Tuesday, October 06, 2009

To Be Gay in Iraq . . .

. . . is to be a “defenseless target”

Yesterday I shared the homily I delivered this past Sunday at Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community. At one point in this homily I shared the story of two young eighteenth century sailors who were put to a cruel death after being found guilty of “sodomy.” I also noted that throughout history religion and the state have often colluded to persecute, torture, and kill gay people. Yet I also observed that such activity does not reflect the central biblical theme of liberation – a theme that, for Christians, is embodied most resolutely in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Humanity’s gradual awareness and acceptance of sexual orientation, I noted in my homily, has been a journey in consciousness that reflects the major, overarching biblical theme of liberation. Through this journey we have been led out of an enslavement to ignorance and bigotry and into a way of living and loving by which all are free to be the relational beings God created them to be. We have, in other words, been liberated so we can be together as loving and flourishing communities, families, and lovers.

I am, of course, very much aware that not everyone, everywhere, encourages or welcomes such liberation. We still have a long way to go in terms of acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. And religion – especially when it allows strains of fundamentalism to dominate – often remains a bastion of bigotry, intolerance, and violence.

Case in point: Iraq. The brutal regime of Saddam Hussein my be over, but in its place has risen an even more brutal one for those in Iraq who are known or perceived to be gay. Fundamentalist Islamic clerics, who under Hussein’s secular regime were kept in check, are now a powerful voice calling for homosexuality to be “eradicated.” As a result, anti-gay attacks and killings have skyrocketed. “Killing gays is halal,” permissible under Islamic law, one Iraqi man recently said. “We’ll get points in heaven for it.”

In an article in the New York Times published on the day I delivered my homily, Matt McAllester writes:

As virulent as the violence against gay people (men mostly) was [in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein], it operated at a kind of low hum for many years, overshadowed by the country’s myriad other problems. But in February of this year, something changed. There was no announcement, no fatwa, no openly declared policy by a cleric or militia leader or politician, but a wave of anti-gay hysteria hit the country. An Iraqi TV station, with disapproving commentary, showed a video of a group of perhaps two dozen young men at a private dance party, wiggling their hips like female belly dancers. Terms like the third sex and puppies, a newly coined slur, began to appear in hostile news reports. Shia and Sunni clerics started to preach in their Friday sermons about the evils of homosexuality and “the people of Lot.” Police officers stepped up their harassment of openly gay men. Families and tribes cast out their gay relatives. The bodies of gay men . . . often mutilated, began turning up on the street. There is no way to verify the number of tortured or harassed, but the best available estimates place that figure in the thousands. Hundreds of men are believed to have been killed.

Commenting on the situation in Iraq, Andrew Sullivan recently wrote:

[The] liberation [of Iraq] has unleashed Shiite death squads against gay men in that country, perpetrating horrible torture, violence and murder. [Actually, while ever any group of citizens in Iraq is being persecuted, we really can’t say that the country has been “liberated.”] . . . . A country still occupied by 130,000 US troops is cleansing its society of a beleaguered minority and the US military and government are silent and standing by. If this pogrom were taking place against any other minority, it would be front-page news. But gays are expendable . . .

I’m sure you would agree that the situation in Iraq for gay people is truly horrific. It’s a situation that was first brought to many people’s attention in August when Human Rights Watch released a 67-page report entitled “They Want Us Exterminated”: Murder, Torture, Sexual Orientation, and Gender in Iraq.

In writing about the findings of this report in an August 21 article for the Washington Blade, Joshua Lynsen noted the following.

A new report [by Human Rights Watch] says there was a “sharp spike in killings this year” of gay men and men who were believed to be gay.

“While the country remains a dangerous place for many if not most of its citizens, death squads started specifically singling out men whom they considered not ‘manly’ enough, or whom they suspected of homosexual conduct,” says the report.

“The most trivial details of appearance – the length of a man’s hair, the fit of his clothes – could determine whether he lived or died.”

And local authorities, according to the report, are doing little to stem “a killing campaign” that has left “hundreds” dead.

“Iraqi police and security forces have done little to investigate or halt the killings,” says the report. “Authorities have announced no arrests or prosecutions; it is unlikely that any have occurred.”

The Iraqi government’s Human Rights Ministry has condemned the killings of gay men, the Associated Press reported.

“We are against any violation of their rights because they are, after all, Iraqi citizens,” said Kalim Amin, a ministry spokesperson. “The government should not allow any armed group to launch random killings against people, sometimes only for mere suspicion.”

Christopher Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, also told the Council for Global Equality last month his office in Baghdad is aware of the attacks.

“The attacks perpetrated by private militias against LGBT individuals are appalling,” he wrote July 13. “We have requested that the Ministry of Interior investigate any and all allegations that Iraqi security forces were in any way involved in these attacks.”

But the report says such words have translated into few actions, noting that “armed groups still are free to persecute and kill based on prejudice and hatred” and “the state still greets their depredations with impunity.”

And here’s more from Matt McAllester’s October 4, New York Times article, “The Hunted”:

The eruption of violence in February appears to have been an unintended consequence of the country’s broader peace. In the wake of the surge in American troops and the increase in strength of the Iraqi military and police forces, Iraq’s once-powerful Sunni and Shia militias have wound down their attacks against American forces and one another. Now they appear to be repositioning themselves as agents of moral enforcement, exploiting anti-gay prejudice as a means of engendering public support. Gay Iraqis seem to believe that the Mahdi Army is the main, but not only, culprit in the purges. “They’ve started a new game to make people follow them. No more whores, no more lesbians, no more gays,” a friend of Fadi’s told me. “They’re sending a message to people: ‘We are still here, and we can do anything we want.’ ”

It doesn’t help that gay people have virtually no allies in Iraqi society. Women, ethnic minorities, detainees, people who work for the Americans – just about everyone else in the country has some sort of representation. But there are no votes to be gained or power to be accrued in any Iraqi community – Shia, Sunni, Kurds, Christians, Turkmen – by supporting gay people. Gays in Iraq today are essentially a defenseless target.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Blood-Soaked Thread
The Vatican’s Actions at the UN: “Sickening, Depraved, and Shameless
Liberated to Be Together
Coming Out in Africa and the Middle East
Homosexual Relations Decriminalized in India


Mareczku said...

This is a true horror. Why does such violence and hate exist in the world? Where is the Catholic Church here? Are they silent? Did they stand up for human rights in the UN last year when they had the chance? Or are they afraid to offend the people that hate gays? Why can't people just live in peace?

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Mareczku,

Yes, this is truly horrific. And, no, the Roman Catholic Church did not stand up for human rights at the UN last year (see here).

I signed the Human Rights Watch petition that I link to at the end of my post, and will be praying for our gay brothers and sisters in Iraq and elsewhere. It's frustrating, I know, not to be able to do much else.

Thanks for your comment. I always appreciate your sharing at The Wild Reed.



Mark Andrews said...

There are lot's of "why's" here - beginning with why American & Allied troops don't step in to protect basic human rights. But given the anniversary of Matt Shepherd's death, there is less of a difference between Iraq and America, between the Middle East and the West, than we might think.

But think about this. America and the Allies didn't invade Iraq to bring liberty, equality & fraternity there. We invaded to look for WMD and get rid of Sadaam (sic). We found no WMD and got rid of Sadaam relatively quickly. And, unfortunately, made the Iranians the happiest people in the world. I wonder why we in the West don't have the craftiness, patience and foresight the Persians do. That "why" is best answered by considering culture. We in the West nominally adhere to "liberty, equality, fraternity." Middle Eastern culture may have nominally changed in the direction of Modernity, but that nominal change is more like liking technology and its benefits. It doesn't have anything to do with a change in values, behavior and the relationship between them.

Have a look at "The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology 3rd edition by Bruce J. Malina," especially the first 3 chapters. Very enlightening in its description of 1st century CE Mediterranean society & culture.

A final "why" is about cultural inclusion and "a place at the table." There is some part of every culture that we, in the West, don't want to include and doesn't have a place at the table. One phrase for that is "cultural imperialism" - at least that's how it feels on the receiving end.

The Human Rights Campaign's complaints to the relevant Iraqi ministries operate from a "liberty, equality, fraternity" perspective. That's not how Iraqi society works. Iraqi society has more, much more, in common with a 1st century, Mediterranean, peasant mindset - a tribal mindset. In that part of the world, the "family" is not the nuclear family of the West, much less a "family of choice." "Family" is co-extensive with the entire tribe, and relationships between tribes. Honor & shame are pivotal values and have been for 6,000+ years. "Out & proud" doesn't have a place in that structure where tribal honor & shame appear to be at stake.

The biggest difference is this. In Modernity we say that each & every human life has an absolute, intrinsic value. That's what we say. In practice that is not true, not in a society that aborts its children, but that's another discussion. Actually, in Antiquity (and also in Antiquarian values carried forward to the present) human life, like all life, had relative value. I'm NOT saying that's the way it should be, not at all. I'm just describing, with sorrow, how things appear to be.

Mareczku said...

Thank you for the link, Michael. I read the article by Peter Tatchell. It makes me heartsick to think of the attitude of the Vatican. They don't want to stand up for people, even those who are murdered, for fear of offending those who discriminate. The Church talks about the sanctity of life but what about the lives of gay people. Don't our lives have value too?