Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The "Emo" killings and the role of the state in Iraq

The expression "the fish rots from the head down" tells us much about the problems Iraq currently faces, especially the task of creating a more tolerant and democratic political culture. While Western analysts continue to obsess over political Islam and what other cultural "essence" may be the cause for the Middle East's political instability and violence, the answer to the region's problem may be much more simple. This becomes clear when we consider the recent killings of Iraqi youth who are known as subscribing to "Emo" (from "emotional"), a form of Western "punk" culture.

The problem in Iraq, as elsewhere in the Middle East is the state, not Islam or some free-floating sectarianism that inheres in the region's inhabitants. Iraq's problems are most certainly not the result of a a small and apolitical sub-culture, namely the "Emos," despite a Ministry of Interior memo posted on its website on February 13, 2012 (see above image) which implicitly justified the use of violence against so-called "Emo" youth.

In the memo, the "Emo" were described as "devil worshipers." According to Colonel Mushtaq Talib al-Muhammadawi, the Ministry's Morality Police would go into every school in Baghdad and "eliminate" them. Such rhetoric was an incitement to violence, as were statements by a number of clerics and organizations associated with Muqtada al-Sadr's movement that "Emos" were a "plague" on Iraqi society. The Ministry's memo was subsequently removed following extensive criticism from clerics, civil society organizations and human rights organizations both inside and outside Iraq, and al-Sadr backtracked on his earlier comments, saying the "Emos" should be eliminated through the law..

Nevertheless, the recent killings of Iraqi youth point to the problems created by the state throughout the Middle East. In Egypt, Anwar al-Sadat released Muslim Brothers and radical Islamists in 1971 to attack secular and leftist supporters of the former regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser as he attempted to consolidate his power.

The Iranian regime uses is semi-volunteer militia, the Basij, to arrest youth who do not dress and behave according to its definition of Islamic norms as well as to attack its opponents, such as the civilian demonstrators who protested disputed presidential elections in June 2009. In Syria, the Bashar al-Asad's Ba'thist regime uses a shadowy group of thugs known as al-shabiha ("ghosts") to attack and kill pro-democracy demonstrators. During the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt, thugs known as al-baltigayya (al-baltijiya) - literally from the Turkish for "axe carrier" - beat up protestors with state approval.

The problems in Iraq are not a problem of Western culture penetrating Iraq but part of a larger regional efforts to suppress cultural pluralism and social difference that originates with political authority. This effort is part of those who I have referred to in the past as "sectarian entrepreneurs" to create a new political culture of authoritarianism which seeks to thwart efforts by the region's youth and democracy activists generally to draw the Middle East out of its "democracy deficit."

At least one organization has suggested that the number of Iraqi youth who have been killed in recent months ranges from 90-100. The attacks have been particularly brutal, with youth murdered by being stoned and having their skulls crushed with cement blocks, with the bodies often deposited in garbage dumpsters. However, this attack is really an extension of attacks which began on Iraq's gay population which were publicized in 2009. The attacks on "Emo" youth is symptomatic of a larger attack on social and cultural difference in Iraq. A vulnerable segment of the Iraqi populace - youth who are attracted to Western culture and lifestyles - becomes a diversion from the real problems facing Iraq.

The attacks on Iraqi youth include not just "Emo" youth but a larger subsection of the Iraqi populace, namely gay people. These groups have been lumped under the same category of "Satanist" youth. Such rhetoric has prompted groups like the Sadrists and its militia, the "Promised Day Brigades," to call for their "elimination," even though leader Muqtada al-Sadr has subsequently called for this process to "take place under the law."

However, who and what is the law today in Iraq? How can the rule of law be said to prevail when Iraq's main law enforcement agency was itself responsible for inciting violence against those who choose to pursue a different lifestyle. The situation becomes even worse when we consider that the so-called "Morals Police" received permission to enter Baghdad schools to root out "Emo" culture.

Having spoken with Iraqis about the killings, some say the concern with "Emo" youth is that many Iraqis do not understand the culture they represent. Media assertions that the "Emo" are actually "blood suckers" (massasay dima') has made many Iraqis uncomfortable. The long spiked hair, tight clothing, pierced earrings and the make-up that "Emo" youth often wear have drawn parallels with vampires, as was evident in an al-Sumaria television program broadcast on March 2nd of this year.

Worse still, "Emo" youth has become associated with an even more ostracized segment of Iraqi society, namely gays. As science informs us, sexual preference is biologically transmitted, not an individual choice. In other words, people do not choose their sexual preference. However, gays in Iraq, as in many other societies, are being told to make a choice - change their sexuality, or face dire consequences.

To his great credit, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has come out against the killings which, through Abd al-Rahim al-Rikabi, his Baghdad representative, he called “terrorist attacks.” Many clerics, such as Muhammad al-Yaqubi, have said that the remedy to this unpopular youth culture can only be through education, and not through violence.

However, there have been recent reports that the killings will stop during the forthcoming Arab Summit in Baghdad only to begin again after it ends. If these reports are true, they certainly implicate security agencies in the killings as what other force would be able to stop the killings according to a politically defined time frame?

But education is not the current Iraqi state's goal. Rather than focus on more dangerous issues facing Iraqi youth, such as high rates of drug usage, lack of education and high rates of unemployment, Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki remained quiet in the face of Ministry of Information incitements to violence against young people whose only crime is their form of dress. He has said nothing in response to sectarian groups who have railed against a culture which is asserted to be alien to Iraqi society.

Iraq experienced 35 years of brutal Ba'thist rule under Saddam Husayn, suffered under two devastating Gulf Wars, and then under the UN sanctions regime imposed on Iraq in the 199os, the most destructive ever imposed on a modern state. All this turmoil was followed by the intense sectarian based violence that followed the US invasion of 2003. A country brutalized by dictatorship, war and economic deprivation, Iraq needs political leadership that emphasizes national reconciliation and devotes its oil wealth to confronting its extensive social problems, not in tolerating violence against youth who only seek freedom of cultural expression.

No democracy can flourish in a society which practices intolerance and seeks to suppress social and cultural difference. Why isn't the Ministry of Interior's so-called Morality Police seeking out criminal organizations which sell drugs or attempting to root out pervasive government corruption?

Let's stop blaming Islamism, tribalism and other cultural "isms" for a more basic problem - a political elite which seeks to manipulate fears and social anxieties to create a new authoritarian political culture, one that attempts to force Iraqis to conform to a new sectarianism. It's time for the Iraqi parliament, media and powerful political figures - not just Iraqi cleric and human rights organizations - to both condemn the killings of "Emos" and gays and to open a national dialogue in Iraq on how to promote tolerance and cultural pluralism.

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