Influential Iraqi cleric launches anti-LGBTQ campaign

An influential Iraqi cleric who announced his retirement from politics four months ago it broke a period of relative silence to launch an anti-LGBTQ campaign.

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr posted a statement on Twitter on Wednesday calling for “believing men and women (to) unite around the world to combat (the LGBTQ community).”

He added that this should be done “not with violence, killing or threats, but with education and awareness, with logic and ethical methods.”

The religious leader’s call has stoked fears in the LGBTQ community, particularly given that al-Sadr’s followers have a history of violence. After the cleric announced his resignation from politics in August amid a deadlock over government formation, hundreds of his angry supporters stormed government buildings in the capital and sparked clashes that left at least 30 dead.

On Friday, after the afternoon prayer session, thousands of al-Sadr supporters lined up in front of mosques across the country to sign a pledge to “oppose (homosexuality) or (LGBTQ) by ethical means, peaceful and religious” and demand “abolition of the homosexuality law”.

It was not clear to which law the compromise referred. Iraq does not have a law that explicitly criminalizes homosexuality, although it does have one that prohibits “immodest acts,” which Human Rights Watch has described as a “vague provision that could be used to target sexual and gender minorities.”

Al-Sadr’s proclamation comes amid a World Cup in Qatar that has drawn international scrutiny over LGBTQ rights there. and in the region in general. Qatar, where gay sex is illegal, faced intense international scrutiny and criticism surrounding the games, including questions about whether LGBTQ visitors would feel safe and welcome. Some fans were prohibited from bringing items in the colors of the rainbow, a symbol of LGBTQ rights, into stadiums.

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The Gulf nation has said that all are welcome, including LGBTQ fans, but that visitors must respect the nation’s culture.

Some of those who responded to al-Sadr’s call on Friday alluded to the World Cup culture wars.

In Kufa, a city in al-Sadr’s home province of Najaf province, hundreds lined up to sign the pledge on Friday. Kazem al-Husseini, the imam of a local mosque, denied that the campaign was motivated by the World Cup, noting that al-Sadr had made similar statements before. But he added that “at the World Cup there were attempts to promote this issue by Westerners who came to the (games).”

“There are fears that the West is putting pressure on the Arab and Islamic regimes to legitimize same-sex marriage in constitutions and laws so that they try to normalize this perversion,” he said.

In Baghdad’s Sadr City, Ibrahim al-Jabri, who also signed the pledge, said he opposes the “corruptions that came to us from Europe and elsewhere, what they call freedoms. We also have the freedom to reject falsehood, to reject corruption.”

Sanar Hasan, an Iraqi journalist who has written on LGBTQ issues, noted that al-Sadr had previously blamed both the COVID-19 pandemic and monkeypox on homosexuality. As for the timing of his last campaign, he said al-Sadr was “trying to win back the support of the Iraqi street” by playing with social taboos, after his failure to form the country’s government. .

Despite the campaign’s nominal commitment to nonviolence, LGBTQ people in Iraq fear it will lead to further harassment and abuse in a country where their identity already puts them at risk.

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A Human Rights Watch report released earlier this year accused armed groups in Iraq of kidnapping, 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 collaboration with Iraqi rights group IraQueer also accused Iraqi police and security forces of often being complicit in escalating anti-LGBTQ violence and arresting people “because of to its nonconforming appearance”.

“Attacking LGBT people in Iraq has long been a political tactic,” said Rasha Younes, LGBTQ rights researcher for the group, 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 murder, kidnapping, torture and sexual violence by armed groups with impunity,” she added.

A university student in Najaf who identifies as queer, and who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of his safety, said that despite not being openly LGBTQ, he has been frequently harassed on the street for wearing clothes in colors and styles that are not They are conforming to local conservative standards.

Al-Sadr’s recent “hate speech” makes them more fearful, given past acts of violence by his followers, the student said.

“I was thinking that I would wait until I graduate from university and then go to Europe on a study visa, but now… I am thinking of taking precautions in case of any emergency event, so I flee to the nearest safe place,” they they said.

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Associated Press journalist Ali Abdul-Hassan in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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