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Rainbow flags over Baghdad fan debate, spur fear

In what both progressive and conservative critics considered a tone-deaf step to support Iraq’s LGBTQ community, several Western embassies’ raising of the rainbow flag did not have its intended effects.
Gay rights activist Chi Chia-wei waves a rainbow flag during a rally to support the upcoming same-sex marriage referendum, in Taipei, Taiwan November 18, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu - RC1650EE2B70

The embassies of Canada and the United Kingdom and the offices of the World Bank and the European Union raised rainbow LGBTQ flags in Baghdad to mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia on May 17. 

Though welcomed by liberals, the gesture prompted an online backlash, strenuous objections by Islamic parties and PMU militias and spurred fear among Iraq’s LGBTQ community. The fierce online commentary from conservatives forced the embassies to delete tweets that showed the colorful flag fluttering alongside the flags of the European Union, Canada and Iraq. 

The hashtag #No_to_LGBT_flag_in_Iraq trended on Twitter, particularly among supporters of controversial Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Many users shared a photograph of a rainbow flag being burned, warned its hoisting would have consequences, called to bring back the death squads that used to kill gay men with concrete blocks and religious posts condemning homosexuality. Others took the opportunity to accuse the anti-government protests that began in October 2019 of being funded by foreign embassies, sharing a photo of protesters in Baghdad with their fingers painted in rainbows. Some even called to expel the diplomatic delegations altogether.

On Sunday, Iraq's Foreign Ministry issued a statement denouncing the flags as against "the noble moral principles of all divine religions" and adding, "We remind all the missions operating in Iraq to adhere to the laws of the country and to follow diplomatic norms." 

Adel Albdeewy, a political scientist at Baghdad University and the head of Baghdad-based Governance Center for Public Policies, thinks that the flags' use did violate diplomatic protocols. 

The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations’ Article 20 states that the mission has the right to use the sending state’s flag and emblem on the mission’s premises and means of transport,” said Albdeewy. “The 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations’ Article 29 also states the sending state’s right to use its national flag [but] most importantly to exercise this right in accordance with the receiving state’s laws, regulations and usages.” 

Albdeewy thinks that foreign delegations are not permitted to raise flags not recognized by the host country. “They have to respect the local values and regulations and avoid triggering the local community, especially in Ramadan, a month revered by the country’s Muslim majority,” he added. 

Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a Washington-based Iraqi-American analyst and graduate of Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, thinks the basic functions of any diplomatic mission are to promote friendly relations between the host country and the home country. “They lost much of the local support by this unlearned step,” he said.

Ironically, the incident coincided with the publication of a sixth-grade Islamic educational text by Iraq’s Ministry of Education with a rainbow on the cover. The ministry rapidly announced that it had changed the cover in response to criticism.

Sadr's Sairoon bloc said the gesture was "unacceptable," condemning any behavior that contradicts Iraq’s culture and religion. The cleric later posted a series of tweets in which he took aim at the LGBTQ community saying its members were "mentally ill and in need of recovery and guidance."

The words contradict Sadr’s statement in 2016 urging an end to violence against gay and gender-nonconforming people. At the time, Human Rights Watch welcomed the statement, hoping it might end the atrocities, kidnappings, execution and torture by militia groups, including Sadr’s Mahdi Army and League of the Righteous, of gay men and men perceived to be gay between 2009 and 2015. The killings began in Baghdad’s neighborhood of Sadr City, a Mahdi Army stronghold.

In March, Sadr blamed LGBT+ people for the COVID-19 outbreak, claiming that same-sex marriage was among the causes of the global pandemic. 

Observers expressed fears of a possible violent backlash. 

“Sadr’s supporters threatened to kill gays online. A day later, a person was shot dead with a silencer in Sadr City. The body was left with a letter in his hand telling Iraqi families to warn their sons against homosexual activities,” said Noor al-Qaisi, a Sweden-based Iraqi activist and blogger. 

In her work on this issue in 2011, al-Qaisi found that some of the men had been killed over their effeminate appearance. 

“Some of the victims were not gay. A handsome man was killed by a militiaman out of jealousy when the killer’s beloved woman expressed admiration for the victim,” she said. “In Iraq, people misunderstand the concepts of homosexuality, gender identity disorder and pedophilia. All non-heterosexual practices are considered homosexuality.”

Al-Qaisi thinks the situation is getting worse. “The society is against effeminate people in particular,” she said. “Those who even rape children are not despised or rejected. It is about masculinity.” 

Amir Ashour, executive director of the US-based IraQueer, Iraq’s first LGBT rights organization, blames political leaders for branding homosexuality as alien to Iraq.

“Diversity exists everywhere. LGBT+ Iraqis are not calling for the erasure of the Iraqi identity or the importation of Western values,” Ashour wrote. “We are calling for recognition that the Iraqi identity is larger than what figures like Sadr aim to portray. We are calling for the protection of human lives. These are universal human rights, not Western values.”

While Iraq’s Penal Code does not directly criminalize same-sex intimacy, Article 394 criminalizes extra-marital sexual relations.

In March 2019, IraQueer submitted a report on violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Iraq to the UN Human Rights Council. The report indicates that from 2015 to 2018, the Islamic State was responsible for 10% of crimes against LGBT people, while the government's forces and affiliated armed groups were responsible for 53%.

“The step was not wise, especially in Ramadan, a holy month for religious Muslims,” said Ahmed Menawer, a 26-year-old student at Mosul University. “They considered it a challenge to them. The EU deleted the post in an offense to European values, too. They should support the LGBT with laws and pressure on politicians who want to kill the community members. Such timid support is not useful.” 

US-based Iraqi journalist Riyadh Mohammed criticized the gesture’s timing. 

“The ambassadors' behavior was fully consistent with other Eurocentric Orientalist practices that never fully understand other cultures, especially the Islamic,” said Mohammed. “Many experts have always tried to explain that any process of changing a culture — especially for a major old one that dominates more than a billion of people — must originate from within. Any attempt to ridicule it with the aim of changing it only strengthens the hardest forces in the culture concerned.”

While the act moved stagnant water, if that was the goal, it will most likely lead to persecution of Iraq’s homosexuals and justify accusing them of espionage and working for the West, he added. Mohammed thinks the act lacked political intelligence and will adversely affect Iraq’s protests in the name of human rights principles for all Iraqis. 

“The youth are facing a corrupt and criminal ruling political class using religiosity to perpetuate its thefts and crimes,” he said. “This behavior is only in the interest of this corrupt class, which has been accusing protesters of espionage and dissolution.” 

Makhzoomi, the Washington-based analyst, agrees that such a move will only benefit the militias. 

“Are these diplomatic missions willing to protect Iraq’s LGBTQ community? Or was it just an act of sympathy?” asked Makhzoomi. “Will they be able to secure a visa and refugee status for those who can’t talk openly about their sexuality, fearing for their lives? If not, then what was the purpose of such action?”