Iraq, vague laws and minorities

persecution-of-gays-in-iraqThat tmatt file of GetReligion guilt is getting pretty deep, in part because of two weeks of dizzying travel — a combination of vacation, work and a funeral for a loved one.

Some of this older material raises journalistic issues that I believe are really crucial. So with that in mind, let’s flash back to a recent USA Today story that pivoted on one of the crucial questions facing American officials in the wake of our second involvement in the future of Iraq. That question: Will the harsh penalties of Sharia law return, officially or unofficially? In other words, what happens to the rule of law in Iraq if the police are unwilling to stop a riot?

This is serious. Here’s the lede, which focuses on an issue that should worry everyone, not just the cultural left:

BAGHDAD – The young man turns to the camera and pleads with his tormentors.

“I’m not a terrorist,” he tells the Iraqi police who surround him. “I want you to know I am different. But I am not a terrorist.”

To some fundamentalist Iraqi Muslims, Ahmed Sadoun Saleh was worse than a terrorist. He was gay. He wore his hair long and took female hormones to grow breasts. Amused by his appearance, Iraqi police officers stopped him in December at a checkpoint in a southern Baghdad neighborhood dominated by radical Shiite militias. They groped Saleh and ridiculed him.

The assault was captured on video and circulated on cellphones throughout Baghdad, says Ali Hili, founder of London-based Iraqi LGBT, a group dedicated to protecting Iraq’s gays and lesbians. Shortly after the video was made public, Hili says Saleh contacted him, fearing for his life, and asked for his help to flee Iraq.

“Unfortunately, it was too late,” Hili says. Saleh turned up dead two months later, he says.

In the past eight months or so, activists report that 82 gay men have been killed in Iraq.

This long and highly detailed story has two major religious themes, neither one of which is explored in depth. This is, literally, tragic. Read on.

The violence has raised questions about the Iraqi government’s ability to protect a diverse range of vulnerable minority groups that also includes Christians and Kurds, especially following the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities last month.

Mithal al-Alusi, a secular, liberal Sunni legislator, is among those who blame the killings on armed militant groups such as al-Qaeda and the Mahdi Army militia. By targeting one of the most vulnerable groups in a conservative Muslim society — people whose sexual orientation is banned by Iraqi law — the militias essentially are serving notice that they remain powerful despite the U.S. and Iraqi militaries’ efforts to curtail them, al-Alusi says.

You might ask whether homosexual “orientation” is banned or whether sexual acts by gays, lesbians and bisexuals or banned. You could also ask whether these kinds of distinctions make any difference to Islamists in Iraq.

But note that the story says this is an issue of “Iraqi law.” This is never explained. You mean that national laws passed in the wake of the U.S. occupation — supposedly secular laws — make these kinds of acts against religious and cultural minorities legal? If that’s the case, why is this an issue of activity by nonofficial militias? Do regular police enforce the same laws?

Of course, another question remains unasked. What does Islamic law actually say about homosexuality? Are we actually talking about the enforcement of religious, not state, laws? Is there a difference?

The story also says a variety of minorities are being persecuted. I understand that there is little room to explore that theme, since this story has a strong — and valid — focus on the violence against gays. But it is interesting that these issues are woven together in the context of the new Iraq.

So, secular law or religious law? Read on:

Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf … says the ministry has assigned a special bureau to investigate the killings of gays; he says he knows of six gays who had been executed as of May.

Homosexuality, Khalaf says, is against the law and “is rejected by the customs of our society.” He adds, however, that offenders should be handled by the courts, not dispatched by vigilante groups.

What kind of law are we talking about? Don’t you want to know?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Charles Collins

    Also the terminology seems off. The man may have been gay, but the article was speaking mostly about his transexualism.

    And who provided a man in the middle of Baghdad with female hormones? Did they not even tnink about what would happen?

  • Peter Atkins

    The question for Islam, striving to come to grips with Sharia law and the ‘modern’ world view, will only increase in those European countries as the population of Muslims moves beyond the 50% threshold.

  • dalea

    The gay press has covered this extensively. The situation seems to be a matter of social class among gay people. Under Sadam, there was a discreet and thriving gay communitky in Iraq. Since the war, most of the well to do gays have fled into Syria, Lebbanon or Turkey. Those that remain tend to be poorer and less educated. It seems to be the case around the world that poor and gay is associated with effeminate, which is strange. But the impression remains that educated gay men are much butcher than uneducated.

    A refugee group in London is the source of most stories out of gay Iraq. They have recently been caught in a major lie, so their credibility is questionable. The European Union is begging to take in gay Iraqi refugees. Attacks of this sort are also reported in Holland and France, Muslim on gay violence has come to the West.

  • Dave

    The story notes that one anti-gay poster misspelled “compassionate,” an attribute of God, implying that its author was theologically illiterate. I don’t think the reporter should have accepted that conclusion without examining it. I’ve seen lots of highly literate people make spelling errors, including at GR.

  • tmatt


    Agree on point one.

    We are always willing to make corrections on point two. Like I keep saying, we are writing 1000 posts a year without a copy desk.

  • Jerry

    What does Islamic law actually say about homosexuality?

    The question is a bad one because there is no one “Islamic law”; rather there are different national laws and “fatwas” issued by Islamic scholars.

    Once again, the story is subject to the “what google search should the reporter have done” test assuming the editor did not cut that part of the story.

    From what I found with google, this is one area where all traditional religious scholars agree – homosexuality is against the tenets of Islam. The differences from what I can see are what punishment is specified and how the punishment differs between men and women. I saw one fatwa that specified that lesbians are to be punished less than gay men who are often killed.

    However, transgender individuals are a different matter, especially in Iran where sexual reassignment surgery is acceptable.

  • Jimmy Mac

    dalea: You stated “A refugee group in London is the source of most stories out of gay Iraq. They have recently been caught in a major lie, so their credibility is questionable.”

    Will you be more specific, please?

    Thank you.

  • dalea

    The story is here, claims from refugees that US soldiers had joined with the militias to kill gays:

    It was greeted with skepticism, both in the story and in the comments. And then proven to be false:

    The claims that US soldiers were involved in killing Iraqi Gays were withdrawn by the one making the claim, all of which makes the organization look bad. As well as messes up the cause. Here is a description of the Iraqi Gay Rescue group:

  • A’ishah Hils

    My understanding of homosexuality in most Muslim or Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq, is that being gay in and of itself is not a crime. Being sexually active with a same sex partner is usually a crime (although I am curious to know how the coalition government handles that…it seems from this article at least that this has not changed) – think the Catholic hate the sin approach, only institutionalized – with varying penalties…ranging from archaic sodomy laws that are usually unenforced (such as in the US) to death.

    In other Middle Eastern countries I can at least understand the mechanisms of persecution, as they are institutionalized. In Iraq, what raises questions for me is – if the Iraqi police, as in the state police, are the ones doing the persecuting, why and on the authority of what laws? How have those laws changed since the installation of a supposedly democratic government, and what was the US’s role – and why haven’t they changed, if they remain the same? If it’s a case of street militias causing the problems, then this seems to me to be another thing on the laundry list of things to lay at their feet, and hopefully something that can be eradicated as Iraq (again, hopefully) stabilizes and they are forced out of power.

    The thing that concerns me most in this article is that it is ambiguous as to whether the Iraqi government and state police are the ones involved in the killing, and whether this is a case of informal custom enforced by street militias, or a case of actual Iraqi law, which begs the question as to what law and what kinds of penalties. And that is truly disturbing.