Emos in Iraq (photo: AP)

Persecuted Emos in Iraq
No Place for Emotions

Since Shiite militia began hunting down followers of the 'Emo' youth movement and according to various sources have already killed 90 of them, they have vanished from the Iraqi capital. Details from Birgit Svensson in Baghdad

You would never know by looking at him, but Tarek is an Emo. His fringe and the long strands of hair that once covered his left eye were removed by the barber three months ago. The 22-year-old now has a standard crew cut, just like all the other men in Iraq. "Long hair is for women," he says, reflecting the conventional social attitudes in the country. It is now only the small puncture marks in his nose and ears that indicate that Tarek once looked rather different.

"They will soon close up, too," the young man says. Since the Emos in Iraq became targets for the Shiite militias, and may, according to some sources, even have killed up to ninety of them, they have entirely disappeared from the streets of Baghdad. "We can still listen to our music at home and stay in contact via Facebook," says a frustrated Tarek. "But we have to make sure that no one finds out. If they do, they will kill all of us."

History repeating itself

The hunting down of members of this youth subculture began back in mid-February. Orders were apparently issued to the vice squad by the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, directing them to put a stop to this "harmful phenomenon". Emos, it was said, wore rings in their tongues and noses, and skulls on their T-shirts. They also preached "Satanism" and were gay.

Muqtada as-Sadr (photo: dapd)
Intolerance and open hatred of those who dare to be different: The radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr recently branded 'Emos' "crazy fools" and called on his supporters to "deal with the plague within the law"

​​School teachers and university lecturers were instructed to report any young people of such appearance to the authorities. Victims had had their heads smashed in with cement blocks, bricks and even hammers. Estimates on the number of victims vary between 14 and 90.

Officially no such murders have taken place. But reports on the brutal murders of young people of alternative appearance to the majority of the country's 26 million inhabitants continue to issue from human rights groups and independent media.

For years, Iraq was the scene of conflict – Sunni against Shia, insurgents against the forces of occupation. Things have quietened down since 2009, but the murders of recent months and the increasing bombings have shown that the country is still not able to provide adequate protection for its citizens. It is the minorities who again feel most vulnerable. Besides the Emos, these include Christians and Yazidis, a group once persecuted as devil worshippers by the Saddam Hussein regime. History does tend to repeat itself.

Execution of unwanted individuals

Responsibility for the Emo murders has been laid at the door of the Shia Badr militia. The directive from the Ministry of the Interior is said to have been their doing. A leaked document from the Badr organisation reveals that: "it has been decided to establish a cell in order to ensure the eradication of the so-called homosexuals and this cell will commence its tasks in the known areas".

Anti-Emo graffito (photo: Gabriel Flores Romero/Wikipedia)
Targeted by radical zealots: In Iraq, 'Emos' are regarded as homosexual due to their androgynous appearance, and are consequently stigmatised and persecuted

​​The Badr militia has strong links to the Shiite clergy as well as to the Iraqi Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution (SCIRI), an organisation founded in Iran which, after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, came to Iraq with exiled Shiite Iraqis. It is estimated to have around 10,000 members. The SCIRI's participation in both post Saddam transitional governments allowed many members of the militia to infiltrate the Iraqi police and the army.

Their death squads were significant contributors to the bloody carnage that erupted between Sunnis and Shiites in the years 2006/07. The Badr militia now works in an official capacity for the Iraqi government and is seen as an integral component of the security forces.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's silence on the Emo murders has been interpreted by critics as a concession to the radicals. The withdrawal of US troops at the end of last year left the moderate Shiite and his government in a state of permanent crisis and increasingly reliant on the support of the religious radicals to fend off any possible vote of no confidence against him in parliament.

Incitement to violence

The Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, too, whose supporters are part of al-Maliki's coalition government, is unlikely to be unduly concerned about the fate of the Emos, though he also refutes any suggestions of responsibility on his part. His Mahdi Army militia group are believed to have been responsible for the killing of dozens of gay men in Baghdad in the past.

Sadr recently referred to the Emos as "crazy fools" and called upon his followers to deal with this "plague upon society". Some of his militia men are also members of the Iraqi security forces. Even if it should turn out that Sadr and his men are not involved in the murders, their fundamentalist Islamic beliefs make them complicit. Leaflets currently in circulation warn young people against listening to rap music, and advise them to get their hair cut, "or else face the wrath of God".

It was only five years ago that Sadr's Mahdi Army issued leaflets prescribing the wearing of Islamic dress for women. Those who refused to cover their hair with a hijab, or to conceal their knees, would be punished by Allah, it was claimed. The overwhelming sense of insecurity this caused was devastating. Many women were afraid to leave their houses often remaining at home for months at a time. Today, many are choosing to defy the religious fanatics and more and more women in Baghdad are setting aside their veils. In some mixed neighbourhoods in the city, the mini skirt has even been spotted from time to time.

Lives dominated by fear

Tarek and his friends are nowhere near as fortunate. Their lives are currently dominated by fear. "Many are afraid to leave their homes," the young Iraqi says. "They spend all their time in front of their computers." The Emo Internet community offers such people the only remaining opportunity for contact with others like themselves. Emos from Karrada in the south-east of Baghdad can thus remain in electronic contact with their counterparts in Sadr City in the north east. To try to meet up would be fatal.

"All we want to do is live out our feelings and share them with others," laments Tarek. Emo youth culture which originated in the USA in the 1990s, and began as a reaction to the heavy metal movement, appealed to the young people in Baghdad as something that could help them deal with their traumatic experiences of war and terrorism. The combination of hard core music and emotion – hence the name – offers exactly the right blend for them to be able to relate to in the circumstances in which they find themselves – inwardly sensitive and vulnerable, outwardly aggressive and loud.

While it may be considered normal now for men in the West to openly discuss and express their feelings, such frankness is still frowned upon in the Arab world. Men who show such tendencies are often abused as gay and persecuted mercilessly. They are seen as abnormal, as a problem that needs to be gotten rid of. The conflation of the terms Emo and homosexual is widely accepted in the more conservative sections of the Islamic population. Protests and demonstrations against the murders have thus far been conspicuous by their absence.

Birgit Svensson

© Qantara.de 2012

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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