With everything else plaguing Iraq today – continued sectarianism, rampant corruption, irregular electricity, barely functioning healthcare, ten years’ worth of depleted uranium shells (courtesy of the US occupation) causing cancer and birth defects – hardcore Shia militants have decided that the gravest threat to Iraq comes from the small (but growing) number of fans of the genre of post-punk music known as "emo."
In the past several weeks, an unknown number of young Iraqis have been murdered – in cold blood – reportedly because of their supposed love for emo, a genre of hardcore rock that emerged in Washington, DC, in the late 1980s and early 1990s and known originally as "emotional hardcore" or "emocore". Emo is distinguished from other forms of hardcore by its more "pop" sound and its lyrical focus on emotional, expressive or confessional lyrics.
Critics of the genre consider the music effete, or feminine, as it lacks the hard and supposedly masculine edge of more traditional punk, hardcore or heavy metal.
A history of attacks on rock ‘n’ roll
Attacks on young people in the Muslim world because of their taste in music is neither new nor unique to the region. So-called "extreme" forms of heavy metal, hip-hop, punk and hardcore music have long been popular, not merely in the West but globally – precisely because the anger, despair and intensity of the music reflects the tumult of emotions and uncertain identities that define adolescence and young adulthood in every culture.
The Middle East is a particularly welcoming environment for these types of music because young people across the region have suffered the pain and ravages of war, authoritarian and social oppression with particular ferocity. As a founder of the Moroccan metal scene put it: "We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal."
If that’s how the kids feel in Morocco, imagine the appeal of metal in a war-torn, occupation-torn and terror-torn country such as Iraq (or its neighbour Iran, which boasts far more developed metal and hip-hop scenes than Iraq). We can see first-hand how relevant the music is in Iraq from one of the most powerful scenes of the documentary "Heavy Metal in Baghdad", which brought the plight of Iraq’s small but powerful metal scene to the world’s attention. Pointing to the violent cover art of an Iron Maiden CD, "Death on the Road", one of the members of the band Acrassicauda, which was featured in the film, said: "This is what life looks like here." Another member explained: "If I didn’t play drums as hard as I can, I would kill somebody."
Until now, it was largely metalheads who faced the most extreme ire of conservatives in the Muslim world. The genre’s reputation for "Satanism" and debauchery have long since made it a lightning rod for attacks by Christian conservatives in the West. In recent decades, it has been attracting similar attention from religious and political leaders in the Muslim world. In the 1990s and early 2000s, "Satanic metal" scares saw scores of metalheads arrested, beaten, prosecuted and threatened with execution by their countries’ religious and political establishments.
With their focus on violence, war and corruption, hardcore metal and hip-hop were natural channels for young people in the Arab and Muslim world to express their anger at their countries’ patriarchal, repressive and sclerotic political and social systems. Whether it was Indonesia in 1998, Tehran in 2009, Tunis in 2010 or Cairo a few weeks later, metalheads, rappers and punks anticipated and could be found at the front lines of most of the major political upheavals of the past decade and a half in the Arab and larger Muslim world.
Indeed, the anger, despair and emotion so effectively channelled by these genres of music are the same anger, despair and emotion that drove Mohamed Bouazizi to set himself on fire, and that drove hundreds of thousands of young Tunisians, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Yemenis, Libyans and others into the streets against such great odds.
Toleration, but within limits
Even before the Arab Spring, metal and hip-hop had become increasingly tolerated in countries such as Morocco, Egypt and even Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, earlier this year a group of young punks in Indonesia’s Aceh province, which is governed according to a strict interpretation of Sharia, were arrested, had their heads shaved and were sent for "re-education" with the goal of "saving them" and keeping them from "shaming their parents".
But this is nothing compared with the horrific practice of "death by blocking" ("mawt al-blokkah") – smashing cinderblocks onto each side of a person’s head, which was allegedly used to kill the Iraqi emos.
Why is it that emos are under such fierce attack?
First of all, there is a chance that the number of actual murders based on supposed affiliation to emo music is well below the numbers offered by the media, which vary from well under two dozen to almost 100 victims. Indeed, according to a Human Rights Watch report, several of those killed were heavy metal musicians, while young women were severely beaten merely for "dressing fashionably."
According to one source in the Iraqi police, the actual number is likely well under a dozen, although that number is probably low. Even this number represents a horrible crime. What’s worse, it’s a crime that was motivated at least in part by the Iraqi Interior Ministry’s accusations that the emo community engaged in Satan worship and other "immoral activities". The ministry allegedly created a special police task force to "hunt" them, clearly setting the public tone that legitimised violence by extremist Shia.
Indeed, regardless of the actual number of victims, it’s doubtful all of them would have classified themselves as emos; that is, as hardcore fans of the genre. The bloody photos of the murdered young men that are circulating around the internet feature the kinds of clothing that young men in the Arab world who are trying to look fashionable have long worn. And their haircuts, while particularly styled, were not far outside the norm for young Arabs.
An Iraqi friend pointed out to me: "I have two brothers in the police, including the police intelligence. They dress like this and one has the same haircuts as the emos. No one has bothered them." And yet, as a report by al-Arabiya makes clear, there is a growing emo subculture in Baghdad. In fact, there are a growing number of stores in Baghdad that openly sell rock ‘n’ roll merchandise, including, until the wave of killings, emo-related paraphernalia.
The fact that stores are opening across Baghdad that cater to rock ‘n’ roll tastes is a testament to the real, if slow and unsteady, process of normalisation in Iraq – residents of Baghdad still don’t have regular access to electricity, but until last week they could buy the trademark emo skull on a t-shirt. And it is precisely this process of slow normalisation, of seeming "Westernisation" without the direct interference and presence of the US occupation, that is so frightening various elements of Iraqi society with the means and willingness to stigmatise, ostracise and attack anyone who threatens their perception of what a proper Iraqi should look like, and how he or she should behave.
In a conservative society, few behaviours or identities are more threatening to the keepers of public morality than perceived homosexuality. Especially in a culture in which men and women spend so much time segregated by gender, the need to police the boundaries between homosocial and homosexual becomes a central focus of government and social action in order to preserve the social order.
Yet the attacks on suspected homosexuals has much less to do with their sexual orientation than it does with power and control. Indeed, in more than half a dozen years of attacks on suspected gays in Iraq, attackers have raped the gay men they attacked for being gay, a phenomenon that is not at all uncommon and is related to the similar types of sexual violence visited upon prostitutes, who have also been the victims of police death squads in Iraq.
A leading Iraqi gay activist describes the situation today: "The government has declared war on sexual minorities. They are trying to rally the streets of Baghdad. Yesterday and the last six or seven days – we have videos and films of those patrols – with a megaphone, they’re saying: ‘If anyone who has any information about anyone who is a pervert, an infidel, part of the homosexual network, you have to declare it or you face consequences.’ Anyone who harbours anyone who is, according to them, an illegal citizen, will face consequences."
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