Powerful Iraqi Clergyman Decries Violence against Gender-non-conformist Individuals

In a groundbreaking religious decree, the controversial Iraqi Shiite clergyman Muqtada al-Sadr banned the use of violence against gender-non-conforming individuals, arguing that resorting to violence will result in their alienation from religion.

Mr. Sadr is a populist religious leader in Iraq and is considered to be a political and military powerhouse in country’s post-Saddam era. He was the face of the February 2016 "Million Man March" in Baghdad's Tahrir Square to protest corruption in Iraq. He was the leader of Mahdy Army militias (2003-2008), and later the Peace Squadron (Sarāyā al-Salām) that was formed in 2014 to protect Shiites against the Islamic State (ISIS).

Mr. Sadr’s fatwa, dated June 29, 2016, is significant from both religious and political perspectives. His decree approaches the issues of homosexuality and gender nonconformity from three different angles: psychologically, socially, and religiously. The fatwa classifies homosexuals and gender non-conforming individuals as "suffering psychologically," and therefore inclined to committing sinful acts. He goes on to say that gender nonconformity and the act of men dressing as women is religiously forbidden. Most notably, it mandates that society should respect the right to life of homosexuals and individuals who are gender non-conforming. Society should not harm these individuals nor physically attack them, as doing so will push them further away from the righteous and religious path.

This perspective is a departure from the traditional standing of Shiite clerics on this issue, which only relies on religious doctrine to judge same-sex practice and gender non-conformity. Although Mr. Sadr condemns homosexuality on a religious basis, he acknowledges that social realities cannot be judged solely through a religious lens. Additionally, while Mr. Sadr classifies homosexuals as suffering psychological illness, warns against physical punishments for those committing these "sins". His acknowledgement of the complexity of this issue can potentially open the doors to a broader debate among Shiite religious scholars about sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression (SOGIE) in Islam.

Beyond Iraq and within the Shiite communities, Mr. Sadr is viewed as a mid-ranking clergyman. Although he is not considered to be as influential as Ayatollah Sistani (the leader of Iraqi Shiites), he is a mainstream Shiite cleric, from a prominent family, with extensive connections within the Shiite cleric circles worldwide. Therefore, his religious opinion on SOGIE may encourage his peers and leading Shiite clerics to re-think their long-standing views on same-sex practice and gender-non-conformity.

The new religious decree is binding for the followers of Mr. Sadr, including his militiamen. While this is a significant ruling, high levels of social stigma against gender non-conformist individuals in Iraq is still commonplace. It is not clear how long it will take for Mr. Sadr's followers to adhere to the new ruling.

The original text of Muqtada al-Sadr’s fatwa in Arabic can be found on his official website: http://jawabna.com/index.php/permalink/9343.html.

Below is a translation of the ruling in English:
Issued by Al-Shaheed Al-Sadr Office
The Private Office of His
Eminence Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr
The Holy Najaf

Question:

Your Eminence, the Leader, Hojat-ol-Islam Muqtada Sadr (May God give him glory):
Peace, and the God's mercy and blessings be with you,
Our peacemaking Master: in recent times, in our Iraqi Muslim society, excessive grooming among young men,
as well as suspicious same-sex [sexual] relations, hairstyles, etc. has been noticeably commonplace, to the point that in
some cases, [these men] completely look like women. They are also other issues [related to their appearance and
behavior] that I am ashamed to mention. Such a dangerous trend, which has been promoted by the colonialism
against the Muslims, has been spreading like a wildfire. You, our Master, have been against corruption and those
spreading corruption in all forms. Shall you, our Master, implement a new plan to combat such a dangerous virus?
May God guide your steps.

Answer:

In the name of God, the most Magnificent,
Your Inquiry requires several answers:

  1. 1- Psychological response: People like that are suffering psychologically and have psychological trauma and internal stress that triggers negative reactions.... These [psychological problems] cause those men to dress like women. Therefore they are psychologically ill.

  2. 2- Religious response: Dressing like a woman is problematic, especially if it results in committing sinful acts and other negative outcomes....Therefore such an act itself, in all its forms of manifestation, are religiously forbidden.

  3. 3- Social response: These people should be avoided. There shouldn't be any physical attack against them, since the attacks will push them further away from the accepted path of logic.

Muqtada al-Sadr, June 29, 2016