If Iraqi actor and model Karar Nushi was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered in Baghdad because he “looked gay” it would come as no surprise to Amir Ashour, the founder and executive director of the human rights organization IraQueer.
“I think in Iraq most of the murders that have happened against queer people, or people perceived to be, have been because of their appearance,” Ashour told The Daily Beast. “There is still the misconception of how people look versus the perceived idea of their sexual orientation.
“The armed groups who do the killings tend to think one is an extension of the other. There is a blurred understanding of what gender identity and gender expression mean versus what sexual orientation means.”
IraQueer, Ashour told The Daily Beast, is “aware of seven people being killed this past January for similar reasons to Karar’s. Those seven people were rumored to be on a list of 100 names of individuals who were targeted by an armed group.” IraQueer could not share the people’s names, Ashour said.
Nushi, a graduate of Baghdad University’s College of Fine Arts, was found dead on a busy road in the middle of Baghdad. He had reportedly received death threats because of his long hair and attire. His body showed signs of torture and stab wounds, according to Kurdistan 24.
Attitude reported that Nushi had said in a Facebook post that he embodied “every young man fighting with all his honor to defend the nation.” His pictures, he said, were “theatrical and cinematic works of art, which I pride myself on... I cherish my personal freedom to build a unique external appearance.”
He dismissed the cruel comments he received: “I remain silent about the abusive responses that undoubtedly reflect the level of their writers.”
“There has not been real information saying that Karar was gay,” said Ashour. “It’s an assumption whoever killed him made based on how he looked. One of the people whose killing we documented a couple of years ago was the father of four children. He was straight according to everyone in his circle. He was killed because he had long hair.”
The murder of Nushi reveals that the dangers faced by LGBTQ people in Iraq will not end if and when ISIS is eliminated, said Ashour.
“The problems of the LGBTQ+ community did not stop with ISIS, and are not going to stop with the elimination of ISIS. The Iraqi government has been announcing that ISIS is being defeated and the caliphate is collapsing, and the international community saw ISIS throwing people thought to be gay off the tops of buildings, and thought that was the worst thing facing us.
“But in reality we’ve been facing an organized killing campaign since 2006, and that’s not going to stop with the elimination of ISIS. The first enemy of LGBT people in Iraq is the government itself. Not only are they not providing protection for us, but they are directly involved in violating our rights.”
Ashour told The Daily Beast that police forces and security guards stop individuals at checkpoints who look different, or if they are transgender and going through hormonal treatment, comparing how they look in the present with the picture that looks different on their identification cards. IraQueer has video of individuals being humiliated and physically abused in such situations.
One of the main armed groups in Baghdad, Ashour said, had announced a partnership with the government in the name of fighting ISIS, and this group was one of the main groups organizing the killing campaigns of gay men and feminine men perceived to be gay.
Ashour said, “Regardless of the fact that the Iraqi Constitution protects privacy and freedom of expression the Iraqi government has not been taking any steps to hold the people killing queer people accountable, or upholding laws which protect individuals regardless of people’s perceived idea of who they are.”
Day to day, Iraqi LGBTQ+ people live in fear, Ashour said.
“Everyone maintains a really low profile. Their social circles are small. The social circles in the Kurdish region are a bit bigger, but does not mean violence is not happening there also. Those who have limited education and limited finance have trouble finding jobs and maintaining a living, and only think of surviving to the next day.”
People are also being targeted by anti-gay attackers through dating apps. “Everyone is afraid for their lives. They are just trying to hide their sexuality as much as they can,” said Ashour.
A recent New York Times report detailed the plight of Mohammed, a 26-year-old gay Iraqi civil engineer presently stuck in Turkey, a victim of President Trump’s 120-day freeze on refugee resettlement.
IraQueer works with LGBTQ+ people in Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, and those who have made it to Europe and the West.
“Every single one is facing difficulties in different forms,” said Ashour. “Those in Iraq find it difficult to leave the country. It is not just about getting money to buy a ticket, but ‘Can we get to another country?’”
Turkey requires an e-visa from Iraqis, which in theory are easy to obtain, he said, but not everyone gets them. “Lebanon is very hard to survive in. They can’t get jobs, and if they don’t have money they can’t support themselves and find somewhere to live.”
Other gay Iraqi refugees who have been able to apply to resettlement programs run by the United Nations and other organizations face difficulties when confronted with the ban just announced by President Trump.
“Their cases were being processed and finalized and suddenly they have a hold put on them, and are being asked to wait an indefinite period of time,” said Ashour.
“Waiting is just one problem. They are not getting any support from the UN or other organizations in terms of living expenses and finding housing. How can we expect people to survive and wait for an average of two years when they don’t have money or access to jobs in the countries they are waiting in?
“The situation is really, really difficult. The fact that the U.S. is pulling away from its leading role in queer rights internationally is making it even harder for us.”
That IraQueer exists is cause for optimism, said Ashour.
“Just two years ago I was traveling with [LGBT organization] Outright International, through every single city in Iraq looking for other possible activists and there were literally none. Now we have nine full-time employees and a network of more than 200 people.”
IraQueer, which is also requesting donations, is training members of two feminist organizations in Iraq to work on LGBTQ+ issues.
“We are coming together to create a blueprint for future generations to follow, and people are finding some sense of belonging in knowing that IraQueer exists and being able to talk to us,” said Ashour.
The organization is also inventing words that didn’t exist in Arabic and Kurdish to encourage the Iraqi public to use respectful words, “rather than words that translate to ‘faggot’ or offensive terms have been used for so many years,” Ashour said.
The word “queer” itself was used negatively, until—as activists in the West did in the 1990s—IraQueer reclaimed it. The “LGBT+ community” in Arabic, said Ashour, translated to “the abnormal community,” or “the gay community.” The latter is OK, said Ashour, but he would prefer the more inclusive LBGTQ+.
An interviewer on one of Iraqi TV’s main networks just interviewed him, and after she used “the abnormal community,” he said he would not continue with the interview unless she used “LGBTQ+.” The presenter did, and Ashour is interested to see if the new word makes the final cut: “I’m not going to believe it till I see it on Friday.”
He formed IraQueer in 2015. Half-Kurd, half-Arab, Ashour now lives as a political refugee—meaning, he said, that he cannot return to Iraq—in Malmö, Sweden. He is “very blessed” to be close to his family and is in daily communication with his mother and siblings in Iraq who are very supportive of him. His mother, he said, abandoned half her social network because of their homophobia.
Since becoming a refugee, “everything else in my life has been much more complicated than it was,” Ashour said, from applying to schools to travel and basic living.
“I don’t have an Iraqi passport, I don’t have a Swedish passport. I’m not protected by any real government. That complicates my situation much more. But I’ve never been happier to be honest, because I’m living who I really am and standing for what I believe in. The network of IraQueer, and the regional and international activists I have gotten to know, has been amazing and very inspiring to work with. It’s much bigger than just being able to live in one country. Activism is basically my life now.”
The impact of IraQueer’s work has been felt by LGBTQ+ Iraqis too.
“I wish I could show you the emails we receive from people,” said Ashour. “We are a very young organization and in no way saying we have changed everything. But people reach out to say, ‘We can finally identify with you, someone public, and not only public but not ashamed and proudly advocating for who are we are.’
“As an organization we are not only focusing on queer issues. We are not saying ‘look at these poor people,’ but just people. We’re not asking for queer rights but our human rights the same as everyone else. The approach we are taking is not, ‘We are here, help us, we need help,’ but that we are taking an active role and owning our future.
“We are pushing for lots of people to reach out, to offer their services, to volunteer with us, to be active participants. Some people say, ‘We want you to stop the killings,’ and we say, ‘We wish. We’d like to.’ We have to strike a balance. We realize we are not able to do everything people expect us to do, but by taking things slowly and steadily we will hopefully grow and achieve our goals in the long term.”
For now, the threats to LGBT+ Iraqis remain on all sides: from ISIS, militias, and the government and its own forces.
“On top of that, also families are a source of threat, especially the extended family,” Ashour said. “Mainly LGBTQ+ people just think of surviving. Of course people believe in our rights and existence, but the problem is living in so much fear for so many years those individuals who support us are silent. They don’t talk about things publicly. Therefore, we tend to remain by ourselves or reach out to a small circle who are queer. Or, like what happened to Karar, we get killed.”
Ashour is aware of a lot of people who are LGBTQ+ allies, and has many networks inside and outside Iraq.
“But the people who most need this are inside the country and don’t have access to a decent job, education, and probably don’t have a social circle they can rely on. I really hope people who don’t identify as LGBTQ+ but who are supportive come out and support us.”
Feminine gay men, regardless of their sexuality, face the most persecution, Ashour said. Trans women face similar violence. Because of cultural stereotypes, Ashour said, feminine gay men are seen as people who have stopped short of transitioning to female. Trans women also suffer because culturally they are seen as men who have chosen to give up their male “power” to become a woman.
“Lesbians face double discrimination as women and lesbians,” said Ashour. “They are often invisible, either forced into marriage or if not, kept ‘protected’ within their homes by the male figures in their families. They do not have the space to explore who they are or reach out to others.”
While there are no laws against homosexuality in Iraq, “the main problem,” said Ashour, is the non-application of existing laws that should protect LGBTQ+ people from persecution and violence.
“The Constitution says that everyone is equal under the law, and does not discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity et cetera. There is no mention of LGBTQ+ people per se, but our rights should be protected,” said Ashour.
“Laws on ‘public morality’ and ‘honor’ are so vague they are used against us all the time,” he added. “According to these laws drinking water could be punishable. They do not define what ‘damaging to public honor’ is.”
Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ people, and those suspected of being LGBTQ+ like Nushi, are murdered, “and such crimes are excused away as honor crimes or family matters, or something the militias needed to take care of which the law cannot interfere with.”
Nushi’s murder, which has garnered so much international coverage, may be a significant, defining moment, Ashour said.
“It may have people asking, ‘Where do we want to go from here?’ It reminds me of the attention the emo killings got in 2012. The media coverage is great, but unless the international community holds Iraq accountable, and unless Iraq commits fully to the human rights treaties it has signed in last few decades, the reporting will not mean much. Media coverage will not protect us. Holding Iraq accountable will.”