Since February, disturbing reports have come out of Iraq that Shiite militia groups have been killing “emo” youth. Between 50 and 100 young men have been killed, typically in “stonings” in which the victim’s head is crushed under a piece of concrete. In the United States, emo is a genre of angsty music with ties to punk. Critic Andy Greenwald associates the success of emo in the American mainstream with the process of national healing that followed September 11th. In a similar trend, Iraqi youth may have adopted emo music and dress to express their sadness over the state of their country and their outrage at their culture’s turn towards theocracy.
While “emo” is already a poorly defined term in America, in Iraq it has become a synonym for homosexuality. A gay culture existed in Iraq before the 2003 invasion. After the fall of Sadam, Islamic militias took control of many parts of the country, effectively suppressing gay culture and enforcing strict dress codes. Gay Iraqis must now take great effort to conceal their identities. Youth wearing “emo” garb, including black or tight-fitting clothing, unusual hairstyles, piercings, nail polish, or skull jewelry are assumed to be homosexuals. In some neighborhoods, militias have produced “death lists,” warning those listed that they have four days to change their style of dress or be targeted for murder.
Fueling this repression is a moral panic with decidedly Western elements: Iraqi emos have also been accused of vampirism and devil worship. High school girls are believed to be particularly susceptible to Satanic vampirism, which is regarded as a corrupting Western influence. Al Sumaria News described rumors that emo youth slit their wrists to drink each other’s blood and engage in mass suicide. These rumors mirror claims by the anti-cult movement in the United States as well as more recent fears that Twilight and other vampire media will somehow turn American teenagers into Satanic murderers. It seems that America has not only exported its music to Iraq, but also its paranoid fantasies that youth culture conceals a network of criminal Satanism.
Another Western element of this crisis is an attempt by government officials to frame interest in emo as a pathology. Kamil Amin of the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry explained that if young people continue to “be emo” beyond the age of 17, their behavior constitutes a medical condition and parents should seek the aid of psychologists and other professionals. Sociologists refer to such claims as “the medicalization of deviance.” There is a long history in the West of categorizing homosexuality as a mental illness. In the 1970s, anti-cult activists also employed medical arguments to explain interest in new religious movements as a form of disease.
The worst part of these crimes is that religious and government leaders appear to simultaneously condemn the killings while expressing sympathy for the killers. Shiite leaders including Moqtada Al-Sadr have condemned the killings as terrorism, but they have also insisted that emo youth are sexual deviants who should be dealt with through legal means. Human rights activists have claimed the government is also complicit in the killings. The Iraqi Ministry of Interior has denied that there is a pattern of killing emo youth and claimed that the murders were unrelated. However, on February 13, the ministry’s website described the emos as Satanists and describes efforts to “eliminate” them. (This message has since been taken down).
While it is tempting to blame the persecution of Iraqi emos on either the alleged intolerance of Islamic culture or imported Western ideas about the dangers of youth culture, the problem appears to be part of a larger pattern of social behavior that occurs across cultures. Social disorder and uncertainty create an environment amenable to conspiracy theories and scapegoating. By simplifying complex problems, beliefs in evil conspiracies are, paradoxically, a source of hope as well as fear. Along with the imagined horrors of blood sucking teenagers and emo hymns to Satan, there is a sense of certainty that everything will be right again once the names on a list are “eliminated.” When the center falls apart, blame is cast on the periphery. The deaths of Iraq’s emo youth serve as a stark reminder that rumors of Satanic conspiracies often end with collective violence against the most marginalized members of society. This is as true in Sadr City as it was in Salem.