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Sex Wars and Nation Building in Iraq

The Silent Slaughter

by DAVID ROSEN

The Iraqi political leadership is moving to the right and those identified as unacceptable are paying the harshest price. As U.S. occupation forces attempt to vacate Iraq’s bloody battlefield, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is positioning himself as a stalwart nationalist for the upcoming elections scheduled for January 2010. His efforts are most evident in his use of one of the oldest con-games in the authoritarian leader’s playbook, condoning vicious right-wing attacks on the weakest, most powerless in society.

Faced with a recent escalation in sectarian violence and mounting political disaffection within his strained coalition, al-Maliki and his supporters have sought to push through restrictive policies that appease the most reactionary elements within his faltering coalition.

The Iraqi government is attempting to impose restrictions on Internet service providers and, like the Chinese government, ban sites it claims incite violence or offer pornography. Similarly, efforts to promote women’s rights have come to a near halt as represented most graphically by Nawal al-Samarraie, Iraq’s minister for women’s affairs, decision to resign.

The al-Maliki government’s condoning of the recent up-tick in honor killings of “adulterous” females and “gay” males reveals a far more dangerous, bloody side of the right-wing drift of the Iraqi government.

Saddam Hussein’s regime was brutally oppressive to its perceived enemies, yet surprisingly tolerant when it came to women’s rights (even involving adultery) and to gay people. Hussein oversaw a secular dictatorship, not an Islamist fundamentalist regime.

During the initial phase of the U.S. occupation, Bush promoted a right-wing ideology of “democratic” nation building that required the Iraqi puppet regime to at least give lip service to broadly shared Western “human rights” values. As the U.S. seeks to depart the Iraqi stage, human rights, especially sexual freedoms, are one of the first casualties of Iraq’s new national building efforts.

* * *

An increase in “honor” killings currently haunts the Iraqi political landscape but is receiving little U.S. media attention. Such killings are rooted in ancient patriarchal culture and represent the most severe expression of a rebellion against modernity, the secularism of the global market. They bespeak Iraq’s mounting social crisis.

In Iraq, and other parts of the developing (and religiously fundamentalist) world, an allegation of a wife’s “adultery” or a man’s “homosexuality” can lead to government-sanctioned violent moral justice, including killings. A family or clan believing its reputation defamed by the allegedly unacceptable conduct of one of its members can lead to the killing of the loved-one in order to restore its honor.

Based on a rationality drawn from another historical value system, the “crime” committed is not a civil or legal offense, but rather a moral or tradition transgression: the woman or man who is punished (along with anyone who tries to defend her/him) is considered the guilty party because s/he has defamed the family or clan’s honor. In less tradition-bound societies in the West and other parts of the world, the perpetrator of such an “honor” killing will likely be punished. In Iraq, and other fundamentalist-religious countries, the dishonored party is seen as the victim and exonerated from criminal prosecution.

A recently report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), “They Want Us Exterminated: Murder, Torture, Sexual Orientation and Gender in Iraq,” analyzes the rise in the killings of alleged gay men since January 2009. If estimates that 90 men have been murdered during this period; however, Ali Hili, a spokesperson for Iraqi LGBT, a UK-based gay rights group, argues that "we have information on over 700 killings including honour killings." [HRW, August 2009]

Amnesty International recounts, in “Trapped by Violence: Women in Iraq,” the story of 17-year-old Rand ‘Abd al-Qader who was killed in Basra in March 2008. Her father murdered her apparently with the assistance of two of her brothers because she had developed a friendship with a British soldier based in the city. Making this killing more perverse, Rand ‘Abd al-Qader’s mother, Leila Hussein, denounced her husband’s crime, left him and was murdered in May 2008. [AI, March 2009]

Hundreds of ostensibly gay men have been targeted and killed in Iraq since the U.S. invasion and occupation. These killings spiked following the U.S. invasion, but declined along with other social violence in the wake of the 2008 “Anbar Awakening” and the subsequent U.S. military “surge.” However, as HRW and others have reported, a new round of gay killings is underway in Iraq. It says that the killings are centered in Baghdad, but have spread to Kirkuk, Najaf and Basra.

Clerics warn that under the occupation, a growing trend of what they consider the "feminization" of Iraqi men is occurring and harsh responses are needed to redress this trend. Many attacks are attributed to a resurgent Mehdi Army, Moqtada al-Sadr’s private Shia militia; it has also been accused of burning down a coffee house in Sadr City that was reputed to be frequented by gay men. More worrisome, the attacks have occurred with the complicity of the Iraqi police; ironically, while homosexuality is condemned as immoral, it is not a crime among consenting adults.

The HRW report is most disturbing recounting the horrendous rage inflicted on the men killed for apparently being gay. Vigilantes often break into homes and forcibly remove the alleged gay men and even seize men on the street. Those seized are subject to vicious interrogations before being murdered, their often mutilated bodies abandoned in garbage dumps.

The report recounts doctors’ testimonials noting that some of the men had their anuses glued and force-fed laxatives to induce excruciating deaths. Others have had their bodies disfigured with terms like "pervert," “son of a bitch” or "puppy," a slur to dehumanize the alleged gay man, inscribed on their chests.

It should be noted that U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, acknowledged the HRW report and voiced concern over attacks against members of the Iraqi LGBT community.

According to the Amnesty report, there has been a marked increase in violence against women perceived to have shamed their families. Such charges can be brought against any woman caught speaking to a man in public who is not her husband or a relative. These women are often considered to be prostitutes and violently punished, often killed; women working as prostitutes are often singled out for violent attacks.

Since the U.S. invasion, the Iraqi government has failed to enact legislation to suppress “honor” violence against women and girls. In fact, current laws condone, even facilitate, such violence. The country’s penal code permits perpetrators of “honor” killings to plead mitigating moral factors and get off with a six months sentence.

The Observer reports that Basra witnessed a 70 percent increase in women victims of “honor” killings during 2008, rising to 81 from 47 women in ’07. It reports that “only five people have been convicted.” It reports that women were being burned in acid attacks walking through the city’s market after speaking to a male friend. A local lawyer insists that the police were protecting perpetrators and that a woman could be killed by a hired hit-man for $100 (£65). [The Observer, November 30, 2008]

Turning to Kurdistan, Patrick Cockburn, writing in the Independent in May 2008, noted that in 2007 at least 350 women (double the number for 2006) were targeted for “honor” attacks. Surprising, many of these women and girls were targeted after “evidence” of an “illicit act” were captured on cell phone pictures. More disturbing, some 600 women and girls in Kurdistan committed suicide by burning, drowning or shooting themselves.

* * *

In anticipation of Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, the neo-con concept of the “clash of civilizations” was promoted as a critical component to the ideological rationale for the imperialist misadventure. Today, the “clash” concept has disappeared from public discourse.

The notion of a clash was originally promulgated by Bernard Lewis and gained wider acceptance through the writings of Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama. At its core, the neo-cons argued that in a post-Cold War world, new forces emerged to shape global conflicts.

For Huntington et. al., the battle between nation states has been superseded by the battle between cultures or what the neo-cons call civilizations. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, economic competition, class warfare, anti-colonial battles and spheres-of-influence struggles determined global conflict. However, in the post-Cold War millennium, proponents of the “clash” theory argue that a people’s culture, their values, beliefs and religion, has become the determining cause of conflict.

Sexuality, and the attendant issue of “honor” killings, provides a unique window into the alleged clash of civilizations. It is that sphere of human existence in which the twin dimensions of being human are forged. In sex, the truely human (i.e., consciousness) and the truely animal (i.e., physicality) are unified into a singluar experience. This unity is lived out as both species reproduction and erotic pleasure.

Sexuality is also one aspect of socio-personal life that is very much sharpened by “civilization,” by cultural values and religious beliefs as well as by the marketplace and battles between geopolitical empires. Peoples, nations and civilizations have struggled for millennia over the meaning of sexuality, whether for men, women or young people and whether defined as hetrosexual or homosexual.

Explicit and aggressive sexuality is a powerful force dividing the West from, for example, the Arab and Islamic world. It is one of the most threatening dimensions of Western capitalism’s cultural system that is pushing ever-deeper into the intimate, private lives of people throughout the world.

For many, the experience of globalization resonates less in the plunder of a nation’s natural resources or the exploitation of its collective labor power than in the flood of erotic sensibilities challenging established power relations. This apparent assault often provokes the greatest resistance.

Historically, changing sexual relations, whether in the West or Middle East, have upended traditional patriarchial family and social relations. Nothing has proved more socially destablizing then the changing status of women, whether working for a wage outside the home, securing the vote, being freed from restrictive clothing or controlling their reproductive lives. Similiarly, erotic attractions between people of the same sex threaten traditional notions of partriarchy, especially masculity.

As evident from the experience of the West over the last half-century, how can the conventional masculine role be maintained if female identity is remade, along with structrural changes in the marketplace requiring a two-income family. How this process will play out in the Islamic Middle East remains an open question. Unlike the numerous reports and studies of sex practice in the West, little scholarly research about the Middle East is devoted to the study of sex. The Arab and Muslim worlds await its Kinsey.

Life in Iraq, like much of the developing world, is being upended by capitalist globalization. In all likelyhood, this transition would have taken a very different form had the U.S. not invaded Iraq. While severe political violence could have been expected, social or religious violence may well have been contained. However, the “honor” killings of women and (alleged) gay men is but one consequence of the social destabaliztion wrought by the U.S. invasion. The current rise in such violence might well indicate the deeper crisis that awaits Iraq as America’s occupying forces seek to exit the failed military battlefield.

DAVID ROSEN is the author of “Sex Scandals America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming” (Key, 2009); he can be reached at drosen@ix.netcom.com.