Iraq: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Do Kill – Newsweek’s Inquiry About Gays Persecuted
When militiamen from the Mahdi Army came by the compact, two-story stone home in the Doura neighborhood of Baghdad, they weren’t looking for Sunnis to harass. They were hunting gays. “Bring us your son’s cell phone,” one ordered the middle-aged man who came to the gate. They wanted to check if his son, Nadir, had been calling foreigners–and in fact he had only hours earlier called this reporter to set up a meeting, and he had repeatedly called a gay nongovernmental organization (NGO) in London. Fortunately, Nadir was ready for them and produced a “clean” phone he keeps for just such a threat. This time they left, but vowed to come back if they found any evidence he was gay–or was talking to undesirable foreigners. Now that Iraq’s sectarian war has cooled off, it’s open season on homosexuals and others whose lifestyles infuriate religious hardliners.
Sometimes the act of reporting a story is revealing in itself–especially when it proves particularly difficult. This was the case when NEWSWEEK began looking into the problems of Iraq’s homosexuals after hearing reports of secret safe houses around Baghdad where many of them were taking refuge from the militias’ self-appointed morality police. After weeks of inquiries, NEWSWEEK managed to find Nadir and persuade him to arrange a visit to one of the safe houses he helps run. Instead, the Mahdi militia rousted him the night before. Established in 2004, the militia is the armed wing of the organization led by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has been an implacable foe of the Maliki government. Terrified, Nadir contacted people at the London-based gay NGO that finances the safe house, and they instructed him to break off the visit.
That was only one of many problems reporting on gays in Iraq. Iraqi authorities scoffed at the subject–when not scolding a reporter for even asking about it. Some of NEWSWEEK’s own local staff were wary of the story. Virtually no government officials would sit for an interview. And the United Nations human-rights office, which has a big presence in Iraq, dodged the subject like a mine field. As with a number of Muslim societies where homosexuality is officially nonexistent but widely practiced, the policy in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s rule was “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But that has changed. Iraqi LGBT, the London NGO that Nadir works for, says more than 430 gay men have been murdered in Iraq since 2003. For the country’s beleaguered gays, it’s a friendless landscape…