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Saturday 11 April 2015

ISIS, LGBT Equality and Solidarity

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 12th March 2015

The Key administration is about to decide the extent of New Zealand's commitment to any proposed international retaliatory action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. However, for LGBT New Zealanders, as for many of our fellow citizens, this may be a difficult issue to grasp.

Back in 1993, New Zealand passed the Human Rights Act and put an end to military service discrimination, with little dissent from the armed forces chief of staff. As long as someone was competent in combat, that was all that mattered. Over time, same-sex couples and their children have moved into family quarters, and some have been posted overseas to various peacekeeping and other military duties. Some undoubtedly served in Afghanistan, where New Zealand's commitment was largely limited to medical and humanitarian infrastructure provision. Whether that commitment will ultimately yield permanent results is a moot point. Afghanistan is a highly fragmented nation of multiple contending religious and ethnic factions, which affect state building but also hamper the Taliban from resurrecting their late nineties theocratic regime for the same reason. It is telling that New Zealand granted requests from Afghans who had provided assistance to New Zealand troops in Helmand Province as interpreters. In all, ten New Zealand service personnel lost their lives during New Zealand's tenure in Afghanistan. We got involved in that conflict because New Zealanders were killed when al Qaeda launched its murderous attack on New York's Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 amidst its three thousand civilian casualties. However, at best, the outcome of our involvement in that particular conflict is ambiguous. Afghanistan's government may not have collapsed (yet), but the decade of conflict has destabilised neighbouring Pakistan and fomented radical Sunni Islamist antagonisms within it. The Taliban did execute a handful of gay men, but at the same time, there is a strong domestic tradition of same-sex male relationships and sexuality.

What about Iraq? In 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein annexed neighbouring Kuwait. During the eighties, he had been financed and armed by the United States because their former ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran, was now governed by an anti-American Shia Islamist dictatorship. Unfortunately, the dictator interpreted US non-intervention against the use of poison gas against Iraqi Shia, Iranian soldiers and Kurdish cities during the Iran-Iraq War of the eighties as carte blanche for further military adventurism outside that context. The consequence was the Gulf War of 1990-1, which the United States led against Iraq and which resulted in its expulsion from Kuwait, but no regime change. That had to wait for another decade, albeit with CIA subversion attempts, sporadic bombing forays, continued economic sanctions and finally, in 2003, an Anglo-American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq for the next eleven years. Saddam Hussein was located and executed after a summary trial. However, decades of Saddam's dictatorial rule had crippled Iraq's civil society, that set of non-governmental civic institutions that nurture and cement effective democratic involvement and citizenship. While Iraqi resistance groups did exist, most were necessarily situated outside Iraq and had no firm roots in Iraqi society. Consequently, religious institutions occupied the power vacuum, with predictably detrimental results. Under Saddam, Sunni Muslims had dominated the Iraqi state and political institutions, but without the regime, Shia Muslim paramilitary groups took over governance of Baghdad suburbs and began to harass, abduct, assault, torture and execute gay men within that city. Resultantly, many lesbian and gay Iraqis fled the country. Over the last decade, I've noted accounts from Iraq about this steady deterioration in lesbian and gay human rights, which has been covered in a number of excellent articles in Australia's DNA magazine during that period.
Insofar as Shia homophobic persecution goes, the Mahdi Army, the League of the Righteous (Asiab al-Haqq) and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq appear to be the primary instigators.

(Before the fall of Saddam, it should not be assumed that lesbian and gay life in Iraq was utopian. According to Wikipedia, while the Iraqi Criminal Code 1969 may have 'decriminalised' male homosexuality by omission, there are numerous other obstructive elements that shuttered Iraqi lesbian and gay lives. Gay erotic media (Paragraph 215), same-sex marriage certificates (Paragraph 375),immodest acts (Paragraph 401) and immodest advances toward someone of the same sex (Paragraph 402 (b)) indicate some degree of prior repression under Saddam, but nothing of the current intensity, however).

Unfortunately, when it came to Sunni Islamism, the situation was no better. Formed in 2006, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been bankrolled by Sunni religious conservatives in Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia who have taken advantage of the civil war in neighbouring Syria and the weakness of Baghdad's infrastructure and poorly trained and integrated armies to make considerable territorial advances. They first came to international attention in 2014, after they conquered the cities of Mosul (population 1.8 million) and Tikrit, and advanced on Baghdad. It has an estimated 3000-10,000 combatants in the field. At the same time, al Qaeda disowned its leadership for excessive violence in the pursuit of their objectives, such as crucifixion and beheadings of captives (February 2014). ISIS' early successes were accompanied by several instances of apparent homophobic persecution, involving designated Iraqi gay men in some occupied areas being thrown to their deaths from high buildings. However, this instability and civil war is arguably the consequence of the hasty and ill-planned Anglo-American intervention and occupation that began in 2003. Once entrenched there, the United States and its allies found it difficult to extract themselves from the quagmire that they found themselves within and were unable to exit for another decade. Hardly had they done so when ISIS arose in earnest and began rapid territorial conquests, although it now seems to have bogged down. As for Iraqi Shia, ISIS is a sectarian organisation which has attacked Shia mosques, religious festival processions and Sadr City, a heavily Shia Baghdad suburb over the last decade.

Much of the blame for ISIS' militancy and Sunni support for its objectives can be attributed to Nouri al-Maliki, the former Iraqi President (2007-2014), widely accused of fostering Shia domination of the armed forces, civil service and his own administration. Moreover, his regime also attracted criticism for widespread government corruption, poor educational attainment, and the use of capital punishment, torture, arbitrary detention and repression against its opponents. Given this context, ISIS made initial rapid progress, but is now experiencing setbacks due to Iraqi Sunni dissent and diversity, Iraqi Shia majority and Northern Kurd resistance to their expansion. In August 2014, Haidar al-Abadi replaced him and reportedly had an excellent record as a pragmatist coalition builder- but is it too late to undo the malignant effects of the prior al-Maliki era?

And so, New Zealand is debating whether or not we should become involved in this context. At present, New Zealand seems set to post 143 military service personnel to the wartorn nation. which will consist of military trainers, protective personnel and possibly some SAS intelligence and surveillance specialists, which may co-operate with Australian military personnel in the same area. Unfortunately, it seems incontrovertible that the last decade of US-led military intervention and occupation has only worsened matters for lesbian and gay Iraqis, and there are real questions for New Zealand's LGBT communities about whether or not we should back a Shia-led regime that has shown little inclination to prevent acts of Shia antigay harassment, violence and homicide within Baghdad and elsewhere. On the other hand, ISIS is similarly opposed to the existence of metropolitan lesbian and gay communities in areas of Iraq under its occupation. We face a thorny dilemma. Some of us would argue that ISIS is actively persecuting and murdering gay men and therefore, we should support New Zealand involvement in military intervention against it, while other antiwar, figures would argue that the last decade of intervention has only worsened matters for Iraqi lesbians and gay men, so why then should we support closer New Zealand involvement in this quagmire? Certainly, we should increase our refugee and asylum intake from Iraq given its tortured current circumstances. But beyond that, more intensive involvement is debatable. Opinion polls indicate New Zealanders are almost evenly split on the advisability or otherwise of our military involvement in this context.


Clive Simmons: "The New Dark Age" DNA 101 (June 2008): 96-100.

Austin Mackell: "Under Attack" DNA 122 (March 2010): 62-67

Tim Warrington: :"The Killing Fields" DNA149 (June 2012): 34-39

Wikipedia/LGBT rights in Iraq:

Suunivie Brydum: "ISIS propaganda claims gays are pedophiles, animals" Advocate: 19.09.2014:

Josh Lowe: "Iraq Crisis: Who or What is ISIS?" Prospect: 12.06.2014:

Bartle Bull: "Iraq Crisis: Who is Haider al-Abadi?" Prospect: 15.08.2014:

Craig Young - 12th March 2015

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