While much of the world is celebrating International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOBiT), political and religious leaders in Iraq—Muqtada al-Sadr, Ahmed al-Sahaf, and Ali al-Bayati among them—are busy scapegoating LGBT+ citizens to distract the public from pressing issues at home, including COVID-19 and the need to form a government that can respond to the demands of Iraqi protestors.
In a recent tweet, influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr condemned the European Union in Baghdad for raising the rainbow flag in recognition of IDAHOBiT, describing LGBT+ citizens as “sexually deviants and mentally ill.” And as recently as early May, Al Bayati, a member of the Iraqi Commission for Human Rights, and Al Sahaf, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called for “punishing” LGBT+ people—despite the Iraqi government having recognized the importance of respecting the right to life for all regardless of sexual orientation in their submission to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in February.
These officials cite Islam as the basis for condemning LGBT+ people while calling for violence against them and those who advocate for them. Muqtada Al Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam militia, formerly known as the Mahdi Army, has systematically killed LGBT+ people since 2006 in documented killing campaigns. These actions clearly violate the core principles of Islam, which call for peace. Most importantly, they violate Iraq’s obligations under national and international law to protect the right to life for all its citizens regardless of their backgrounds.
LGBT+ Iraqis are not calling for the erasure of the Iraqi identity or the importation of western values. We are calling for recognition that the Iraqi identity is larger than what figures like Al Sadr aim to portray. We are calling for the protection of human lives. These are universal human rights, not western values. I believe these officials realise that a growing share of Iraqis hold similar beliefs. The protests that have erupted across the country since October 2019 are proof of this. Women, youths, LGBT+ citizens, and others called for, among other demands, the separation of religion and state as we no longer want to be ruled by extremists who rely on their personal beliefs and interpretations of the law.
In the years ahead, we as a country must respect and uphold human rights. That starts with government officials, who must protect the lives of LGBT+ citizens not because their personal beliefs permit them to do so, but because it is their duty under national and international law. They must also hold accountable those who promote and perpetrate violence against LGBT+ people.
At the same time, the international community must continue to mark important days like IDAHOBiT. But it must do so with the understanding that raising the rainbow flag is symbolic. Creating lasting change for human rights requires more than symbolic action. It requires working with civil society organizations like IraQueer, advocating through UN channels, and lobbying the Iraqi government on behalf of LGBT+ Iraqis.
Amir Ashour is an Iraqi human rights defender with 11 years of experience working with Iraqi and international organisations. He is the founder and executive director of IraQueer, Iraq’s first national LGBT+ organisation. He has a masters degree in human rights from Columbia University. Amir was an honouree at the QX Gay Gala in Sweden and has been nominated to other awards including the Raoul Wallenberg Academy Prize and The David Kato Voice and Vision Award.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.
Note: Dr Ali al-Bayati took to Twitter on Tuesday to respond to Ashour’s piece for Rudaw English, denying that he had called for the punishment of LGBT+ people on a March 31 show centered on the role of foreign embassies, including Britain and the US, in “encouraging homosexuality” and trying to legalize it in Iraq. The show referred to some “so-called” NGOs and specifically named Ashour’s organisation IraQueer as trying to impose “western imported norms” onto conservative Iraqi society.
On the show, Bayati said that “the Iraqi prosecutor can easily interfere here [LGBT+ rights] and have their own say, but it should be according to the Iraqi constitution which all Iraqis agreed on, in which it claims that Islam is the state religion and majority of Iraq are Muslims, and at the same time it should not violate the principles of democracy. So these kind of matters can be considered either it is a crime, or not, or it is punishable or not. I am sure in future we would have lots of issues, because the western concepts can not be fully implemented in Iraq,” Bayati told al-Aheed TV on March 31.
“Human rights should be for all and without discrimination, as we believe that the rights should be guided by Iraqi constitution and it’s principles,” read Bayati’s tweet on Tuesday.
In the subsequent interaction between the two on Twitter, Ashour pointed to a May 3 interview of Bayati for TV channel al-Ghadeer al-Iraqiya.
When asked by the al-Ghadeer al-Iraqiya presenter if any government department is watching and working on legal procedures against non-governmental organisations advocating for LGBT+ rights, Bayati answered:
“The state can follow legal procedures to deal with the matter,” Bayati said. “The government has a duty to supervise organisations promoting the LGBT+ community, according to Iraqi law. The people who are gay are Iraqi people at the end, and they have rights, but the government can provide them with support in order to be more educated and leave the concept of being gay.”
Ashour maintained in email correspondence to Rudaw English on Tuesday that Bayati called for punishment of LGBT+ people in the al-Aheed interview. Rudaw English reached out to Bayati for direct comment, but he has yet to respond.