August 17, 2009

IV. Pretext and Context: Moral Panic, Political Opportunism

The militia killings beginning in early 2009 invoke morality as a cause. In fact, though, they have sunk a taproot into a deeper stream of social anxieties about "traditional" values and cultural change. These fears, springing up in the daily press as well as in Friday sermons, center around gender-particularly the idea that men are becoming less "manly," failing tests of customary masculinity.

Stanley Cohen, a British sociologist, wrote almost forty years ago that "Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic," irrational surges of fear when "A condition, episode, person or groups of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests." In such moments, deep uncertainties about rapid change gather to a head, with a strength that sidelines the usual processes-political or civic or personal-through which those communities can debate or settle their stresses. People look for scapegoats: not just to explain, but to incarnate the unsettling transmutations around them, shifts that they cannot fully articulate but are determined to stop. [70]

Cohen calls moral panics "condensed political struggles to control the means of cultural reproduction."[71] In simpler terms: they are battles to define who belongs in a community and who does not. The confrontations are waged with the weapons of opinion, in newspaper columns and places of worship-and sometimes with the tools of lynching, the noose and the gun. The murders in Iraq point to such a complex of fears.

In May 2009, while the killing campaign was at its height, the Iraqi magazine Al-Esbuyia acknowledged that "kidnappers" were targeting mithliyeen or homosexuals. However, the journal blamed not the murderers but the "puppies," men who do not act like men.  

A wave of feminization is sweeping Baghdad neighborhoods, turning young men into women or approximations of women through imitating the opposite sex. They are homosexuals [mithliyeen] or jarawi (the local term for faggots [mukhanatheen]), and they suffer at the hands of squads that hunt them down and kill them. In most cases, the police stand by and do nothing ...
In Sadr City, we looked for puppies without success. One of [Sadr City]'s residents, Ali Hassan ... claims that this month has been witness to events that changed many things, the first of which was young men giving up the fashion of wearing tight clothes, growing their hair and removing it from their faces. Everyone says that there are special squads or groups that kill anyone who uses face whitening creams, and pharmacies have emptied their stocks of female hormones that were plentiful in the past period. Ali insists that he has not seen any acts of violence, but there are very strong rumors of the existence of groups that keep tabs on men who use female hormones, use face whitening creams, or wear their hair long, so that they may kidnap them from their homes late at night. ...
Yaser Hameed, a coffee shop owner in Bab al-Mo'them, kicks out anyone he suspects of being of "those types." He also forbids his sons from buying strange clothes that have proliferated in the market, such as tight shirts and tight, low-waisted pants. He sees these things as indicative of moral decline.
Baha' Ja'afar, a social science professor at the University of Baghdad, says: "This phenomenon of behavioral social change is of two types: the first is deliberate and political, and the second is arbitrary, caused by the hybridization of cultures and the loss of their moral ideals in favor of politics, personal interest, and power. One of the negative consequences of the intertwining of religion into the quagmires of politics and power struggles and armed conflict is that a lot of social groups turn to these types of behaviors after being let down and feeling disillusioned and disappointed." The professor has noticed a change in students from roughness to an exaggerated softness to the extent that he sometimes has difficulty telling his male students from his female ones. Unless these behaviors are stopped, he expects them to become entrenched in society. The problem is that there are no laws prohibiting these deviant phenomena, and there is no legal text specifically prohibiting men from imitating women or vice versa, particularly in terms of outward appearance.[72] 

Similarly, Al-Sabah newspaper warned in May about "The Feminization of Young Men: Diagnosis and Treatment," claiming that effeminacy "has become evident in cities where sexual perverts [shazooz] engage in it":

Moral responsibility rests upon scientists, teachers, scholars, intellectuals, and parents in collaboration with secondary school authorities, social workers, counselors, psychologists, and mentors. ... Globalization in fashion and subtitled sitcoms and soap operas have a strong influence on young people, who try to emulate what they see in terms of dress, actions, and fashion.
However, the religious outlook and moral values traditional to Arab society must reach across generations. .... These ideals go against the feminization of boys and the practice of [men] applying makeup, which have spread among many Iraqi youth, eliciting disgust. They result in an unhealthy society lacking prosperity in terms of its culture, economy, and scientific knowledge, leading to lower levels of education and intellect.[73]

A sudden spike within a month in the prevalence of men wearing hair below the shoulders is unlikely. Many of the men we spoke with told us, however, that the ebb of violence in the last two years had, over time, allowed gay-identified men greater visibility as well as safety.   One said:

Since 2006, gays started becoming a bit more relaxed; it was still very underground and super secret, but you could meet through the Internet, and you had some cafes; you had some semblance of a gay life. Of course if anyone found out about you, you were in big trouble, with stigma for life; but you could meet without being killed. Then last month, things got bad.[74]

A military officer told us that "I have heard other officers talking about what is behind this specific campaign. About a year ago, when the violence was a bit subdued and security was more or less under control, gay men, especially effeminate ones, started going out to cafes in groups and being obviously gay. I heard there was a lot of anger over it, and this is one of the things that sparked the recent campaign."[75]

Technology helped spread the panic over "effeminate" men. Videos of one particular incident may have been especially virulent in their effects. "In the summer of 2008," Nuri says, "there was a big gay party in Palestine Street in Baghdad. There was a lot of dancing, and drag as well: it was very obviously a gay party.  And people started filming the party on their mobile phones. And it spread by Bluetooth and onto CDs that were sold in various places around Baghdad: especially Sadr City."[76] Human Rights Watch obtained two such videos, showing men dancing together at the party. A journalist told us that since early 2009, "gay pictures or videos have been cropping up very quickly. People would take pictures of 'she-males' on mobile phones and they would go from phone to phone like crazy."[77]

Friday sermons at Shi'ite mosques, particularly those associated with al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, began condemning an intractable "effeminacy" among men in early 2009. Haytham says, "I've personally heard sermons preached, starting about a month ago, in the mosque in Baghdad al-Jadida, which is heavily influenced by al-Sadr. They say, 'This is bad and sinful'; they don't say kill them specifically, but they say, 'We need to end this phenomenon.' Almost every week they include something on this in their sermons now."[78]

In the Baghdad neighborhood of Nahrwan, Talal told us, "it's been a constant subject of debate. Religious people and militias hold meetings there and talk about this issue, the need to control sodomy and the people of Lot." In one local school in early April, he says, "The Mahdi Army people came in, and talked to the teachers and the administrators, and then held a meeting for the whole school saying, 'We need to control this phenomenon.' A friend of mine who is a teacher there told me about it. The local municipality itself organized this meeting!"[79]

The panic and the killing focus as much on how one looks and dresses-whether or not men seem "masculine" enough-as on imputations about what ones does in bed. Moreover, in a country plunged into poverty over the last twenty years, resentments around class intertwine with rigid requirements about gender. Many people stressed to us that decadence-not just femininity but an aura of possessions or privilege-is one of the stereotypes about the "third sex." 

The lethal myths about what alien habits look like have forced close self-scrutiny on many people in recent months. "Why do they target me?" Hussein asked himself.  He had spent his last few dinars on a box of cigarettes; he was still conscious that, to some fellow Iraqis, he looked rich enough to kill. "A lot of it also has to do with my appearance-looking neat, dressing carefully. If the Mahdi Army saw I had a gold earring or long hair, they would slaughter me. Look at me: I've cut my hair short. Yet if I walked out in Baghdad even now, for an hour, I would be killed."

What makes people think you are gay? If I make my hair spiky or gel it-many people say that's it. If I wear a tight T-shirt or a tank top. If I wear a single bit of jewelry or gold. ... It's class hatred in certain ways. The men they target wear nice clothes, express themselves nicely. It's resentment against those they see as privileged.  ... For example, if you are wearing cologne, the first thing you get asked is, "Where did you get the money to buy this?" If I say-and it's true-I don't eat for three days so that I can buy the cologne, or afford this T-shirt, it only makes them angrier. 
Gay people are an easy target. They have no social support, and they are obvious to pick out. Those people can pour their class resentment into targeting these men. They become a focus.[80]

Many suggested to us that the Mahdi Army see the "third sex" as not just an easy target, but a useful one. Underneath moral opprobrium, political opportunism feeds.  

After taking a visible lead in purging Baghdad neighborhoods of Sunnis during the near-civil-war of 2004-2006, the Mahdi Army cannily declined to confront US forces openly during the troop surge that began in 2007. Its forces hid their arms and blended back into their neighborhoods. For practical purposes, the formerly omnipresent militia disappeared.  Preserving its strength through a strategic stand-down, however, came at a cost to its public image of intransigence. Rumors that Moqtada al-Sadr (whose vehement Iraqi nationalism was a family inheritance) had not only retreated from the American army but sought refuge in Iran worsened the damage.[81] A doctor we talked to speculated that the campaign started because the Mahdi Army "have no authority on the street: so they want to use this as a way to restore their credibility."[82]

Homosexuality "has spread because of the absence of the Mahdi Army, the spread of sexual films and satellite television and a lack of government surveillance," Sheikh Ibrahim al-Gharawi, a Shi'ite cleric from the militia's office in Sadr City, told a Western news service in April when asked about the killings.[83] His message was clear: the militia is back, its involuntary truancy led to burgeoning moral lapses, and its renewed services are needed to reinstitute a moral rigor the state cannot supply. Cleansing Iraq of people few would care openly to defend gives the militia a revitalized sheen of incontrovertibly urgent purpose.  "Now they are done with the Sunni and Shi'a thing," Hussein says of the al-Sadr forces. "So they have a new thing, that's the gay thing ... They have found someone new to kill."[84] 

A journalist commented, "The Mahdi Army no longer have a clear project. Getting rid of the Sunnis and the Americans is less important, so they are turning to other targets." He adds,

A lot of the Mahdi Army are not there because they are religious. I know militiamen who drink, take drugs, have sex. They are there because their hearts are dead. They can just kill people without thinking twice.
They are products of violence and they pass it along. They learned violence from poverty and from the time of Saddam, and it's all they know.[85]

For the militias, the killing campaign is arguably a political tool. For the individual killers, many of whom are likely from the ranks of the most desperate and dispossessed, it gives them unchecked authority over the intimate and vulnerable aspects of others' existence.   

"There is nothing you can hide in Iraq," Hamid, whose partner was kidnapped and killed, said. "Anything about you can become public knowledge."[86] Wahid explained that Iraq has experienced "a constant invasion of people's privacy: by militias, by political forces, by everyone-to the extent that if a man is Shi'ite and his wife is Sunni, they will force him to divorce, just to control them. There's a desire to invade and dominate every part of people's lives."[87]  

Hussein summed it up:

This is how it spreads: the killing gives people power over other people. If anybody suspects I am gay, they can get anything from me: money, sex, whatever.  And if they want something from anybody, they can say, "You are gay." 
The campaign and the fear become something you can use against anybody, for pure power.[88]

[70]Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (London: Routledge, 2002, third edition), p. 1.

[71] Ibid., p. xxxv.

[72]"The War Between the 'Puppies' and the Kidnappers," Al-Esbuyia, May 10-16, 2009.

[73]Sabah Mohsen Kazem, "The Feminization of Young Men: Diagnosis and Treatment," Al-Sabah, May 7, 2009.

[74]Human Rights Watch interview with Haytham (not his real name), Iraq, April 18, 2009.

[75]Human Rights Watch interview with Wahid (not his real name), Iraq, April 23, 2009.

[76] Human Rights Watch interview with Nuri (not his real name), Beirut, April 15, 2005.

[77]Human Rights Watch interview with Samir (not his real name), Iraq, April 24, 2009.

[78]Human Rights Watch interview with Haytham (not his real name), Iraq, April 18, 2009.  The New York Times reported in April that "clerics associated with Moktada al-Sadr … have devoted a portion of Friday prayer services to inveighing against homosexuality. 'The community should be purified from such delinquent behavior like stealing, lying and the effeminacy phenomenon among men,' Sheik Jassem al-Mutairi said during his sermon last Friday." Timothy Williams and Tareq Maher, "Iraq's Newly Open Gays Face Scorn and Murder," New York Times, April 8, 2009. Even Sunni preachers shared in the fears, and loudly; one (Christian) man told Human Rights Watch that "while passing on the street, I heard a Friday sermon in a  Sunni mosque about this soap called Noor, and the sheikh was shouting about the lead actor and saying, 'All the women want to fall in love with him but he is of the third sex; and how can this be happening?'" Human Rights Watch interview with Tariq (not his real name), Iraq, April 18, 2009.  Noor, a dubbed-in-Arabic version of the Turkish soap opera Gümüş, is wildly popular throughout much of the Middle East, with plots tackling such issues as premarital sex and abortion. The male lead, Muhannad, is in fact heterosexual, but he supports his wife's independence and career. The (long-haired) actor who plays him has become not just a sex symbol but a symbol of non-traditional sex and gender roles. Religious traditionalists in many countries vociferously condemn the show.

[79]Human Rights Watch interview with Talal (not his real name), Iraq, April 21, 2009.

[80]Human Rights Watch interview with Hussein (not his real name), Iraq, April 23, 2009.

[81] Patrick Cockburn, Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), pp. 187-198.

[82]Human Rights Watch interview with Fadi (not his real name), Iraq, April 18, 2009.

[83]Wisam Mohammed and Khalid al-Ansary, "Gays Killed in Baghdad as Clerics Urge Clampdown," Reuters, April 4, 2009,, accessed April 5, 2009.

[84]Human Rights Watch interview with Hussein (not his real name), Iraq, April 23, 2009.

[85]Human Rights Watch interview with Samir (not his real name), Iraq, April 24, 2009.

[86]Human Rights Watch interview with Hamid (not his real name), Iraq, April 24, 2009.

[87] Human Rights Watch interview with Wahid (not his real name), Iraq, April 23, 2009.

[88]Human Rights Watch interview with Hussein (not his real name), Iraq, April 23, 2009.