Iraq's Emo killings: A horror story out of control?

By Rami Ruhayem
BBC News, Baghdad


For several weeks, Iraq has been gripped by a most gruesome rumour.

Iraqi teenagers who dress in tight black clothes, the rumour goes, are being picked up by extremists who then crush their skulls with blocks of cement.

The victims are referred to as "emos", a term originally used in the West to describe youths who listen to a melodic style of rock music, and dress in alternative clothing.

But in Iraq, it has come to mean any man with long hair or a slightly feminine appearance. Emos have also been described alternatively as Satanists, vampires, gays, masons, or all of the above.

Some Iraqi media have said dozens of them, perhaps more than 70, have been killed recently.

Soon enough, almost every media organisation in the country was scrambling to put together its own report about the unexpected phenomenon, and the accompanying terror.

The only problem is that little of it has been verified.

According to the authorities, none of this has happened. A spokesman for Iraq's police said that some young people do dress "strangely", and they have been "dealt with" through peaceful guidance. Alaa Jassem said the media blew the whole thing out of proportion.

He mentioned the case of a "delicate" 17-year-old man named Saif who was killed, but added that it was "just a tribal killing" that had nothing to do with his appearance.

'Targeted intimidation'

The authorities certainly have a stake in dispelling any notion that extremists are on the loose in Baghdad, killing teenagers. But others are also treating the reports with caution.

The BBC contacted a spokesman for Unicef, the United Nations' child protection agency.

Jaya Murthy, who is in Baghdad, expressed concern, calling for a government investigation, and added Unicef has not been able to confirm a single case.

Later, a joint statement by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission said there was a "targeted campaign of intimidation and violence against Iraqi youth seen as belonging to the non-conformist emo subculture".

The intimidation is clear for all to see. In Sadr City, a conservative neighbourhood in east Baghdad, leaflets were posted on main streets with lists of names of young men.

They are called "gay" and threatened with death unless they "change their ways" and stop behaving "like the people of Lot".

And that was only the most visible form of intimidation. The BBC made several attempts to interview young men thought to be emos, and they all pulled out at the last minute. Their fear was very real.

But whether there was a targeted campaign of violence appears less certain.

A spokesman for Amnesty International said Amnesty could not get solid confirmation or names of victims.

Said Boumedouha said the only pictures of dead bodies were those circulated on the internet of Saif and "probably" another man.

Saif's story

Saif appeared to be the one man everyone was talking about. A friend of his told the BBC he was killed "towards the end of last month, or the beginning of this month", because of his hairstyle and clothes.

His body was found early one morning close to his home in east Baghdad. He was killed by a blow to the head.

Saif's friend also said there was another man who was killed the same way. He said he did not know him, but had seen his picture on Facebook.

Despite all the uncertainty, the Iraqi media were still reporting dozens of killings.

Iraqi MP Safia Seheil says there is an extremist agenda at work: "There are political and social forces that want all of Iraqi society to conform to their own world view."

She has called on the government to acknowledge the problem and protect the vulnerable. But she also says exaggeration is part of the problem.

"The exaggeration itself is an agenda too. All the cases point only to a limited number [of victims], but the rumours jump around from one area to another. Some Iraqi media seem to have adopted the cause, and perhaps inadvertently caused panic among the youth," said Safia Seheil.

Amid all the confusion, there is a glimmer of hope.

The joint statement by the human rights groups said that, unlike a spate of attacks in 2009 against gay Iraqis, "the recent campaign has generated strong condemnation within Iraq".

It pointed to a statement by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most influential Iraqi cleric, which described the killings as un-Islamic acts of terrorism.

And even as the Iraqi press was circulating unconfirmed reports of dozens of deaths, many columnists were also railing against extremism and calling on the government to protect freedom of expression.