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Iraq's Sadr takes aim at LGBTQ community

Leader of the Sadrist movement Muqtada al-Sadr made the headlines again in Iraq by announcing his opposition to homosexuality, several months into his withdrawal from the political process.
Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gives a speech in the central holy shrine city of Najaf, Iraq, Aug. 30, 2022.

The controversy surrounding LGBTQ rights for participants and spectators at this year's FIFA World Cup in Qatar have inspired new moves against the LGBTQ community in Iraq, where political leaders and parliamentarians are seeking to pass a law that criminalizes homosexuality.

On Dec. 3, a mass anti-LGBTQ campaign was launched in Baghdad’s Sadr City, less than 24 hours after leader of the Sadrist movement Muqtada al-Sadr called for collecting 1 million signatures "in support of the fight against the LGBTQ community," so that "it does not spread vice,” as Sadr put it.

In his call, Sadr said, “Faithful men and women around the world should unite in order to combat the LGBTQ community, not with violence, nor with murder and threats, but with education, awareness, logic and high moral standards.”

Amir Ashour, founder of IraQueer, an Iraqi organization that advocates for the rights of the LGBTQ community in Iraq, told Al-Monitor, “It seems that Sadr has nothing but the LGBTQ community to focus on. Iraqis are suffering from power cuts, as environmental pollution continues to worsen amid high unemployment and crime rates. Iraq is facing problems of corruption, but Sadr’s priority seems to be targeting a marginalized group. Anyone who incites against citizens is a terrorist, not a leader.”

He said, “Sadr’s stances on the LGBTQ community increase violence against us. Sadr has followers who trust him and abide by his orders, even if such orders do not make sense. So violence will increase against this community.”

Sadr was the first to sign the campaign he launched by putting his signature on a paper, written in both Arabic and English, against the LGBTQ community.

While no political, religious or societal institutions showed support for Sadr’s positions, some individuals did voice support on social media and through media outlets. In the meantime, the Sadrists are working on collecting the 1 million signatures, which if achieved could help the Shiite cleric gauge his own support ahead of the next elections that are expected to be held in late 2023.

Immediately following Sadr’s call to combat the LGBTQ community, Twitter was flooded with posts using the hashtag #LGBTQ community. Over 134,000 tweets were written within 36 hours, most of which showed solidarity with the leader of the Sadrist movement.

In conjunction with Sadr’s new stance, Iraqi member of parliament Soran Omar Saeed sent a letter Dec. 3 to the speaker of the House of Representatives, along with the signatures of 25 members of parliament, to support legislation banning LGBTQ propaganda.

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, told Al-Monitor, “Sadr’s efforts to stigmatize and attack the LGBT community are both serious and uneducated, especially in an environment where the Iraqi LGBT community — including children — is suffering from an unprecedented level of violence, torture and harassment.”

Whitson, who previously served as the Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), noted, “Sadr’s erroneous attempts at portraying gay Iraqis as people suffering from a disease, contradict science and [history]. Instead of contributing to the violence and discrimination plaguing the country, Sadr should come to terms with the fact that gay people are a normal part of Iraqi society, like any other society in the world. At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of the Iraqi government to protect the Iraqi gay community and ensure that they are protected from the hate and discrimination promoted by people like Sadr.”

Sadr’s followers describe the LGBTQ community as demonic, and although they started a campaign for signatures, they do not know where their signatures will be sent. Ibrahim al-Jabri, director of Sadr’s office in Baghdad, said, “Leader of the Sadrist movement Muqtada al-Sadr is the one who will determine whom it will be subsequently sent to.”

A campaign is underway in the federal parliament and the parliament of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to pass a law banning the promotion of homosexuality. On July 8, the federal parliament started a campaign to collect signatures to pass an anti-homosexuality law, and the Kurdistan Region parliament followed suit, as it proceeded to pass a law punishing the LGBTQ community and their defenders.

In comments about the Iraqi Kurdistan parliament's draft law, HRW said, “If approved, it would punish any individual or group that defends the rights of homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgender people (LGBT people).”

Ashour added, “Attempts to pass a law in parliament will not change anything in the lives of most Iraqis. The only thing it does is that it legally targets a group in society, despite Iraq’s international commitments to human rights. We call on the parliament to focus on the lives of citizens, and we will be the first to support it. We are committed to defending our rights, whatever the cost.”

Sadr’s stances on homosexuality go back six years. On March 28, 2020, Sadr said that “the spread of the coronavirus was due to the legalization of same-sex marriage,” and at that time he called on the Western countries that had legalized it to abolish these laws.

On May 17, 2020, the mission of the European Union and the British and Canadian embassies raised the rainbow flag at their headquarters in Baghdad, which sparked a wave of anger in Iraq. At the time, Sadr said, “This is an export of sin and immorality.”

On July 7, 2016, Sadr’s office issued a directive stipulating that homosexuals should not be attacked. HRW praised his move and called on government officials to heed his statement. In the same statement, HRW indicated that the Mahdi Army, the armed faction affiliated with Sadr, had committed acts of killing, torture and violence against the LGBTQ community years ago.

In the event that the Iraqi parliament enacts a law banning the promotion of homosexuality, this could provide an incentive to extremist groups to commit acts of violence against them, as happened a decade ago when extremist Islamic groups committed acts of killings against the LGBTQ community in Baghdad.

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