Influential Iraqi cleric launches anti-LGBTQ campaign

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

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

He added that this should be done “not with violence, killings or threats, but with education and awareness, with logical 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 an impasse over government formation, hundreds of his angry loyalists stormed government buildings in the capital and sparked riots that left at least 30 dead.

After the afternoon prayer session on Friday, thousands of al-Sadr’s followers lined up in front of mosques across the country to sign a pledge to “oppose (homosexuality) or (LGBTQ) by ethical, peaceful and religious” and to ask for “the abolition of the law on homosexuality”.

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

Al-Sadr’s proclamation comes amid a World Cup in Qatar that has drawn international attention to LGBTQ rights there and in the wider region. Qatar, where gay sex is illegal, has faced intense international scrutiny and criticism of the games, including questions about whether LGBTQ visitors feel safe and welcome. Some fans have been prevented from bringing items in the stadiums with the colors of the rainbow, a symbol of LGBTQ rights.

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

Some who heard al-Sadr’s plea on Friday alluded to the World Cup culture wars.

In Kufa, a city in al-Sadr’s home province of Najaf province, hundreds of people lined up to sign the pledge on Friday. Kazem al-Husseini, imam of a local mosque, denied that the campaign was prompted 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 is a fear that the West is pressuring 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 was against “the corruptions that have come to us from Europe and elsewhere, what they call freedom. We also have the freedom to reject the lie, to reject corruption”.

Despite the campaign’s nominal pledge to non-violence, LGBTQ people in Iraq fear it will lead to more harassment and abuse in a country where their identities already put them in jeopardy.

A Human Rights Watch report released earlier this year accused armed groups in Iraq of abducting, 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 partnership with Iraqi rights group IraQueer also accused Iraqi police and security forces of often being complicit in escalating anti-LGBTQ violence and arresting individuals “at because of the non-compliant appearance”.

“Attacks against LGBT people in Iraq have long been a political tactic,” Rasha Younes, an LGBTQ rights researcher with the group, said in an emailed statement. Public speeches such as al-Sadr’s “have served to undermine LGBT rights and fuel violence against LGBT Iraqis, who already face killings, kidnappings, torture and sexual violence by armed groups with impunity,” he added.

A queer-identifying college student from Najaf who requested anonymity out of fear for his safety said that although he is not openly LGBTQ, he was frequently harassed on the street for wearing clothes in colors and styles that did not fit the local conservative norms.

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

“I thought I would wait until I graduate from university and then go to Europe on a student visa, but now… I’m thinking about taking precautions in case of any emergency event so I escape to the nearest safe place,” they said .

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Associated Press writer Ali Abdul-Hassan in Baghdad contributed to the reporting.

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