Panic is spreading among young people in Iraq after reports by Iraqi media and rights groups that dozens of people have been threatened or killed in the past few weeks because they are suspected of being gay or because they dress in the distinctive, gothic style known as emo.
Lists threatening named people with death unless they change their attitude circulated anonymously late last week in Baghdad.
Clerics, and at least one police official, have condemned the emo – short for emotional – craze for its gloomy music and macabre look, which includes tight clothes and styled hair. The trend began in the ’80s in the West but has only recently become popular in the Arab world.
Some urban Iraqi teens and twentysomethings who had embraced the Western influences slowly permeating the country say they are cutting their hair and putting aside their fashionable clothes, abruptly reminded that Iraq remains both conservative and dangerous.
Police and medical officials deny that anyone has been killed for ”being an emo”, but a spokesman for the Interior Ministry said that four men believed to be gay had been found dead in Baghdad last month and the body of a young man was found in the city last week with a head injury caused by a large rock or brick.
One image has become a gruesome emblem of the killings. Widely circulated on Facebook, it shows a young man dressed in a white jacket with carefully coiffed hair. Alongside the picture is another image, showing the same man dead and bloody in the back of a truck.
An Iraqi woman who worked as a media trainer in Baghdad and asked not to be named as she feared retribution, identified him as Saif Raad, a student of hers, who had died on February 17.
”I think he was killed because of the way he was dressed,” she said. ”People used to call him Saif the bride.”
Ali Hilli, an Iraqi activist with the London group Iraqi LGBT (the abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender), has obtained a police report saying that Raad was beaten to death.
Mr Hilli said that members of Iraq’s gay community had reported a sharp increase in attacks since early last month, mainly in the conservative, predominantly Shiite southern cities of Nasiriyah and Kufa. He said more than 30 gay men had been killed recently by unknown perpetrators.
Hanaa Edwar of the al-Amal human rights group in Baghdad said the terms emo and gay are often conflated to mean a person, especially a young man, whose appearance or manner is considered effeminate, Western or in some way different.
The rumours have sent Baghdad’s youth to hairdresssers to have long hair cut, and many who wear clothes in the emo style are choosing to stay at home.
The impetus behind the apparent spike in attacks was not clear, but the emo label has come under close scrutiny.
Last month, the Interior Ministry released a statement saying a community policing division had been ”following up on the phenomenon of emo, or satanists”.
The statement said police had obtained ”official approval to eliminate them as soon as possible”, but officials have insisted the statement did not mean that people would be harmed.