As a conservative Muslim nation, Iraq is by and large opposed to Western ideals and movements deemed contrary or heretical to Islam. One Western export, the “emo” subculture – an American-born hardcore punk music movement – is considered almost synonymous with being gay in Iraq, a label that carries severe risks in the Muslim world. While the targeting of “emos” throughout the world and especially in Iraq is not new, the intensity and brazenness with which Iraqi Shiite militias are currently eliminating them is telling of a broader development – the increasing aspiration to violently enforce an autocratic and fundamentalist Shiite state in Iraq.
Over the past few weeks, a surge in brutal extra-judicial killings of Iraqi youth suspected of being affiliated with the “emo” subculture has shocked human rights groups in the country and around the world. The withdrawal of American troops in December and overall support coming from a sympathetic Shiite government in Baghdad have facilitated an upsurge in vigilante violence against the aforementioned subculture. The security vacuum left by America’s troop withdrawal, along with an increase in religious fundamentalism, have created a climate of fear for anyone involved or affiliated with the suspected group.
Since the American withdrawal, the rate of “honor” killings has increased exponentially, with media reporting that dozens and possibly some one-hundred “emo” youths having been executed in the past two months alone. Most telling however is that many executions were not taking place in some remote village, but are occurring in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
While the Iraqi government often claims that the perpetrators’ identities are unknown and that the government is powerless to stop them, many of the killings are occurring in areas considered bastions of support for the Shiite-led central government. In fact, many executions have taken place in Sadr City, a Shiite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad, which is home to the influential Iranian-backed cleric and power-broker, Muqtata al-Sadr. Al-Sadr recently referred to “emos” as “crazy and fools” and said they were a “plague on Muslim society.” This followed an Interior Ministry statement last month which referred to the youths as Satanic and ordered its Social Police to infiltrate Baghdad’s schools and root out the problem. The proximity of the statements and an increase in executions are likely not inconsequential.
Meanwhile, government and religious leaders profess intent on rooting out the problem, yet trivialize the executions or attempt to absolve themselves from blame. The evidence on the ground shows Shiite militias are openly posting notices and distributing leaflets throughout Baghdad with names of suspected gays accompanied with threats that they would be targeted if they did not abandon their current lifestyle. The mostly male victims are often pulled off the streets or classrooms, and then executed by crushing their skulls with cement blocks. Others are shot, thrown off buildings, killed in hospital beds, or tortured to death. The brutality and brazenness of these killings are likely attempts to stamp out the subculture through fear, which the government and many in the country view as a troubling and dangerous social development.
With that in mind, given Iraq’s sectarian makeup, the most direct and immediate threat to Shiite rule stems from Arab Sunnis – mainly radical Salafists and al-Qaeda – and indirectly from non-Islamic or Western movements, such as the “emo” subculture, which are perceived to have damaging influences on Iraqi society. For the country as a whole, the targeting of “emos” and other non-conformists, non-Muslims or Arabs, such as Kurds, Yazidis, Assyrians, Turkmen, and numerous Christian sects are indicative of a regional trend which has not bypassed Iraq. Like neighboring Iran and the Muslim world in general, Iraq’s predominately Shiite-Arab population is becoming more religious, more conservative, more assertive, and increasingly leaning towards facilitating a fundamentalist Shiite government. In addition, given Iran’s and their Iraqi coreligionists’ intention of maintaining and securing an Iraqi Shiite state, the government realizes it must increasingly resort to more hard-lined or authoritarian measures to ensure its own survival. Chiefly, any national platform other than a fundamentalist Shiite state is far too prone to succumb to subversive influences, which could ultimately threaten majority rule in Iraq.
Above all, ruling over vast and violently divisive countries in the Middle East often facilitates the use of brute force and autocratic governance. Moreover, Shiites are simply unwilling and emphatically against allowing the hated Sunni minority to retake power in the aftermath of Saddam’s ouster and the withdrawal of American forces. Therefore, to affirm their domination over Iraq’s other groups, Shiites are becoming increasingly determined to create an Iran-like state. As a result, the murdering and suppression of non-conformists and minorities are significant developments in projecting Iraq’s future as the next Shiite Islamic Republic in the Middle East.
Daniel Brode is an Intelligence Analyst with Max-Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm based in Israel