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Iraqi killings of westernized and gay youth provide chilling lesson about culture wars

Almost a week after San Diego Gay & Lesbian News reported that Iraqi death squads were once again targeting gays and lesbians for brutal extermination, the venerable New York Times is picking up the story.

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) said on March 5 that they had received alarming reports that almost 40 Iraqis perceived to be gay or lesbian have been kidnapped, tortured and murdered since early February, mostly in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and Basra.

Since the IGLHRC report was issued, various media have reported on additional killings and the death toll appears to be rising significantly. The number could now be as high as 100, according to various news sources.

Among those looking further into the Iraqi killings is Scott Long, a visiting Fellow in the Human Rights Program at Harvard. His research found that the targeted youths are not only gay and lesbian but also young heterosexuals who are westernized. These youths are called Emos, derived from the English words emotional hardcore, and include those who embrace Goth, hip-hop, punk and other alternative fashions.

More disturbing, the Iraqi government is aware of these killings and is not doing anything to stop them. Not only that, the government appears to endorse the killings.

The director of Community Police of the Ministry of the Interior, according to a Google translation from Arabic to English, admits there is “official approval to eliminate [Emos] as soon as possible” because they pose a danger to society.

The director noted that the Emo phenomenon has spread among girls ages 14 to 18, and that the Emos wear “strange clothing and tights, with graphics like skulls … and put the earrings in their noses and their tongues ..."

Long, who went to Iraq to investigate the last time there was a wave of anti-gay killings, last week used his contacts there to build a deeper picture of the Emo killings. He has posted disturbing photos on his A Paper Bird blog of youth who have been viciously murdered for not conforming to Iraqi cultural standards.

He quoted one young man from Baghdad:

“Now they’re using blocks or rocks or hammers in the killing of young people and all kinds of bad people are to be killed on the pretext that we are servants of Satan or Massachin [Christians] — blood militias run free every day and kill the flower of youth, all of whom are innocent of the charges that tarnish their image. I don’t know what to say because I am afraid and scared and now I am mentally ill because of the fear, and they even control mobile devices now, and external and internal checkpoints [on the surrounding roads and city streets ] are collaborating with the militias for fear of the flight of young people from Iraq or from Baghdad. I appeal to the humanity in you …”

An eyewitness who escaped his tormentors said the executions are not swift, and the victims are being slowly tortured until they die. First, the executioners hurl cement blocks or large rocks at the victim’s legs, then their arms. After the victim has endured those "punishments," the attackers then smash the skull. If the victim isn’t dead by then, the process is cruelly repeated, according to reports.

One youth said that Iraqis use the term Emo as a slur for homosexual, and that any citizen who does not fit the "norm" can be labeled as an Emo and forced to conform or face execution.

The New York Times tracked down the identities of several victims, including the young man in the middle photo wearing sunglasses.

In one photo, a handsome young man in a white jacket, dark aviator sunglasses and coifed black hair stands as if he were a fashion model. In another, the vacant, bloody face of a man with similar features stares up at the sky. His body lies in the bed of a police truck.

Friends have identified him as Saif Raad Asmar Abboudi, a 20-year-old from one of the poorest areas of the vast Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City. An Iraqi police report obtained by Mr. Hili’s advocacy group, Iraqi LGBT, says he was beaten to death with a brick on Feb. 17.

One of Mr. Abboudi’s friends, Noor, also 20, described him as a gentle and quiet young man who “was not even very emo.” Being emo in Iraq, she said, was simply about style and self-expression. She said she and her family had fled north after Mr. Abboudi’s death. She did not know when she would feel safe enough to return.

“Is this what we get,” she asked, “because we dress in black?”

Shiites make up about 65% of Iraq's population, followed by Sunnis and Kurds. Shia Islam is now the dominant religion in Iraq, and its followers are deeply conservative not unlike America’s Religious Right.

In Iraq, Shiites were the persecuted majority under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, who was part of the Sunni minority that ruled the nation for many years. Now, the Shiites dominate government and religious life and seek to enforce their strict beliefs on those who don't conform.

Iraq’s media has also reported the Emo killings, and now comes the international press coverage that will further embarrass the government because of its apparent complicity in the murders.

Long and others point out that the Islamic culture war extends throughout the Middle East and North Africa, from Iran where a large youth population yearns for the day when the mullahs don’t dominate their lives, to Egypt and Tunisia where the young people helped to overthrow dictatorships and wish greater freedoms and opportunities.

Some observers say the furor over Emos is a sign of a larger cultural war pitting religion vs. secular, from those who dream of a society with greater freedoms to those who fear change. It’s a universal story playing out in Iraq and many other countries, including Russia and the United States, where conservative politicians are trying to turn back the clock of civil rights.

Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to (877) 727-5446, ext. 713.