Sistani Retreats on Anti-Gay Fatwa

Removal from ayatollah’s Web site not a full victory for Iraqi gays and exiles

Iraqi gays are claiming partial success following the decision by Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and his aides to remove from his Web site a fatwa calling for the killing of homosexuals in the “worst, most severe way possible.”

The fatwa itself, however, remains in force, and has not been publicly repudiated by the grand ayatollah, who is the supreme religious authority for Iraq’s Shia Muslims.

The removal of the fatwa from the ayatollah’s Web site followed protests to Sistani by the London office of the Iraqi gay rights organization, Iraqi LGBT, which represents a clandestine network of lesbian and gay activists inside Iraq’s major cities, including Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, Hilla, Duhok, and Basra.

Following two weeks of often tense negotiations with Iraqi LGBT—U.K., Sistani’s office agreed to remove the fatwa calling for the murder of gay men—but unfortunately refused to remove the fatwa urging punishment for lesbianism.

Initially, Sistani’s office had demanded that Iraqi LGBT-U.K. delete its criticisms of Sistani from that group’s Web site and apologize to the grand ayatollah for questioning his religious authority. The gay Iraqi group refused, and instead issued a counter-demand that Sistani remove his death to gays fatwa from his Web site. Sistani’s representatives in London and Najaf finally agreed to drop the homophobic fatwa from his site—except for the section calling for the punishment of lesbians.

While welcome, the removal of the murderous fatwa from Sistani’s Web site is unlikely to affect the situation on the ground in Iraq, where death squads of the Badr Corps—now operating in police uniforms with the authorization of the Iraqi Interior Ministry—continue their lethal campaign of terror against gay people. Absent any public repudiation by Sistani of his fatwa and its formal withdrawal, the wave of organized intimidation, violence, and murder directed at Iraqi gays is likely to persist unabated.

(This reporter’s first story on the fallout out from the ayatollah’s fatwa, “Shia Death Squads Target Iraqi Gays,” published March 23 of this year, is available at

“We welcome the decision to remove the most murderously homophobic part of Sistani’s fatwa from his Web site,” gay Iraqi refugee Ali Hili, coordinator of Iraqi LGBT – UK, said from London. Ali is also Middle East Affairs spokesman for the British LGBT rights movement, OutRage!, which works closely with the Iraqi gay group.

But, Hili, said, “This decision does not go far enough. The fatwa has been removed from Sistani’s Web site only. It has not been revoked. We want the entire fatwa withdrawn, including the hateful denunciation calling for the punishment of lesbians. We urge Sistani to apologize and revoke, in public, his fatwa calling for the murder of homosexuals, and to issue a new fatwa condemning all vigilante violence, including vigilante attacks on gay and lesbian people. We believe that Sistani’s fatwa has encouraged and sanctioned the current wave of execution-style assassinations of lesbians and gay men. He owes gay Iraqis an apology. He owes all Iraqis an apology for setting straight Iraqis against gay Iraqis.”

According to the Iraqi LGBT group, “Endorsing the murder of other human beings is un-Islamic. Our Muslim faith is one of love, compassion, tolerance, and mercy. Hatred and prejudice have no legitimate place in our religion. Sistani’s encouragement of homophobic violence provokes negative views toward the Islamic faith and towards Muslim people.”

Hili added, “Iraqi LGBT-UK still holds Sistani personally responsible for the murder of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered Iraqis. He gives the killers theological sanction and encouragement.”

Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at