Ahmad is only 16 – but for the time being, he sits, virtually imprisoned, in a small room on the roof of a building on the outskirts of Baghdad. His crime? Dressing like a teenager.
Ahmad is what is being referred to in Iraq as an “emo”. In the West, the description emo has become shorthand for a certain style of dressing and music. The teenage devotees of emo tend to prefer their rock music with punk overtones and emotional lyrics and they like to dress all in black, have black hair and accessorise with slightly Gothic imagery, such as skulls or bleeding hearts.
Emo in Europe and North America was the latest evolution of music that started off as “emotional hard core” and the look and music resonated with a certain sort of melancholy outsider.
And whereas in the West, an emo teenager might expect to be harassed by those who didn’t understand their funereal obsession or their dressing up – a lot of critical bystanders thought the costumed nature of the emo look meant the wearer must be homosexual – in Iraq, emo kids are at far more risk.
Emo kids first started to appear in Iraq in 2008; most of them are aged between 12 and 18, the vast majority are male and one imagines the same elements of rebellion that attract Western teens, also attract the Iraqi youth.
This month though, there have been an increasing number of reports that emo Iraqis are being targeted by extremist militias, beaten, persecuted and even killed. While the reports of dozens of deaths remain unverified – they go from 14 deaths to over a hundred murders counted by human rights organizations and gay rights activists - there is no doubt that emo kids are being targeted in some way.
“It all started just after Valentine’s Day,” Samir Odeh, the owner of a Baghdad tattoo parlour, told NIQASH. “I noticed it because some of my former clients, who had asked me to tattoo a skull, came back to ask me to get rid of that tattoo because it could endanger their lives.”
Odeh continued: “The sectarian conflict in Iraq in the past was more merciful compared to this. During the sectarian conflicts, young people could protect themselves and they knew where to hide or where to go for safety. Nowadays, nobody knows who’s going to be targeted next and killed. There’s no escape.”
Ahmad, whose family come from the mainly Shiite Muslim district of Shula in Baghdad, went into hiding when he heard that his name had been mentioned on a list of people threatened with assassination by armed groups.
He tells how his brother came into his room and told him that his name was on this list; he told Ahmad to change out of his black clothes into normal clothing and to pack everything he needed into a bag. Then he brought Ahmad to a small room on the outskirts of Baghdad, instructing him not to leave it.
According to various news media, the extremist groups are opposed to the emo kids because they believe them to be devil worshippers, vampires, adulterers, sexually depraved or homosexuals. Other observers say it’s just that the young men dressed like this are perceived as being “too feminine”.
Ahmad has no idea where the extremists got his name or the names of his friends. And he doesn’t understand why they are being targeted. “We don’t deserve to be murdered,” he says. “We are peaceful, we believe in God and we do not worship the Devil.”
Now Ahmad is terrified that he will have his head smashed in with a rock, which is what he has heard has happened to other emos in Iraq. Ahmad, whohas askulltattooon his left arm, has heard that the militias force young emo men to lie on the ground with their chins on the edge of the sidewalk; they then crush the victims’ heads with large rocks.
According to an Iraqi TV station, last Friday several Arabic language websites published two lists containing up to 80 names, along with addresses. The lists were printed out and then hung on walls around Baghdad. The names on the lists included those of teenage emos as well as death threats against them if they don’t abandon their emo ways within four days.
Prominent human rights activist Yanar Mohammed describes these campaigns of harassment and murder as “organized crime”. For those who believe the emo kids are devil worshippers or homosexual, the teens break a number of social and religious taboos in Iraq and Mohammed believes that not much is being done to help them. In fact, she has concerns that even the local police, who she believes are unsympathetic, are involved in harassing the emos.
One of the emo kids she spoke with said that his friends had been arrested by the police in Baghdad and then handed over to the extremists. If this is true, Mohammed says, "it would be disastrous if the police were complicit with the militias in crimes committed against these emos.”
In a statement to NIQASH, senior Baghdadi policeman Mustaq Talib Mohammedawi, who is in charge of community policing, denied that the police were involved in this way.
“The security forces have no problems with emos,” he said. “They are peaceful and they’re no threat to us.” Mohammedawi also said that there had been only one adolescent death reported and that this had nothing to do with the campaign against emos.
Additionally, Mohammedawi stated, “police officersor members of the security forces have no right to arrest anycitizenwithout a warrant. The local police would only get involved if there was homosexuality involved, drugs or any other violations against the norms of Iraqi society”.
This was despite the fact that some reports indicate earlier comments by Mohammedawi to the contrary. And the policeman went on to say that the emos did seem “strange” and that they could be “a social danger”. In fact, Mohammedawi said, “I have received complaints from parents requesting our assistance because they can’t prevent their children from becoming emo.”
As a result, Mohammedawi said, the community police were working together with the Iraqi Ministries of Education and of Human rights to “educate young people about the danger of imported ideas and their impact on Iraqi society”.
Religious authorities also weighed in on the emo issue. “The targeted killings of young people in Baghdad is not permitted under Islam,” Ali al-Waeth, deputy to the highest religious authority for Shiite Muslims in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, told NIQASH. “Islam is a religion that persuades people; it does not condone murder. So what we should be doing is educating young people about dangerous ideas – instead of killing them.”
“Murdering these emos has an impact on civilian peace in this country and it gives extremist groups more power than the law,” al-Waeth stated and criticized the Iraqi authorities for not taking their responsibilities in this matter seriously enough. “They only care about their own positions and they don’t care about the state of Iraqi society – they’re happy to leave innocent citizens unaware and uneducated,” he argued.
“It’s true that the emo style contradicts our norms and our religious values,” Kamil Ameen, spokesman for Iraq\'s Ministry of Human Rights, said. “The idea of emo that’s been becoming more popular among young people is all about the imitation of others, with the wearing of certain costumes and colours. But it is not yet common practice,” he explained.
“And this campaign of intimidation and murder is wrong. Instead we should be seeking specialists who can help make young people more aware of this phenomenon and its dangers. The state should deal with this phenomenon in a logical manner. If these practices are wrong, then we must help young people to abandon them instead of threatening, terrifying and murdering them.”
“The Iraqi Constitution is clear in guaranteeing personal freedoms,” Ameen added. At the same time though, Ameen felt the government should monitor the situation so that “the emergence of new groups with strange identities and thoughts could be prevented”.
As for Baghdad teenager Ahmad, he remains pale and tired and unable to sleep because of the threats against him. Despite his fear though, Ahmad also remains somewhat defiant: “It doesn’t make any sense to stay in this room,” he told NIQASH. “After all, I chose this lifestyle because it was about free will.”