More than just domestic violence?

bridgestvWhat do you think about the media coverage of the beheading of Buffalo-area woman Aasiya Hassan? I came across the story as it was breaking — but only because I was on the Buffalo News site looking for information on that Feb. 12 commuter plane crash in Buffalo. I expected the story to be huge because the prime suspect in the killing was Hassan’s husband, Muzzammil Hassan.

Muzzammil Hassan had received some fantastic national media coverage a couple of years ago — NPR, Chicago Tribune, etc. — as the founder and CEO of Bridges TV. Bridges was founded, he said, to counter negative Muslim stereotypes. So just on the irony or hypocrisy angle alone, I figured the story would get quite a bit of media coverage. But it kind of just floated out there — getting some coverage but nothing terribly substantive. Normally I would chalk it up to the news maxim that only violence against young blond women gets coverage but even with the domestic abuse situation involving Rihanna and Chris Brown, no one seemed interested in a particularly gruesome murder.

Last week the New York chapter of the National Organization of Women commented on the lack of media interest:

And why is this horrendous story not all over the news? Is a Muslim woman’s life not worth a five-minute report? This was, apparently, a terroristic version of “honor killing,” a murder rooted in cultural notions about women’s subordination to men. Are we now so respectful of the Muslim’s religion that we soft-peddle atrocities committed in its name? Millions of women in this country are maimed and killed by their husbands or partners. Had this awful murder been perpetrated by a African American, a Latino, a Jew, or a Catholic, the story would be flooding the airwaves. What is this deafening silence?

The thing was that Hassan was a prominent Muslim who had been championed for his efforts to dispel Muslim stereotypes. So while, very sad to say, even if he were simply accused of killing his wife in a more common manner as opposed to beheading her — something that is extremely uncommon in America — this story might not have had as much news value.

The stories that were out there seemed to lack substance. They didn’t explore why beheadings are more common in some cultures and what, if anything, that has to do with various religious values.

There is much more that could be written about this story but I did want to highlight one mainstream media piece that managed to tackle some of the tough questions while being incredibly respectful toward Islam and Muslims. It comes from the Associated Press and here’s how it begins:

The crime was so brutal, shocking and rife with the worst possible stereotypes about their faith that some U.S. Muslims thought the initial reports were a hoax.

The harsh reality of what happened in an affluent suburb of Buffalo, N.Y. — the beheading of 37-year-old Aasiya Hassan and arrest of her estranged husband in the killing — is another crucible for American Muslims.

Here was a couple that appeared to be the picture of assimilation and tolerance, co-founders of a television network that aspired to improve the image of Muslims in a post 9-11 world.

One of the things that always troubles me about some of these stories is how quickly reporters sort of get defensive and dismissive about any questions surrounding Islam and violence rather than just exploring them. Far, far too many of stories about Muslims who commit violence seem to lead with the angle that the real victim of the story is the image of Islam. While this story could be interpreted as falling into the same trap, it doesn’t shy away from the underlying questions and ends up being much more interesting and doing much more to dispel stereotypes.

The reporter, Eric Gorski, speaks with Muslims about how they’re handling the questions and what they’re doing in response to the tragedy:

The killing and its aftermath raise hard questions for Muslims _ about gender issues, about distinctions between cultural and religious practices, and about differing interpretations of Islamic texts regarding the treatment of women.

“Muslims don’t want to talk about this for good reason,” said Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur, a Muslim author and activist. “There is so much negativity about Muslims, and it sort of perpetuates it. The right wing is going to run with it and misuse it. But we’ve got to shine a light on this issue so we can transform it.”

book5coverThe story moves along using quotes and anecdotes. So, for instance, we learn that the vice president of the Islamic Society of North America sent an open letter to Muslim leaders saying that “violence against women is real and cannot be ignored.” He said seeking a divorce over physical abuse should not be considered shameful. The article also gets the response from Muslim women’s advocates who feel progress in treatment of women has happened only recently. Various mosques and Muslim organizations agreed to denounce domestic violence this week.

One of the things that I didn’t get from the story was enough information about beheading. Much of the story seems to treat the murder of Hassana as a particularly barbaric incident of domestic violence. And that is true. But beheading, as we know, is extremely uncommon in America. History is replete with stories of beheadings, of course. Many Christian martyrs were decapitated. So was Marie Antoinette. But in recent years, most beheadings are associated with Islamic terror. The Wall Street Journal‘s Daniel Pearl, telecommunications consultant Nick Berg, and many other foreigners have met that gruesome fate from Muslim terrorists. Is it just a fad or is there special significance to that particular form of capital punishment?

To that end, Slate had a most helpful story on the matter. It basically says that there are only two verses in the Koran dealing with beheading — neither of which seem particularly suited for non-warfare scenarios. And while it doesn’t skirt over various other cultures’ historic use of beheading, it notes that Muslim history is somewhat known for that method of punishment. The article also discusses the use of beheading in criminal sanctions in some Muslim countries. It’s not a huge story but it does decent work.

Back to the Associated Press story — it’s long and includes tons of recent anecdotes of Muslims condemning violence against women at mosques around the country. But it also says that other Muslim clerics likely preached that Hassan could have avoided her fate by being more obedient. And the story gets quotes from people on all sides:

Asra Nomani, a Muslim journalist, author and activist from Morgantown, W.Va., challenged Muslims who say the murder has no link to Islamic teachings. While Islam does not sanction domestic violence or murder, a literal reading of a controversial verse in the Quran taught in some mosques can lead to honor killings and murder, she said.

“It’s sort of like the typical reaction to terrorism in the community, where people want to say, ‘This had nothing to do with Islam,’” Nomani said. “Well, it doesn’t have anything to do with your interpretation of Islam that teaches you can’t kill innocent people. But terrorism, violence, honor killing _ they are all part of ideological problems we have in the community we need to eradicate.”

The passage — Chapter 4, Verse 34 — has been widely translated to sanction physical discipline against disobedient wives. There is disagreement about to what degree and whether it’s punitive or symbolic.

I don’t know why, but the story doesn’t offer any translation of the verse, which you can read here.

The story mentions what was first raised by the NOW statement I cited earlier — speculation that the murder was an honor killing, in which a woman is slain by a relative who believes the victim has brought shame upon the family. The issue is raised but quickly dismissed. And there’s precisely nothing about sharia law and how it treats divorce rights between the sexes. That’s notable because the killing took place six days after she served her husband with divorce papers, Hassan’s lawyer says, oddly, that the husband isn’t very religious and that neither religion nor culture played a role in what happened. Then someone is quoted saying honor killings have nothing to do with religion, really.

“Calling it an honor killing, it sort of takes it out of the mainstream conversation and makes it a conversation about those people from over there from those backwards countries,” said [Salma] Abugideri, of the Peaceful Families Project. “In fact, in this country and in mainstream society there are many cases where domestic violence escalates to the point where a woman is killed.”

Again, this is all very true. Domestic violence leading to murder is all too common. But for a story that does such a good job of confronting the questions, it is odd that in its length, the beheading aspect is mentioned only once. Domestic violence — even leading to murder — is, sadly, somewhat common. Beheading is not. I think it’s worth exploring the cultural significance a bit more. And with how well the rest of this story tackled the heavy issues — with an appropriate respect toward Islam and its adherents — I wish it had.

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  • Eric

    “Muslims don’t want to talk about this for good reason,” said Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur, a Muslim author and activist. “There is so much negativity about Muslims, and it sort of perpetuates it. The right wing is going to run with it and misuse it. But we’ve got to shine a light on this issue so we can transform it.”

    But, isn’t such violence commanded by the Koran? How can they transform it and still remain Muslim?

    These are the kind of questions I would like to see answered. Surely there are Muslims out there that would defend this action based on what is written in the Koran and I would like to see how they do so.

  • Quilliam

    ” Surely there are Muslims out there that would defend this action based on what is written in the Koran and I would like to see how they do so.”

    Aside from genuinely crazy people, there really are not. Mo “Steve” Hassan was not a religious man, he was just an extreme narcissist/misogynist.

    Abdul-Ghafur is talking about transforming the issue, not the Quran, which does not anywhere condone killing as a way of resolving domestic issues! Under any version of the shari’a, he would be guilty of murder, plain and simple. It is he who deserves an execution.

  • gta

    On decapitation: Beheading, historically has been regarded, in Europe at least, as less barbaric than other methods of execution. The English king Charles I was beheaded because it was regarded as less dishonorable than hanging. The guillotine was adopted in France at the time of the Revolution not simply because it was more efficient, but because it was less cruel, and its adoption was preceded by a move to abolish capital punishment entirely. Given a choice, and a clear knowledge of the methods, I suspect that most people would choose the guillotine over the electric chair and hanging. (France didn’t abolish capital punishment until 1981. The last execution in what is now the EU was the guillotining of Hamida Duandoubi, a Tunisian, and, ironically in view of present attitudes, a Muslim.

  • benjdm

    But, isn’t such violence commanded by the Koran? How can they transform it and still remain Muslim?

    Why can’t they do it the same way Christianity transforms the violence commanded in the Bible?

  • Perpetua

    The early news stories indicated that the husband originally was trying to pass off the murder as an act by an outside group. So I had thought he used beheading to make it look like it was done by a radical Islamic/ Taliban type group.

  • Jerry

    But, isn’t such violence commanded by the Koran? How can they transform it and still remain Muslim?

    That statement betrays ignorance about what the Quran really states.

    But this whole story does raise the theological issue about what is really required in the Quran and Hadith and what are cultural artifacts. People who are familiar with theological differences in Christianity today should know that there is at least that level of diversity in the Islamic world.

    I think a reasonable way to look at the Islamic world is to consider what Christianity would be like if its entire history were alive today. From this perspective, we would see some who were backing the Inquisition clashing with evangelical ministers and Unitarians all with theological justifications for their perspectives.

  • Northcoast

    I don’t get it. Is any killing of a female relative an “honor killing?” It’s a barbaric act, and the killer needs to be condemed.

    Is there some obscene political correctness standard that dictates that we should have some respect for the concept of “honor killing?” I guess that the killer being someone who was on a mission to improve our opinion of Islam just illustrates our cultural differences.

  • repsac3

    Domestic violence — even leading to murder — is, sadly, somewhat common. Beheading is not.

    Unfortunately, while beheading as a method of murder may be uncommon here in the US, decapitation isn’t. (It’s all in the semantics, sometimes.)

    Have we forgotten OJ Simpson?
    Have we forgotten Scott Peterson?

    Both men killed their (former) wives, at least in part by cutting off their heads, or at least trying to. If one were to google decapitation, you’d find at least three other cases of American men trying to off their wives by removing their heads, all of which took place in the last few months. And once you broaden your search to include more than just decapitations done or attempted by husbands to wives, you’ll be shocked at how many murders or attempted murders involving decapitation you’ll find.

    The sad fact is, it isn’t anywhere near as uncommon or foreign to our way of life as we would like to believe.

    Here’s another strange thing to think about. There have been several reports of honor killings here in North America, most notably the Said sisters from TX. But try as I might, I have not been able to find any other reports of honor killings by beheading that’ve taken place on this continent. While there have been shootings, stabbings, and strangulations, I can find no reports of Muslim or middle-eastern men cutting off the heads of female family members in the name of personal or family honor taking place anywhere on this continent. So, while there are those who’re certain that this is an honor killing because the woman was beheaded, I remain unsure.

    It has been my position that so far, we don’t have enough supporting facts to label this murder an honor killing–unless we’re willing to say the same about the OJ Simpson murder, anyway.

    Both men probably were angry and hurt because their wives were moving on without them, and I believe that both men killed their wives as a result; kind of an “If I can’t have you, no one can.” sort of thing. Both cases involved prior domestic violence. Is it only the fact that Mo Hassan is Muslim that makes him an honor killer, and OJ Simpson, who isn’t Muslim, a murderer? Is it not possible that Muslim men can act out of the same passions as washed up football stars, or any other wife-murdering Americans?

    I do believe that more traditional cultures and religions tend to push a patriarchal line. Some are downright male-chauvinist, and yes, there are those that make the full leap into misogyny. That Mo Hassan was born in Pakistan probably does have some bearing on his attitudes toward women, and those who’ve spoken out about his previous two wives report that he was an abuser from the beginning. As to whether his being from Pakistan or his being Muslim made him more likely to kill his wife (whether for honor or any other reason) than he would’ve been otherwise, I believe we don’t know enough to say, as yet.

    By all accounts, he wasn’t particularly devout, and no one has reported any statements about personal or family honor by Hassan, at any time before, during (& keep in mind, the victim was reportedly on the phone with her sister at the time of her attack), or after murdering his wife.

    While it certainly could turn out to be a culturally or religiously based murder–& perhaps even an honor killing–I think people need to be very careful about jumping to conclusions based on stereotypes (or in some cases, bigotry).

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