'Emo' killings in Iraq

A new wave of killings is reported in Baghdad, targeting youngsters of unconventional appearance. Reuters says at least 14 have been stoned to death in the past three weeks, though there are claims that the total may be much higher. Lists have also been circulated naming those who will be next.

Scott Long, formerly of Human Rights Watch, has reported the story in detail on his blog (hereherehere, and here). 

The youngsters are loosely described as "emos", though Long views the attacks as part of a more generalised moral panic over what is considered to be youth deviance – "gelled spiky hair, long hair, tight jeans, black clothes, skull pendants, a swish of the hip, effeminacy, homosexuality, or listening to rock music".

Reuters quotes a couple of leaflets circulated in Baghdad:

"We strongly warn you, to all the obscene males and females, if you will not leave this filthy work within four days the punishment of God will descend upon you at the hand of the Mujahideen."

and another listing 20 names ...

"We are the Brigades of Anger. We warn you, if you do not get back to sanity and the right path, you will be killed."

Blame for the killings has been directed at local militias and the Iraqi government seems unwilling to take action to stop them. Last week, an interior ministry spokesman talked of "fabricated news reports" and asserted that "no murder case has been recorded with the interior ministry on so-called 'emo' grounds".

However, a press release in Arabic, posted on the interior ministry's website on February 13 (around the time the latest wave of killings began) says the ministry's director of community police has been looking into "the phenomenon of emo or Satan-worshippers" and "they have official approval to eliminate them as soon as possible".

Exactly what was meant by "eleminate" is unclear. The statement went on to talk about tackling the issue through Baghdad's schools, though it said this would be very difficult "because of the lack of a women’s cadre in the district ... especially as the phenomenon had spread most among girls aged 14 to 18 years".

The "emo killings" bring a new twist to what has become a familiar pattern in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein – outbreaks of "moral" vigilantism that have included murdering barbers who give customers "un-Islamic" (ie western) haircuts and men who are gay or believed to be gay.

This vigilantism has several dimensions, tapping into social anxieties about cultural change and a decline in "traditional" values. It is partly about fending off "western" influences, partly about religion and partly about enforcing behavioural conformity – gender stereotypes in particular. A report from Human Rights Watch in 2010 suggested that many of these fears centre on "the idea that men are becoming less 'manly', failing tests of customary masculinity".

It is also worth noting that Iraqi interior ministry's press release explains the term "emo", for those who have never heard of it, as "Satan-worshippers". Presumably this derives from their penchant for black clothes and skull-and-crossbones trinkets. Similarly spurious allegations of satanism figured in Egypt's notorious Queen Boat gay trial a decade ago, and have also led to the arrest or imprisonment of heavy metal fans in several Arab countries,including Morocco and Egypt.

Private performances of "satanic" rock and metal music are raided from time to time in Saudi Arabia, and in 2010 the religious police there claimed to have "foiled" a gathering of emos in Damman.

Shocking though the Iraqi killings are, the attitudes that drive them are not uncommon in other Arab countries. The key difference in Iraq is that society has become more brutalised over the years and the rule of law is more limited, allowing vigilantes to take matters into their own hands.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 March 2012.