The case of the young Muslim woman who has decided to return to her home country and enter into a forced marriage is much on my mind this morning. I have learned more about the situation — more than I can reveal here — and I must caution everyone against judging her. This world from which she comes, and this culture in which she is enmeshed, is so far from anything we Americans know and understand. It is evil, straight up.
Some of you, in the comments on other posts, have said this is the fault of Islam. There can be no doubt that the overwhelming majority of honor killings in the world today are carried out by Muslims, against Muslims. I wonder how fair it is to blame the religion, though. Seriously, I wonder. One of this blog’s readers, a Muslim, wrote me privately to offer assistance to the endangered Muslim woman, and to say:
I am disgusted and profoundly saddened by the situation that you describe. These ‘honor killings’ are abominable and wholly contrary to the spirit as well as the letter of Islamic Law.
I will take him at his word. As outrageous as the situation with the honor killings and the threats of violence against women who violate the patriarch’s sense of honor by defying his will, we must be fair to Islam, and not blame the religion for what may be a cultural phenomenon.
Granted, that may be a distinction without a difference to women facing this kind of thing. Imagine that you were a Jew in Tsarist Russia, and Orthodox Christians pillaged your village. If a peaceful Orthodox Christian came up to you and said, “I am so sorry; pogroms is contrary to the spirit and the letter of Christianity,” that Christian would be telling the truth, but it wouldn’t matter much. You would still fear Christians, and associate them and their religion with violence.
What are people to make of the way local Islamic authorities in the Dallas area reacted to the 2008 honor killing of two teenage girls by their Egyptian immigrant father? He shot them because they had boyfriends, then he disappeared. He has never been found. Here’s a link to a 45-minute Fox News documentary on the case. And here’s a link to a 4-minute clip from an independent documentary about the case; this clip details how Amina Said, one of the girls, came up with a plan to protect her boyfriend from her father’s murderous rage. In this news story about the independent doc, we learn that Amina Said had been taken earlier by her father to his native Egypt, where he tried to compel her to marry an older man.
Anyway, here’s a bit from the Al-Arabiya story about the girls’ funeral at a local mosque (the largest one in Texas):
Dr. Yusuf Kavakci, head of the Richardson mosque, alternating between English and Arabic, told mourners that all living things are destined to die. Another imam talked about families being the most important thing in Islam and the need for parents to work to keep their families strong, the paper said.
On the day of the funeral, I spoke to a reporter who had been there (the honor killings were big news in Dallas, as you might imagine). The reporter was visibly shaken, saying that an imam — the unnamed one in the account above — had said the lesson from this double murder is that Muslim families must work harder to keep their daughters under control. Condemnation of Yaser Said for murdering his children was conspicuously absent.
From the imams. In a mosque. You can see why people would conclude — fairly or not — from this sort of thing that Islam doesn’t have a problem with honor killings. Let me be clear: that could be an unfair judgment against Islam. But it is not an unfair judgment against particular Muslim communities.
The US Justice Department estimates that there are around 27 honor killings in the United States every year — a number that could actually be much higher. Excerpts:
“Cases of honor killings and/or violence in the U.S. are often unreported because of the shame it can cause to the victim and the victim’s family,” Farhana Qazi, a former U.S. government analyst and senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism, told FoxNews.com. “Also, because victims are often young women, they may feel that reporting the crime to authorities will draw too much attention to the family committing the crime.”
For police who encounter apparent honor crimes, the investigation is typically treated as a regular crime or murder probe, usually under the umbrella of domestic violence. While both issues are tragic and problematic, experts say there are critical distinctions, and that honor violence requires a different approach.
Detective Chris Boughey, of Peoria, Ariz., calls Oct. 20, 2009, a day that “changed my life forever.” That was the day Iraqi immigrant Faleh Almaleki murdered his daughter, Noor Almaleki, by running her over with his vehicle for becoming “too Westernized.” Boughey was assigned as the lead investigator and has since dedicated his career to educating others and taking on similar cases in numerous other states — from Alaska and New York to California, Washington state and Pennsylvania.
In 2012, the mother, father and sister of 19-year-old Aiya Altameemi were charged with beating her because she refused an arranged marriage to an older man.
“In the Almaleki case, I learned very quickly that we would receive no assistance from the family,” Boughey said. “In fact, we received out-and-out defiance and resistance. Although we know they are involved, it can be very hard to prove in a court of law.”
Notice that the mother and the sister were also charged. (The father was later convicted and sentenced to 34 years; I don’t know what happened to the others.) See, that’s what this young woman I’ve been talking about here faces: a cultural system in which everyone is implicated in the abuse of women. The Muslim woman we’ve been talking about here has no faith that she will be safe anywhere in the US, because, she says, wherever there are Muslims, her family may be able to get to her. And note well, she herself is a Muslim who does not want to abandon the faith! If she defies her family and remains in this country, she may never again be able to worship in a mosque, out of a legitimate (I am told by someone in a position to know) fear that the underground network protecting the double murderer Said will also do her in.
Is this Islam’s fault? Strictly speaking, no. But there is no way to disentangle Islam from this situation. If a Muslim woman cannot worship God in a mosque anywhere in the United States because she’s afraid someone there will recognize her, rat her out to her family, and set her up to be murdered, then there’s a problem. Phyllis Chesler, in a 2010 study about honor killings worldwide in Middle East Quarterly magazine, writes:
In the non-immigrant West, serious domestic violence exists which includes incest, child abuse, marital rape, marital battering, marital stalking, and marital post-battering femicide. However, there is no cultural pattern of fathers specifically targeting or murdering their teenage or young adult daughters, nor do families of origin participate in planning, perpetrating, justifying, and valorizing such murders. Clearly, these characteristics define the classic honor killing of younger women and girls.
At the time of the Hassan beheading, a coalition of domestic violence workers sent an (unpublished) letter to the Erie County district attorney’s office and to some media stating that this was not an honor killing, that honor killings had nothing to do with Islam, and that sensationalizing Muslim domestic violence was not only racist but also served to render invisible the much larger incidence of both domestic violence and domestic femicide. They have a point, but they also miss the point, namely, that apples are not oranges and that honor killings are not the same as Western domestic femicides.
One might argue that the stated murder motive of being “too Westernized” may, in a sense, overlap substantively with the stated and unstated motives involved in Western domestic femicide. In both instances, the woman is expected to live with male violence and to remain silent about it. She is not supposed to leave—or to leave with the children or any other male “property.” However, the need to keep a woman isolated, subordinate, fearful, and dependent through the use of violence does not reflect a Western cultural or religious value; rather, it reflects the individual, psychological pathology of the Western batterer-murderer. On the other hand, an honor killing reflects the culture’s values aimed at regulating female behavior—values that the family, including the victim’s family, is expected to enforce and uphold.
Further, such cultural, ethnic, or tribal values are not often condemned by the major religious and political leaders in developing Muslim countries or in immigrant communities in the West. On the contrary, such communities maintain an enforced silence on all matters of religious, cultural, or communal “sensitivity.”
What does this sound like? Child sexual abuse by priests is absolutely condemned by the teachings of Roman Catholic Christianity. But the conspiracy of silence by both clergy and laity was for a very long time part of Roman Catholic culture. Catholicism did not tell priests to molest children. But there was something about the way Catholicism was lives in this country that looked the other way, or otherwise failed to react justly, when it was happening. It happened too often, in too many places, for it to have been a fluke.
Now, keep in mind that there are over 3 million Muslims living in America. Let’s say that the actual number of honor killings of American Muslim women is four times the official estimate, meaning that 108 die yearly. That would be below the US average for intentional homicide, which is four per 100,000 people (= 132 murders for 3.3 million people). A single honor killing is too many, mind you, but the point here is that honor killing is almost certainly extremely uncommon among American Muslims.
That doesn’t mean it’s not a problem that needs to be addressed somehow, both by Muslims and by US law enforcement officials. The fact that priest sexual abuse of children was rare does not mean that it wasn’t, and isn’t, a very big deal. In today’s New York Times, novelist Mohammed Hanif writes from Karachi:
A few weeks ago, Pakistan’s largest province passed a new law called the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act. The law institutes radical measures that say a husband can’t beat his wife, and if he does he will face criminal charges and possibly even eviction from his home. It proposes setting up a hotline women can call to report abuse. In some cases, offenders will be required to wear a bracelet with a GPS monitor and will not be allowed to buy guns.
A coalition of more than 30 religious and political parties has declared the law un-Islamic, an attempt to secularize Pakistan and a clear and present threat to our most sacred institution: the family. They have threatened countrywide street protests if the government doesn’t back down.
Their logic goes like this: If you beat up a person on the street, it’s a criminal assault. If you bash someone in your bedroom, you’re protected by the sanctity of your home. If you kill a stranger, it’s murder. If you shoot your own sister, you’re defending your honor. I’m sure the nice folks campaigning against the bill don’t want to beat up their wives or murder their sisters, but they are fighting for their fellow men’s right to do just that.
It’s not only opposition parties that are against the bill: The government-appointed Council of Islamic Ideology has also declared it repugnant to our religion and culture.
When the country’s chief religious authorities, as well as 30 political parties, openly condemn as “un-Islamic” a law forbidding wife-beating, protests that Islam doesn’t allow honor killing sound hollow. As Phyllis Chesler wrote elsewhere, in an article comparing Muslim honor killings to Hindu ones:
Although Islam does not specifically endorse killing female family members, some honor killings involve allegations of adultery or apostasy, which are punishable by death under Shari’a (Islamic law). Thus, the belief that women who stray from the path can be rightly murdered is consistent with such Islamic teachings. The refusal of most Islamic authorities to unambiguously denounce the practice (as opposed to merely denying that Islam sanctions it) only encourages would-be honor killers.
How should the persistent reality of honor killing in these Muslim cultures affect immigration policies in Western countries, if at all? Is there any realistic way to screen out Muslim immigrants who support it? How should authorities respond meaningfully to honor killings among immigrants here, being neither cowed by political correctness nor too quick to blame all Muslims?
Thoughts? I would especially like to hear from Muslim readers (I know this blog has at least three.) Please, all readers, don’t use inflammatory language. I won’t post it. I want to have a real discussion about this.
UPDATE: A Muslim reader writes:
I’m a muslim. My family is from Pakistan and I spent part of my childhood there before immigrating to the US, and I can state unequivocally that honor killings have no place in Islam. Two sources guide the development of Islamic thought and jurisprudence governing social issues. First and foremost is the Quran, which we understand to be the literal speech of God. Second is the Sunnah…or the example of the Prophet (PBUH) which in many ways serves a model template for how the concepts and instructions revealed within the Quran should ideally be implemented in daily life.
So when we refer to the Quran and the Sunnah, we find:
There is nothing in the Quran that either explicitly or implicity authorizes the killing of a woman because she refuses to marry according to her family’s wishes.
There is nothing in the Sunnah that either explicitly or implicitly authorizes the killing of a woman because she refuses to marry according to her family’s wishes.
Women and men are allowed to marry whom they wish provided they don’t marry simply to satisfy base sexual needs. Of course, in patriarchal societies, with low literacy rates, a woman’s refusal to marry per her family’s choice can often be attributed to her obeying her base sexual desires. However, even if this were so, Islam still does not sanction killing or murder for this…adultery is punishable by death…but marrying per your choice is a right granted to both men and women, just as ending a marriage amicably through divorce is a right granted to both men and women.
As I mentioned, my family is from Pakistan and also from India. We are by any definition observant muslims, and in our family women have always married as they have wished. They have married, divorced, and done so with Muslim men and non-Muslim men. And that’s basically the experience I’ve observed with friends and acquaintances as well.
Honor killings are a cultural evil, and muslims in parts of the world where such things were part of the culture have creatively found ways to justify these sins as sanctioned by Islam. I know when one reads that the religious establishment in Pakistan is condoning this evil, it can become difficult to figure out how to separate it from the religion, but the sad truth is this simply reflects how mediocre and limited their own understanding of their faith is. Fact is, the vast overwhelming majority of them don’t understand Arabic…they’ve only read the Quran via translation and you miss a lot when you do that. Beyond that, they have next to no understanding of Hadith (the Prophet’s traditions) and Sunnah (his mode of conduct and thought) which God lays in the Quran as a guide for Muslims to better understand and apply the message of Islam. The on top of all these deficiencies they pile on the cultural baggage of chauvinistic, primitive, patriarchy, and…well…you see the results.
In 2013, Pew conducted a survey of the muslim world to explore muslim attitudes on a range of topics. When asked about honor killings, support varied widely by region. Check out page 89 for the full results. Basically, a few places are real gung ho about honor killings, in some, opinion is split, and in others there is a wide support against the practice. I view these findings as an indication of (a) how much Islam has tempered these barbaric tendencies within a culture or (b) how little such practices were condoned in the culture originally.
Bottom line is, there is no theological basis for this practice.