August 19, 2016 at 12:10 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Prominent Iraqi cleric issues decree against anti-LGBT violence

Iraq, Muqtadā al-Ṣadr, gay news, Washington Blade

Muqtadā al-Ṣadr (Photo by Sdfahm0; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

A prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric has banned his followers from committing violence against LGBT people.

“[You] must disassociate from them [but] not attack them, as it increases their aversion,” said Muqtada al-Sadr in a decree he issued from the city of Najaf on July 7, according to a press release that Human Rights Watch issued on Thursday. “You must guide them using acceptable and rational means.”

Human Rights Watch said in it’s press release that al-Sadr expressed his opposition to same-sex relationships and cross-dressing. The prominent cleric also said that gender non-conforming Iraqis are suffering from “psychological problems.”

Decree could have ‘real impact’ in Iraq, Middle East

Members of the Mahdi army, a Shiite militia that al-Sadr runs, have been accused of kidnapping, torturing and executing LGBT Iraqis over the last decade.

A report that OutRight Action International and three other advocacy groups released last fall indicates members of al-Sadr’s militia kidnapped an 18-year-old lesbian woman in Baghdad in 2008.

The report says the militants brought her to “a place that was covered in blood” in which other lesbians and gay men were located. It also notes that members of al-Sadr’s militia burned the woman’s left thigh and killed a gay man.

Human Rights Watch notes in its press release that the Mahdi army began killing gay men in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood in early 2009. The report that OutRight Action International and the other advocacy groups released last fall indicates al-Sadr was among those who encouraged these executions.

The report also notes militants in 2012 placed leaflets throughout Sadr City that contained the names of men who they thought were gay or “emo,” which is slang for “emotional.” The flyers reportedly told teenagers and young adults who listened to rock music, dressed in black, wore tight clothes and styled their hair that they could be killed if they did not “change their ways.”

“People perceived to be gay, lesbian, transgender or effeminate are particularly vulnerable,” reads the report.

Human Rights Watch and OutRight Action International note that Iraqi authorities have either not responded to anti-LGBT violence or has been complicit in it.

“Finally, the head of one of the groups whose members have carried out serious abuses against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Iraq is condemning these heinous attacks,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in his organization’s press release about al-Sadr’s decree. “We hope this will change behavior in successors to the Mahdi army and other ranks, and spur the government to hold accountable those who commit these crimes.”

Jessica Stern, executive director of OutRight Action International, told the Washington Blade on Thursday that al-Sadr’s comments “can have a very real impact in Iraq and in the region more widely.”

“We hope his comments will open the doors to a broader debate among Shiite religious leaders on the treatment of LGBTIQ people in Islam and to recognizing that violence targeting this minority group is unacceptable,” said Stern.

Ayaz Hassan, a human rights activist from Sulaymaniyah, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan, agreed.

“Even though it might look very small comparing to what is happening in Western countries . . . it is a very positive step towards change in our society,” he told the Blade on Thursday. “It also encourages other religious leaders and his followers to go with the same way or at least think about the issue before judging on it.”

Gay Iraqi man: Al-Sadr ‘contradicts himself’

The so-called Islamic State, which is a Sunni militant group, has publicly executed dozens of men in Iraq and Syria who have been accused of committing sodomy. OutRight Action International and MADRE, a global women’s advocacy organization, concluded in a 2014 report that LGBT Iraqis who live under ISIS control are likely “at imminent risk of death.”

A State Department official told the Blade on Thursday that U.S. officials had not seen al-Sadr’s decree.

“The United States places great importance on the protection and promotion of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender persons around the world,” said the official.

A gay Iraqi man who lives in D.C. told the Blade on Thursday that he is doubtful al-Sadr’s statement will have a positive impact.

“Muqtada al-Sadr contradicts himself,” said the man, who asked the Blade not to publish his name. “He still thinks homosexual relationships or being transgender is unacceptable. He is asking his followers to end violence on homosexuals in Iraq, but at the same time, he refers to gays as psychologically troubled humans (who are) suffering. He calls for the ostracizing of gays socially and to lead them to path of faith through conversion therapy.”

“It is hard to establish gay rights in a country that barely has sexual freedoms and human rights and that follows sharia Islamic law,” he added. “Reality and cynicism look alike sometimes, but I hope to see improvements in gay rights in Iraq and the Middle East.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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