An influential Iraqi cleric who announced his retirement from politics four months ago has broken a period of relative silence to launch an anti-LGBTQ campaign.
On Wednesday, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr posted a statement on Twitter calling for “men and women of faith (to) unite all over the world to fight (the LGBTQ community).”
He added that this should be done “not with violence, murder or threats, but with education and awareness, with logical and ethical methods”.
The religious leader’s appeal has stoked fears in the LGBTQ community, especially since al-Sadr’s supporters have a history of violence. After the cleric announced his resignation from politics in August amid a stalemate over government formation, hundreds of his angry loyalists stormed government buildings in the capital and ignited clashes that sparked at least 30 dead.
After Friday’s afternoon prayer session, thousands of al-Sadr followers lined up outside mosques across the country to sign a pledge to “oppose (homosexuality) or (LGBTQ ) through ethical, peaceful and religious means” and to demand “the abolition of the law on homosexuality.
It was not clear which law the pledge referred to. Iraq does not have a law that explicitly criminalizes homosexuality, although it does have one that prohibits “immodest acts”, which Human Rights Watch described as “a vague provision that could be used to target minorities sexual and gender”.
Al-Sadr’s proclamation comes amid a World Cup in Qatar that has drawn international attention to LGBTQ rights there and in the region more generally. Qatar, where gay sex is illegal, has come under intense international scrutiny and criticism around the games, including questions about whether LGBTQ visitors would feel safe and welcome. Some fans have not been allowed to bring items bearing the colors of the rainbow, a symbol of LGBTQ rights, into stadiums.
The Gulf nation said all are welcome, including LGBTQ fans, but visitors should respect the national culture.
Some of those who heard al-Sadr’s plea on Friday alluded to the World Cup culture wars.
In Kufa – a town in al-Sadr’s home province of Najaf province – hundreds of people lined up to sign the pledge on Friday. Kazem al-Husseini, imam of a local mosque, denied that the campaign was triggered by the World Cup, noting that al-Sadr had made similar statements before. But he added that “during the World Cup there were attempts to promote this issue by Westerners who came to the (games).”
“There is a fear that the West is pressuring Arab and Islamic regimes to legitimize same-sex marriage in constitutions and laws so that they try to normalize this perversion,” he said.
In the town of Sadr in Baghdad, Ibrahim al-Jabri, who also signed the pledge, said he opposed the “corruptions that have come to us from Europe and elsewhere, what they call freedoms. We also have the freedom to reject lies, to reject corruption.
Despite the campaign’s nominal commitment to non-violence, LGBTQ people in Iraq fear it could lead to more harassment and abuse in a country where their identity already puts them at risk.
A Human Rights Watch report released earlier this year accused armed groups in Iraq of abducting, raping, torturing and killing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people with impunity. The Iraqi government, he says, has failed to hold the perpetrators accountable.
The report released by the New York-based organization in conjunction with Iraqi rights group IraQueer also accused Iraqi police and security forces of being often complicit in escalating anti-LGBTQ violence and arresting individuals “due to an improper appearance”.
“Attacks on LGBT people in Iraq have long been a political tactic,” Rasha Younes, an LGBTQ rights researcher with the group, said in an emailed statement. Public speeches like al-Sadr’s “have served to undermine LGBT rights and fuel violence against LGBT Iraqis, who already face killings, kidnappings, torture and sexual violence by armed groups with impunity,” she added.
A university student from Najaf who identifies as gay and who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety, said that although he is not openly LGBTQ, he was frequently harassed in the street for wearing clothes of colors and styles that do not match local conservative standards.
Al-Sadr’s recent “hate speech” makes them more fearful, given past acts of violence by his supporters, the student said.
“I thought I’d wait until I graduated from college and then go to Europe on a study visa, but now…I think I’m taking precautions in case of an emergency, so I’m fleeing to Europe. ‘nearest safe place,’ they said. said.
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