The Dangerous Cycle of Policy and Norms in Chechnya

Chechen gay men are being tortured by their government and, with encouragement from the state, murdered by their own families. This is the latest horrible example of a common syndrome in the use of Dangerous Speech: that government action, law, policy, and speech work in a mutually reinforcing cycle with vicious social norms.

This spring, Chechen government employees posed as gay men on dating apps and websites to lure their victims, then kidnapped, tortured, and humiliated more than 100 of them, according to the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and Human Rights Watch. This campaign, apparently launched after a Moscow-based LGBT advocacy group applied for permits to hold LGBT rights marches in four cities near Chechnya, is horribly congruent with deeply rooted Chechen social norms against homosexuality, so strong that they encourage killing one’s own family members. As Human Rights Watch puts it: “It is difficult to overstate just how vulnerable LGBT people are in Chechnya, where homophobia is intense and rampant. LGBT people are in danger not only of persecution by the authorities but also of falling victim to “honour killings” by their own relatives for tarnishing family honor.”

At least three men have been killed, by the state or their families, and many more are reportedly being held in what have been described as “concentration camps.” Of the three dead, one was tortured to death by government officers, and the other two were killed by family members after being released. In some cases the government encouraged the families to commit murder. After one man was captured, held for eleven days, and tortured with electricity, officers told his family to kill him if they had any sense of honor. These three cases were verified by Human Rights Watch; as many as 20 may have been killed according to the Russian LGBT Network.

The government denied the reports in ways that only reinforced their credibility, e.g. by denying that there are any gay people in Chechnya. One government spokesperson called the reports “absolute lies and disinformation” and said, “If there were such people in Chechnya, law-enforcement agencies wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.” Similarly, a local government official claimed that the initial reports were an April Fool’s joke.

Government lies about the existence of a persecuted minority and endorsement of honor killings make violent hatred more acceptable in two ways. First, they suggest that the Chechen population is free of gay men, and that it must be kept that way. Second, it makes it easier for Chechens who may not typically condone violence to turn a blind eye.

Social norms against the LGBT community in the region have also been fueled by Russian laws, especially a 2013 law that ostensibly outlaws any “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships” but in practice bans any public expression or sign of LGBT culture. According to Human Rights Watch, the passage of the law coincided with a spike in hate crimes against members of the LGBT community in Russia overall, and those crimes continue to go unpunished by the government. That law did not create social norms hostile to the LGBT community – those existed already – but it did encourage Russians to act on those norms.

Government policies and laws that reinforce violent social norms against minority groups are not limited to Chechnya, or to Russia, unfortunately. Pakistan, for example, requires its citizens who apply for passports to sign a document declaring that Ahmadis are not true Muslims. Ahmadis are members of Ahmadiyya – a Muslim religious movement that is not recognized by the Pakistani government and the country’s Muslim religious leaders – and have been the targets of bigotry, discrimination, and mob violence in Pakistan for over 100 years. In 2010, for example, militant groups attacked two Ahmadiyya mosques in Lahore and then later attacked the hospital where victims of the previous attacks were being treated. More than 100 people were killed in total. By requiring citizens to sign a declaration rejecting Ahmadis as true Muslims, the government reinforces the social norms that fuel violence against the minority group. It is Dangerous Speech embedded in government policy, and it is repeated every time a Pakistani applies for a passport.

As these examples demonstrate, government policies, actions, and speech that both emerge from and support violent social norms act as a particularly worrisome variety of Dangerous Speech. While long held social norms are difficult to change, governments must be held accountable for positions that resist change.