Iraq, vague laws and minorities

persecution-of-gays-in-iraqThat tmatt file of GetReligion guilt is getting pretty deep, in part because of two weeks of dizzying travel -- a combination of vacation, work and a funeral for a loved one. Some of this older material raises journalistic issues that I believe are really crucial. So with that in mind, let's flash back to a recent USA Today story that pivoted on one of the crucial questions facing American officials in the wake of our second involvement in the future of Iraq. That question: Will the harsh penalties of Sharia law return, officially or unofficially? In other words, what happens to the rule of law in Iraq if the police are unwilling to stop a riot?

This is serious. Here's the lede, which focuses on an issue that should worry everyone, not just the cultural left:

BAGHDAD -- The young man turns to the camera and pleads with his tormentors.

"I'm not a terrorist," he tells the Iraqi police who surround him. "I want you to know I am different. But I am not a terrorist."

To some fundamentalist Iraqi Muslims, Ahmed Sadoun Saleh was worse than a terrorist. He was gay. He wore his hair long and took female hormones to grow breasts. Amused by his appearance, Iraqi police officers stopped him in December at a checkpoint in a southern Baghdad neighborhood dominated by radical Shiite militias. They groped Saleh and ridiculed him.

The assault was captured on video and circulated on cellphones throughout Baghdad, says Ali Hili, founder of London-based Iraqi LGBT, a group dedicated to protecting Iraq's gays and lesbians. Shortly after the video was made public, Hili says Saleh contacted him, fearing for his life, and asked for his help to flee Iraq.

"Unfortunately, it was too late," Hili says. Saleh turned up dead two months later, he says.

In the past eight months or so, activists report that 82 gay men have been killed in Iraq.

This long and highly detailed story has two major religious themes, neither one of which is explored in depth. This is, literally, tragic. Read on.

The violence has raised questions about the Iraqi government's ability to protect a diverse range of vulnerable minority groups that also includes Christians and Kurds, especially following the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities last month.

Mithal al-Alusi, a secular, liberal Sunni legislator, is among those who blame the killings on armed militant groups such as al-Qaeda and the Mahdi Army militia. By targeting one of the most vulnerable groups in a conservative Muslim society -- people whose sexual orientation is banned by Iraqi law -- the militias essentially are serving notice that they remain powerful despite the U.S. and Iraqi militaries' efforts to curtail them, al-Alusi says.

You might ask whether homosexual "orientation" is banned or whether sexual acts by gays, lesbians and bisexuals or banned. You could also ask whether these kinds of distinctions make any difference to Islamists in Iraq.

But note that the story says this is an issue of "Iraqi law." This is never explained. You mean that national laws passed in the wake of the U.S. occupation -- supposedly secular laws -- make these kinds of acts against religious and cultural minorities legal? If that's the case, why is this an issue of activity by nonofficial militias? Do regular police enforce the same laws?

Of course, another question remains unasked. What does Islamic law actually say about homosexuality? Are we actually talking about the enforcement of religious, not state, laws? Is there a difference?

The story also says a variety of minorities are being persecuted. I understand that there is little room to explore that theme, since this story has a strong -- and valid -- focus on the violence against gays. But it is interesting that these issues are woven together in the context of the new Iraq.

So, secular law or religious law? Read on:

Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf ... says the ministry has assigned a special bureau to investigate the killings of gays; he says he knows of six gays who had been executed as of May.

Homosexuality, Khalaf says, is against the law and "is rejected by the customs of our society." He adds, however, that offenders should be handled by the courts, not dispatched by vigilante groups.

What kind of law are we talking about? Don't you want to know?

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