Scott Long writes: Hassan – it’s not his real name – had a heavy metal band with two other twentysomethings. The raucous music represented rebellion, and in Iraq there was plenty to rebel against: occupation, poverty, patriarchal families – ample impetus to anger. The band made an album, but nobody would touch it; their songs and their look, people said, were satanic. Hassan uploaded a video to YouTube, and included the band members’ names. Five days ago, the other two musicians were killed on the street. Hassan is in hiding; he’s almost too terrified to speak. “Why are they doing this to us?” he asked me. “Why?”
A new killing campaign is convulsing Iraq. The express targets are “emos”, short for “emotional”: a western-derived identity, teenagers adopting a pose of vulnerability, along with tight clothes and skewed hairdos and body piercing. Starting last year, mosques and the media both began raising the alarm about youthful immorality, calling the emos deviants and devil worshippers. In early February, somebody began killing people. The net was wide, definitions inexact. Men who seemed effeminate, girls with tattoos or peculiar jewellery, boys with long hair, could all be swept up. The killers like to smash their victims’ heads with concrete blocks.
There is no way to tell how many have died: estimates range from a few dozen to more than 100. Nor is it clear who is responsible. Many of the killings happened in east Baghdad, stronghold of Shia militias such as Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (the League of the Righteous). Neither, though, has claimed responsibility. Iraq’s brutal interior ministry issued two statements in February. The first announced official approval to “eliminate” the “satanists”. The second, on 29 February, proclaimed a “campaign” to start with a crackdown on stores selling emo fashion. The loaded language suggests, at a minimum, that the ministry incited violence. It’s highly possible that some police, in a force riddled with militia members, participated in the murders.
It’s logical to compare this to the militia campaign against homosexual conduct in 2009, which I documented for Human Rights Watch. Hundreds of men lost their lives then. Gay-identified men have been caught up in these killings as well, and Baghdad’s LGBT community is rife with fear. Yet there are differences. The current killings target women as well as men, and children are the preferred victims. It’s not quite true to say, as some press reports have suggested, that “emo” is just a synonym for “gay” in Iraq. Rather, immorality, western influence, decadence and blasphemy have come together in a loosely defined, poorly aligned complex of associations: and emo fashion and “sexual perversion” are part of the mix. Nobody cares much about disentangling the concepts, least of all the killers. All that matters is that all those things are bad.