Guest Blogger

ISIS Kills Gays: A History of Violence, Part II

Filed By Guest Blogger | February 08, 2015 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Living
Tags: erasure, executions, executions of gay people, Iraq, Iraq war, ISIS, Islam, Islamic law, Islamic State, killing gays, oversimplification, Syria

Editor's Note: Guest blogger Scott Long has advocated for LGBT people's human rights for over 25 years, in countries including Romania, Russia, Egypt, Iraq, and Zimbabwe. From 2003-2010 he served as founding director of the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. He blogs at paper-bird.net.

This is part two of two. Read part one here.


Violence based on sexuality has been a minor theme drumming through U.S. and British reportage on Iraq ever since the 2003 invasion. (It's tended to drown out violence based on gender, though the two are certainly related.) But how seriously it's taken has depended, at every point, on the politics of the invading powers.

grand-ayatollah-sistani.jpgACT ONE: Sporadic reports of LGBT people targeted for violence started emerging not long after the invasion. Ali Hili, an Iraqi exile in London, was a key source. Hili had a wide network inside Iraq; he was also corrupt and unreliable -- he placed full blame for the killings on Grand Ayatollah al-Sayyid 'Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of many Iraqi Shi'ites -- and on the Badr Brigade, a militia affiliated with Sistani.

Peter Tatchell and reporter Doug Ireland both promoted Hili's checkered career and adopted his version. The "campaign of terror is sanctioned, some say orchestrated, by Iraq's leading Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (right)," Tatchell wrote. "The Badr Corps," Ireland intoned, "is committed to the 'sexual cleansing' of Iraq."

There was little truth to these particular charges. When I researched inside Iraq for Human Rights Watch in 2009, I found no evidence that the Badr Brigade had been responsible for extensive attacks on LGBT people; other Shi'ite militias had taken the lead. (Sistani's website, probably largely written by junior clerics, had once carried a fatwa calling for the death penalty for "sodomy," but when it attracted attention he quickly took it down.)

Politics, tinged with old grudges, propelled the claims. Hili was a former Ba'athist who shared the party's loathing of Sistani. Moreover, the Badr Brigade was also a longtime enemy to the cultlike Iranian Mujahedin e-Khalq guerrillas stationed in Iraq -- and the Mujahedin had fed false but headline-grabbing stories to both Tatchell and Ireland in the past.

But Sistani was also the one Shi'ite cleric whom the US saw as potentially a force for "stability." True or not, narratives that blamed him for the killings were unlikely to get much traction with a Western media that still took the coalition military forces as their main sources for Iraq events. Stories of "gay murders" stayed confined to the ghettos of the gay press.

ACT TWO: In early 2009, killings of LGBT people accelerated massively. What had once looked unsystematic became an organized campaign. I went to Iraq; it was obvious there that the forces of popular Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (left) bore main responsibility.

moqtada-al-sadr.jpgSadr City, the great Baghdad slum dominated by Moqtada's movement, was the fulcrum of the violence; preachers there openly incited murder, and survivors blamed his Mahdi Army (Jaish al-Mahdi) for most of the carnage. Al-Sadr's militia had gone underground at the beginning of the US-led counterinsurgency "surge" in 2007, and Moqtada himself fled to Iran.

The killings seemed to be an bid to reassert his relevance and moral indispensability. One "executioner" claimed he was tackling "a serious illness in the community that has been spreading rapidly among the youth after it was brought in from the outside by American soldiers. These are not the habits of Iraq or our community and we must eliminate them."

Moqtada was also the right criminal at the right time for an American audience. The US saw him as a prime enemy, driving Shi'ite resistance to the occupation. Blaming him was not just accurate but easy, and his sinister dominance made sure the killing campaign got ample US and UK press.

What helped stop the murders, by contrast, was the growing indignation of ordinary Iraqis. One Baghdad journalist wrote in Sawt al-Iraq that

In addition to death threats against any man who grows his hair a couple of centimeters longer than the Sadri standards that are measured exactly and applied harshly, there are threats against those wearing athletic shorts or tight pants ... The slogan is to kill and kill, then kill again for the most trivial and simplest things.

ACT THREE: The "emo" killings in 2012 also swirled around Shi'ite-dominated eastern Baghdad, and the Mahdi Army was widely held responsible, along with a breakaway Shi'ite militia, Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) -- though Moqtada al-Sadr distanced himself from the campaign, saying emos should be dealt with only "in accordance with the law." But this time, the Ministry of Interior, which had called for "eliminating" emos, was also involved up to the hilt.

This culpability was inconvenient for the US and its allies. Moqtada had now graduated to a force for "stability" himself. Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry's repression held the country together.

Demonizing the guilty was politically difficult from the American vantage. Dozens or hundreds died in Baghdad in a few weeks -- a toll comparable to the hundreds probably killed in 2012 -- but the murders never drew the same international outrage: not just because emos were a vaguer target, but because the killers weren't our enemies.

I don't mean US or UK forces deliberately manipulated coverage of the targeted killings. (They manipulated other stories; they didn't have time for this one.) But Western reporters relied on coalition "experts" to analyze the jumbled politics of Iraq, acquiring their prejudices with their statistics. And even the gay press instinctively trusted that our side, however grave an error the invasion was, still had a righteousness that rubbed off on its allies. Politics shaped the coverage, and some of the accusations.

Talking to Ourselves

We perceive the perpetrators, like the victims, largely in relation to ourselves. When our enemies murdered gays, it was clear-cut evil. When our friends stood accused, the case was merely confused. It's a discourse about us; its ability to affect Iraq is therefore limited.

Here's one instance. IGLHRC and MADRE, the international women's rights group, released two briefing papers on violence against LGBT Iraqis last November. They were solid work, based on a small but significant number of harrowing stories.

What was striking is that both appeared only in English, with no Arabic version or even summary. Thus, while the reports included recommendations to the Iraqi authorities -- ranging from the feasible ("Amend the shelter law to allow NGOs to legally run private shelters for displaced persons") to the fantastic ("Hold militias accountable") -- those had absolutely no chance of affecting Iraq's government, press, or public. (By contrast, Human Rights Watch's 2009 report on death squads was released in Arabic, and headlined in Iraqi media.)

The only audience the reports aimed at was an English-speaking one; and, of course, the US and UK no longer govern Iraq. Since the reports were meant for Americans but there was little for Americans to do, the advocacy seemed to acquire a slightly surreal quality. For example, the organizations told their followers ("Take action!") to call on LGBT members of the US Congress to "stand with LGBT Iraqis." This was less strategy than metaphor: a way of making Americans feel they were having impact when they were having none.

I don't wish to slight the groups' excellent research, but the missed opportunity was painful. It's pointless to imagine changing what Da'ish does, but there is a real opening to use Iraqis' revulsion against its brutal murders -- as well as violence targeting gender and sexuality elsewhere in the country -- to affect public opinion and even a few policies in the rest of Iraq. As it was, from an Iraqi perspective, the reports were the former occupiers talking to themselves.

Da'ish, of course, has now seized a place in the West's imagination as the ultimate enemy, the perfect storm. All evils meet there. (The Daily Mail warns that ISIS terrorists will "turn themselves into Ebola suicide 'bombs.'") Most of the earlier (probably more widespread) violence targeting sexuality in Iraq could be traced to Shi'ite militias or the U.S.-supported state, but that's forgotten.

The Sunni soldiers of Da'ish define homophobia. What Da'ish does is indefensible. Except when somebody else does it.

What About Syria & Saudi Arabia?

How different is Da'ish? It's worth asking. This little graphic from the opposition Syrian Network for Human Rights probably undercounts Da'ish's murder toll, but its point is valid:

daish-murder-toll-graphic.jpg

It charts the deep anger Syrian revolutionaries feel: how did a few viral photos of Islamist killings overwhelm the vaster, but mostly invisible, atrocities of a secular government the U.S. has learned to live with? Then there's that other Islamic state: the one due south.

islamic-state-vs-saudi-arabia.jpg

Middle East Eye published the above graphic after Da'ish released its own code of "Islamic punishments" last December. So how exactly is Saudi Arabia better, except we call it a nation and not a "terrorist organization"? (A language, they say, is a dialect with an army. What is a state but a militia with oil reserves?)

Recently, we learned the UK ministry of justice has set up a commercial arm with the Orwellian name of Just Solutions International, and is selling its expertise to Saudi prisons. Will David Cameron offer the shari'a courts of Da'ish a helping hand?

We also recently learned that the U.S. defense department has launched "a research and essay competition" in honor of the late King Abdullah -- "a fitting tribute to the life and leadership of the Saudi Arabian monarch," to his "character and courage." Will Obama also offer prizes for the best ISIS propaganda?

Of course, Abdullah was a liberal and a progressive, the paid pundits say. Granted, he may have been the best of his venal, bloodstained clan; that's like picking the most intellectual of the Kardashians. But give Da'ish a few years to sell oil to ExxonMobil. Then they'll be "reformers."

The real distinction between the two Islamic states' degrees of violence isn't severity but publicity. Da'ish, says Middle East Eye, "actively sought exposure for their brutal punishments, [while] Saudi Arabia has worked to keep evidence of their actions within the conservative kingdom."

Why is Da'ish so proud of its sadistic excesses? Why does it broadcast them? Because they mean success. Here again, the history of Iraq both before and after the U.S. invasion is a shaping fact. For at least thirty-five years, unrestrained violence has been the mark of power. Power -- under Saddam, under the occupation, and under the sects and militias that fought to seize his mantle -- meant inflicting violence without shame, fear, or limit. (In a different way this was also true of Assad's placid Syria, where despite the surface calm the dictator could kill twenty thousand Islamists with complete impunity.)

When Da'ish posts its snuff films on YouTube and its death porn on Twitter, they are saying: We have the power at last, we can do this without restraint, and we will have more power and kill more.

long-isis-gays-shia.jpg

Photo of a mass killing of Shi'a captives after the fall of Mosul, posted on ISIS Twitter accounts, June 2014.

Da'ish's flaunted success also declares the failure of two projects that dominated the Middle East for decades. It proclaims the bankruptcy of the dictators' project of state secularism: regimes like Assad's or Saddam's that repressed popular politics and popular religion to sustain a military elite's privileges with all the violence at their command.

And it puts paid to the U.S. project of state-imposed capitalism: neoliberal immiseration of the masses -- the kind Mubarak planned for Egypt or the coalition imported to Iraq -- that could only be enforced by governments armed with maximum ruthlessness. Da'ish inherits their means while defying their ends. It bends their violence to its own agenda. The repressed have returned, with a vengeance.

The Egyptian leftist friend I mentioned at the oustet comes from a working-class family that supported the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of them stood at Rabaa during the protests after Morsi's overthrow; some could have been killed. Now, he says, he's frightened by how many of his relatives say Da'ish is the solution.

They aren't running off to join ISIS's fighters (though the Da'ish franchise is increasingly an attractive banner for the insurgency in Sinai). But they no longer believe in a democratic outcome. They no longer grasp how a group like the Brotherhood could survive, let alone succeed, through the normal means of politics.

Sisi is trying to follow in Assad's and Mubarak's footsteps with a program whose legitimacy is the weaponry it can command. They see Da'ish as the only alternative. The known world is disappearing. There's emptiness underfoot. Violence is the future.

Originally posted at paper-bird.net.

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