links any particular organization to the attacks only exacerbates the fear.  Some Iraqis attribute direct blame to the Moral Police, while others suspect extremist militias acting independently.  Hana al-Bayaty of the Brussels Tribunal, an Iraq-focused NGO, suggests a coordinated effort.  She believes the attacks “are being carried out by extremist Shia Militias,” but further asserts “there’s a complicity of the Ministry of Interior in the killings.”

Ned Parker, a journalist and expert on Iraqi politics and security, sees it as a compound issue.  Even if the Iraqi government did not directly participate in any violent eradication efforts, they have established a dangerous culture of complicity.  “Islamist politics don’t necessarily have to be extreme.  But the more fundamentalist ruling parties in Iraq, like the Sadrs, create a mood in which people who are sympathetic to them might go on a rampage.”  In this context, adds Parker, “it’s not hard to see how an armed militia proxy might go after a controversial expression of Western lifestyle.”

Shortly after the colonel’s statement appeared on the government website, targeted hit lists popped-up all over Baghdad’s Sadr City, posters listing names of suspected homosexuals and alleged “emos.”  One poster warned the youth to “stop their dirty deeds before the wrath of God strikes them through the hands of the Mujahadin.”  Panic struck.

As the story began to pick up momentum among local activists, the Ministry of Interior removed the inflammatory statements from their website, dismissing local reports of emo-killings as “fabricated” and “groundless.”  This denial prompted a press release from Human Rights Watch demanding that the government of Iraq “immediately investigate and bring to justice those responsible for a targeted campaign of violence and intimidation against Iraqi youth.”

Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, accused the government of having “contributed to an atmosphere of fear and panic fostered by acts of violence against emos.  Instead of claiming that the accounts are fabricated, Iraqi authorities need to set up a transparent and independent inquiry to address the crisis.”

The recent spate of public violence harkens back to 2009, when a similar effort to eradicate Iraq’s homosexuals took place.  Dressing “emo” has no correlation to homosexuality, but the distinction is lost on much of Iraq’s more conservative populace.  Both are interpreted as a sign of femininity, a degradation of manliness in Iraq.

In 2009, many gay Iraqis who managed to avoid honor killings by uncles or death squads were jailed and tried for the crime of engaging in homosexual acts.  In a puzzling twist, numerous cases conformed to a pattern of homosexual men being raped by prison guards and other enforcers of the anti-gay campaign.

Unlike gay-elimination efforts, the present targeting of “emos” has created serious public backlash.  The distinction between “gay” and “straight” is quite an inflexible criteria, but where to draw the line on “emos?”

Colonel al-Mahemdawi attempted to define an “emo” in his aforementioned inflammatory statement.  “They wear strange, tight clothes that have pictures on them such as skulls, and use stationary that are shaped as skulls.  They also wear rings on their noses and tongues, and do other strange activities.”

With the chief signifier of an “emo” being a particular aesthetic, many young Iraqis unaffiliated with the trend fear for their lives.  “I have long hair, but that doesn’t mean I’m an emo,” one young man told Al-Akhbar.  “Let’s not say that if I have long hair, I’m a homosexual.  I have long hair because this is my style, this is me.”

It’s important to remember, Ned Parker urges, that “most Iraqis just want to be citizens of the world and partake in the normal culture they see on the internet and T.V.  They’re hungry just to engage in what it means to be a youth.”

Picture yourself exactly as you are, says Mr. Parker, but in Iraq.  You go out in the evenings, meet your friends, maybe smoke or see a film.  “Hopefully no bomb will go off, and you’ll go and get ice cream at the end of the night.”

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