New Internationalist Article: The Dangers Of Being Gay In The Muslim World!!
To be gay in post-invasion Iraq
Exiled – and still receiving death fatwas – Ali Hili is keeping up the fight for his gay compatriots.
|Left: 1920s Iraqi trans singer Masoud al Amaratly. Right: When Ali’s friend sent him this photo of them at a Baghdad disco in the late 1980s, he scratched out Ali’s face to protect him.|
I used to work as a DJ at the 1001 nightclub in Baghdad at the al-Rashid hotel. I started working there when I won a DJ contest in 1987. It was a great scene – lots of dance parties – and a hang-out for the gay community.
When I was 18, I had a partner who was a foreign diplomat. Iraqi intelligence forced me to become a spy and report back to them, threatening that they would kill my family if I didn’t.
This went on for almost 10 years. I wanted to leave. I tried to escape once via Kurdistan but was arrested and handed over to Iraqi police. I used my connections to escape a jail sentence. The police asked me, why do you want to leave? I said life was hard under sanctions and I couldn’t make a living. So they sent me to Dubai to work for them. There I met my current partner – a Texan. I explained the situation to him and he understood. I started to get harassed by the mukhabarat [secret police] – they wanted information from me. We tried to escape to Dubai via the US embassy and were able to get to Europe. Eventually after many difficulties – constant threats from Iraqi secret police, several failed attempts and many traumatic incidents (including being nearly deported back to Iraq) – I made it to England in 2002. My partner had a job there. For the last seven years I’ve been fighting for the right to stay and seeking political asylum. I’ve been refused a couple of times already. I was granted permission to stay until 2008 but that’s expired. I’ve received a death fatwa against me from the Ayatollah Sistani in response to my activist work for gays in Iraq. The group that kidnapped British hostages, Assab Alsar Al-Haq (The League of the Righteous), has also threatened me. Now I’m under police protection, moving from house to house. But even the police said to me: ‘You have created this situation. You scream and shout against fundamentalists and they will threaten you. What do you expect?’
The irony is that the situation for gays has been caused by the Anglo-American invasion. The fatwas were issued by people empowered by the invasion. Now Britain should take responsibility for protecting their victims. Some people in Iraq are targeted because they are doctors, or Sunnis or Shi’as or women or Christians. But no-one is talking about the killing of gays by the fundamentalist militias. One of my best friends – a transsexual – was murdered by a militia from the Ministry of the Interior. They beat her and then set her on fire.
I never studied human rights – never thought I’d be leading an organization that advocates for LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] people. But this is something I’m compelled to do because of the lovers, friends, neighbours and relatives I’ve lost.
Some US-based human rights groups have been contacting gays in Iraq and trying to get them out. But this only endangers them. It’s a death sentence for people to come out and campaign. Someone I spoke to recently was arrested, detained and severely beaten just for belonging to our organization.
But leaving Iraq is not the solution. We can’t just evacuate everyone. That will give fundamentalists a reason to think they have won. There’s a long and proud gay history in Iraq. Just look at the poetry – like the Rumi poems where he always spoke of his lover, Shams. Or Abu Nawas who celebrated his love for young men in verse. There are examples of Caliphs who had male partners, like Muhammed al Amin. In modern history we had singers, actors, trans people, like female-to-male Masoud al Amaratly, a singer popular in the 1920s. Under King Faisal we had a secular, open society. We were one of the first Arab countries to have women ambassadors and a liberal civil code.
Now this new wave of Islam – that came out of the dens of evil – has been imposed on us. Wahhabist Islam from Saudi Arabia, financed by the US and fundamentalist Shi’a groups imported from Iran; religious parties established and funded by Iran that were banned under the old regime. Ironically, for a once-secular society, Iraq is now a more dangerous place to be gay than Iran.
The agenda is to divide Iraqi society and empower fundamentalists on all sides. There are good, moderate Islamic groups like the Islamic Party of Iraq who have been calling for a moderate secular Islam and the separation of religion from politics. Instead, their leaders have been assassinated. There’s a campaign against moderates by those close to the prime minister.
The Iraqi Government is corrupt and dangerous when it comes to personal freedom: anyone who opposes their agenda is ‘disappeared’. Our struggle as an LGBT people is the struggle of Iraqis in general. Some of the Western gay rights groups are in denial about the connection between the invasion and the empowerment of fundamentalists – and the terrible situation for gays today. But the invasion was a catastrophe that destroyed Iraq culturally, morally – in all aspects.
We need more people to speak out about this. We need support for our organization, for the people inside; we need help, we need funds. Perhaps the world has become indifferent to the suffering of Iraqis – it’s a big guilt for the world – everyone wants the nightmare to disappear. But it won’t go away.
As told to Hadani Ditmars.
Ali Hili’s group Iraqi LGBT has established several safe houses in Iraq with the assistance of the Dutch organization, HIVOS. He lives in London under police protection. For more information or to make a donation see: