Guest Blogger

ISIS Kills Gays: A History of Violence, Part I

Filed By Guest Blogger | February 06, 2015 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Living
Tags: erasure, executions, executions of gay people, Iraq, Iraq war, ISIS, Islam, Islamic law, Islamic State, killing gays, oversimplification, Syria

Editor's Note: Guest blogger Scott Long has advocated for LGBT people's human rights for over 25 years, in countries including Romania, Russia, Egypt, Iraq, and Zimbabwe. From 2003-2010 he served as founding director of the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. He blogs at paper-bird.net.


Hands shove them forward, bound and blindfolded. Then comes the step when the stone beneath them stops and nothing is there. The photographs appall but they have the solidity of things you can see; they suggest but cannot summon the feel of one terrifying lurch in darkness when all that's solid falls away. Death is what happens when you are there, alone, and the world disappears.

ISIS stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which now styles itself just the Islamic State. Many Arabs call it Da'ish, an acronym (for Ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fi al-'Iraq wash-Sham) they prefer and the militants despise, partly because it echoes Arabic words for bearers of brutality and discord. Even in Iraq, where death dominates life, Da'ish's violence is exceptionally uncompromising and public.

An Egyptian leftist friend of mine calls it unprecedented. Plenty of political movements employ sadism (Stalin, Hitler). Some embrace it ecstatically (Romanian Iron Guardists smeared themselves with their victims' blood and chanted, "Long live death").

But Da'ish treats absolute violence as propaganda, as entertainment. Displaying violence has become its essence, as if its ideology were a snuff film. Although it's commonplace to say it wants to terrify (shock and awe!), the effect is to make unrestrained violence, which Hannah Arendt saw as the opposite of political life, the main feature of the public world.

Da'ish's broadcast deeds become as commonplace as campaign speeches. Western audiences, astonished at first, are now inured. The pictures keep coming, but only a few hit their target. Like these.

WARNING: Photos after the break are graphic and extremely disturbing.

What do we know? According to Twitter, these pictures first appeared on January 15 on the media-sharing site Justpaste.it (the post has since come down). They spread immediately. The left of each photo reads "Islamic State"; the right, "Ninawa" -- Nineveh, Iraq's northernmost province. Presumably they came from the Islamic State's provincial media office.

long-isis-gays-1.jpg

Caption: "Muslims gather to watch the application of the verdict.

long-isis-gays-2.jpg

Caption: "The shari'a verdict for banditry is stated in an introductory sign."

The sign says:

The Islamic State / The Caliphate in the Footsteps of the Prophet / Islamic Court - Nineveh State

Allah the Almighty said, "The penalty for those who fight God and his Prophet and spread corruption on earth is to be killed or crucified, or their hands or legs to be amputated, or to be exiled from earth. They deserve disgrace in mortal life and great torture in the afterlife."

Verdict: Crucifixion or death

The reason: Kidnapping Muslims and stealing their money by force and in the name of the Islamic State.

long-isis-gays-3.jpg

Caption: "Reading the statement of the shari'a verdict issued by the shari'a court in the province of Nineveh against two persons who practiced the deeds of the people of Lot." ["People of Lot" derives from the Qu'ranic version of the Sodom story; "sodomite" might be an English translation.]

Then back to the tower's top again. First a man in a red sweater is hauled forward:

long-isis-gays-4.jpg

Caption: "Applying the verdict on one who practiced the deeds of the people of Lot, by throwing him from a high place"

Then a man in a black jacket:

long-isis-gays-5.jpg

Caption: "Applying the verdict on one who practiced the deeds of the people of Lot"

long-isis-gays-6.png

Caption: "Applying the shari'a verdict on the person who committed the greatest crime"

long-isis-gays-7.jpg

Caption: "This is the penalty for those who encroach upon the limits Allah the Almighty set."

Back to the square. The frames on which men hang crucified were faintly visible in the first photo. Now:

long-isis-kills-gays-8.jpg

Caption: "Reading the statement of the shari'a verdict issued by the shari'a court in the province of Nineveh against those who robbed Muslims using the force of weapons."

long-isis-kills-gays-9.jpg

Caption: "Applying the penalty for banditry on those who stole the money of Muslims and instilled terror in their hearts"

long-isis-kills-gays-10.jpg

Caption: "Applying the penalty for banditry on those who stole the money of Muslims and instilled terror in their hearts"

The bandits are shot in the head.

long-isis-kills-gays-11.jpg

Caption: "This is the punishment for what their hands did."

long-isis-kills-gays-12.jpg

Caption: "Let them be an example to those who feel tempted to assault Muslims in the Caliphate state"

The last two photographs are in a park.

long-isis-kills-gays-13.jpg

Caption: "Reading the statement of the shari'a verdict issued by the shari'a court in the province of Nineveh against a woman who committed adultery."

The woman is stoned to death.

long-isis-kills-gays-14.jpg

Caption: "Applying the penalty as an expiation of guilt"

Beyond those bare descriptions, all else is speculation. The executions may have happened January 14, maybe earlier. The city is probably Mosul, capital of Nineveh province, which Da'ish captured last June. The white-bearded man who lurks in several shots and supervises the stoning, looking like a vengeful garden gnome, is likely Abu Asaad al-Ansari, a well-known ISIS cleric.

The death tower is tall, yellow, mostly windowless. It may be the Tameen (Insurance) Building, a 1960s relic turned at some point into government offices.

That's it. The story went viral internationally because of the two "sodomites" thrown to their deaths -- the bandits and the adulteress were inadequate to colonize attention. Yet those victims are, in the images, the most anonymous: merely bent backs, or faceless corpses.

It's worthwhile then to pause (there's little you can do with a Da'ish atrocity but pause) and ask what we've seen. What do we recognize in the victims? And what do we understand about the perpetrators?

What We See, What We Know

The first looks easy. Jamie Kirchick (an instant expert on Islam and other un-American things) wrote, "As a gay man, I thought, there but for the grace of Allah go I." They're gay; they're like us. The facelessness actually facilitates emotion; in the absence of particular selves to see, a generalized identity sets in.

It's good to feel that identification. Only extraterrestrials and lice embrace all humanity without exception; most of us look for specific commonalities to carry sympathy across the abstract gulfs of difference. Still, sympathy always simplifies, smoothing over alienating idiosyncrasies, bland as asphalt. It leaves things out.

Back in 2012, there was a surge of killings of "effeminate"-looking men in Baghdad. Western gay activists immediately called these "gay" killings. In fact, as I quickly found, that wasn't true: Iraq's Ministry of Interior and media had been inciting fears of "emos," youth corrupted by Western styles and music and gender ambiguity.

Militias, mostly Shi'ite, took up the cause, murdering dozens or hundreds of suspect young men. Certainly gay and trans* people were caught in the sweeps -- the rhetoric was vague enough to vilify any men who didn't look masculine enough, and some Iraqi queers had found an emo identity congenial. But "gay" on its own was the wrong rubric to explain what was going on.

When I said that publicly, one well-known American gay blogger wrote that I was "confusing":

You can't just write a blog post about violence in Iraq, especially on a gay blog, nobody cares about violence in Iraq in general -- and if anything, they'll probably shrug and say "90 deaths sounds like a typical day in Iraq, oh well." Unless it's violence against someone we care about -- then we care. The gay angle works ... I'm just not sure how we write a post saying lots of people are getting killed, stop it, with any authority, or in a way that moves people.

On one level, perhaps, he was saying I want blog hits, and I won't get them if I can't write about gay stuff. On a larger level, though, he was right, and even principled: You can't make people care unless, well, there are people they care about.

The gays are an organized constituency primed for caring. There's no comparable global solidarity among bandits or adulterers. (There is, of course, an international women's movement that combats stonings and other atrocities, but it's stretched pretty thin.)

Yet this was an American blogger, writing for Americans, in the nation that destroyed Iraq. Surely that's an angle; could you drum up a little compassion, or even penitence, for what your readers' government did to another country? Maybe they can't fix it, but they could stop their government from doing it again.

The strange thing is that, even though his blog has a big American flag on the masthead, gay as a source of sympathy trumps American as a reminder of responsibility. Probably that's because sympathy, unlike responsibility, doesn't carry obligations.

Erasing Context

Context gets erased on both sides. The American gays can wield "gay" to forget they're also American, at least in any way that implies guilt. But calling the victims "gay" and stopping with that erases the wider fears about masculinity and cultural invasion that inform the violence -- obliterates what links the dead to the politics of post-occupation Iraq, and to the countless other Iraqis exiled, or injured, or killed.

Moreover, what do we mean by "gay"? It's not self-evident. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) at first stuck the "gay" label on the 2012 killings; they retracted it rapidly, to their credit. Now they've issued a warning about the latest Mosul murders. They caution

in the strongest possible terms against assuming that the men identified as 'gay' and against assuming the men engaged in homosexual acts. .... If the men did not identify as gay, the allegation is inaccurate and obscures the Islamic State's motivation for publicly labeling them as such. If the men indeed identified as gay ... widespread publicity potentially exposes their families, loved ones and intimate partners to harm.

They're right on the dangers, wrong on the rest. The Islamic State didn't "publicly label" the men "gay." It said they "practiced the deeds of the people of Lot." The prophet Lot in the Qu'ran preached against the things the residents of Sodom did -- deeds often called liwat in Arabic, from his name; "sodomy" is a partial English equivalent.

Da'ish killed the men for committing an act, not for inheriting a description. The difference matters.

The American sympathy the blogger invoked demands its beneficiaries be like us, not just behave like us in bed. But Da'ish doesn't posit a fixed, communal form of selfhood derived from "liwat." The category "gay" means nothing to it. Sex exists for Da'ish in religious and juridical terms, as deeds, not identities.

The idea that, deep down, Da'ish must see sex as we do is put to political purpose. Polemicist Jamie Kirchick assimilates the Mosul killings conveniently to the Paris attacks:

A thread links these atrocities to this month's murder of four Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris, beyond the fact that the culprits in both cases are Islamist fanatics ... The more salient commonality pertains to the victims, executed solely because of irrevocable traits: Jewishness and homosexuality.... In Iraq, no expression is necessary as cause for atrocity. Gay men are hunted down and killed like rats solely owing to the fact that they are gay.

Kirchick clearly knows little about Iraq and less about Da'ish. Da'ish pursues the practitioners of liwat not to eliminate a race, but to discourage what it imagines are preventable perversions. Gay men have been hunted down in Iraq not "solely owing to the fact that they are gay," but because a general environment where masculinity is believed under threat, and cultural authenticity endangered, makes specific behaviors -- the way you dress or walk, where you meet your friends, whether and how you're penetrated -- suspect or criminal. It's exactly these "expressions," not the identities we impute from thousands of miles away, that put victims at risk.

Da'ish is deluded, the Iraqi moral panics are paranoiac, but ignoring the context and motives behind the violence makes it impossible to help stop it.

How they look or dress or walk: Video memorial for Saif Raad Asmar Abboudi, a 20 year-old beaten to death with concrete blocks in Sadr City, Baghdad on February 17, 2012

For Kirchick, though, the idea that Muslims see gays as one unchangeable collective opens the door to treating Muslims the same way. It's us versus them. "Oppression and murder predicated solely upon their victims' identities," he writes, "provides [sic] ultimate clarity about the nature and intentions of radical Islam."

What this clarity is, he doesn't say, but you get an idea from how he describes the scene: "A crowd below [the tower] gawks like spectators at a sporting event." Check those photos; who's gawking, or cheering the killers on? The audience looks tense, unwilling.

Mosul is a religiously and ethnically diverse city which Da'ish conquered seven months ago. The militia may force the occupied population to attend executions, but it can't compel enthusiasm. Yet Kirchick's own prejudices steamroller Da'ish and those it oppresses into the same ersatz category: the enemies of gays.

This is a clash of civilizations, in which the "irrevocable" identity of one side mirrors the monolithic irrevocability of the other. (And Kirchick's insistence that killing gays is worse because they have "identities" -- as opposed to robbers, adulterers, women -- echoes Da'ish's own deranged value system, where stealing "the money of Muslims" merits a higher penalty than simple theft.)

Killing "gays" evokes an intense response in our societies partly because there's a prefab constituency that answers. Yet this intensity also helps obliterate our ability to perceive the actual context of Iraq, not just its multiplicity and complexity but its past. To see Iraq clearly is to see not us-versus-them but us-and-them, not just an opposition but an entanglement, the violence woven into a history with the barbarities that the US and its coalition caused.

Instead, it's versus that infuses the UK Daily Mail's blaring version of the murders: "While the world reacts with horror to terror in Europe, new ISIS executions show the medieval brutality jihadists would bring to the West."

You see? It's just about us, after all, because they're coming, they're bringing their business here; all those page-one warnings about immigration were spot on. First ISIS takes Baghdad, then Bethnal Green. What happens on the Tigris doesn't matter in itself. What counts is keeping a crazed Tower Hamlets mob from tossing Soho's gentle denizens off the London Eye.

daily-mail-inflammatory-muslim-headlines.jpg

They're here: Peace, love, and Western values according to the Daily Mail.

Already this leads to the second question: How do we perceive the perpetrators? Violence based on sexuality has been a minor theme drumming through US and British reportage on Iraq ever since the 2003 invasion. (It's tended to drown out violence based on gender, though the two are certainly related.) But how seriously it's taken has depended, at every point, on the politics of the invading powers.

Part II of this piece will be published on Sunday, February 9.

Originally posted at paper-bird.net.

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.