Canadian honor killings and Islam

An Ontario jury has convicted three members of the Shafia family — father, mother and son of an Afghan family living in Quebec — of murder in what has become Canada’s most notorious “honor killings” case. There has been some great crime and court reporting in the Shafia case, and the articles in the major newspapers are really quite good.

But some of the analyses have fallen short and in a few cases come across as special pleading that there is only one legitimate view in Islam on these issues, when experience tells us that there is not a single view on the morality of honor killings in Islam — just as there is no single Islam.

“Pay no attention to the facts in these cases, trust our experts” is the line taken by CNN on this issue. While it is important to hear why some Muslim scholars believe honor killings are not condoned in Islam, one is left wondering why we do not hear from those who support this barbaric practice, or who can explain why it is such a widespread belief.

Do a little digging and you will find these voices. Do a little more digging and you will see that the legal codes of a number of Muslim-majority states do not in practice punish honor killings, or punish their perpetrators far less severely than they do others convicted of murder.

Lets look at the news reports from Canada and then the piece from CNN.

The lede sentences in the article entitled “Judge condemns ‘sick notion of honour’” in the Globe & Mail sets the scene nicely:

The murder trial of three Afghan-Canadians accused of drowning four relatives in a so-called “honour killing” came to a cathartic end Sunday afternoon as the defendants were convicted on all charges.

Before the trio were led away in handcuffs and shackles to begin automatic sentences of life imprisonment with no possibility of parole for 25 years, each proclaimed their innocence, and they were visibly upset.

Mr. Justice Robert Maranger of Superior Court was unmoved. Their crimes stemmed from “a sick notion of honour that has absolutely no place in any civilized society,” he told the packed courtroom.

… “It is difficult to conceive of a more despicable, more heinous crime. The apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended your completely twisted concept of honour, a notion of honour that is founded upon the domination and control of women.”

Staring hard at the defendants, the judge said: “There is nothing more honourless than the deliberate murder” of the three teenaged girls and their step-mother.

Other Canadian press accounts are equally spirited. The Toronto Star opened its account, entitled “Shafia family members guilty of first-degree murder,” with:

This is blessed Canada. They won’t be “hoisted onto the gallows,’’ But they’re going to prison for life.

Mohammad Shafia: Guilty on four counts of first-degree murder. Tooba Mohammad Yahya: Guilty on four counts of first-degree murder. Hamed Shafia: Guilty on four counts of first degree murder.

In our country, men and women are equal. A female’s life is worth as much as a male’s. In our country, femicide is homicide.

The National Post‘s columnists took an even stronger line:

By using the words “honourless” and “shameless”, [Judge] Maranger was tossing back at Shafia some of the very epithets he used so often when speaking about his dead daughters.

The mass honour slaying of Zainab, Sahar and Geeti — respectively 19, 17 and 13 — and 52-year-old Mohammad, Shafia’s other, and sadly barren, wife, ranks among the worst in the sordid history of honour crimes.

Let me set the terms of the debate for this post. What I am not saying is that honor killings occur only in Islam. They occur in other religions as well.

Nor am I saying that all Muslims support honor killings. They do not, as CNN has reported.

Nor am I saying the question of religion was ignored. The major newspapers for the most part bit the bullet and mentioned the I-word — how the killers’ interpretation of their faith shaped by the cultural mileau in which they were formed could have provided a sanction for their crimes.

My question is how religion was used to explain motive in this story and whether a blanket denial that Islam supports honor killings is sufficient when the Star reported during the trial that a wiretap recorded the killer justifying his deeds by reference to his faith.

To his wife, Shafia allegedly assured that the right actions had been taken: “I say to myself, you did well. Were they to come back to life, I would do it again. No Tooba, they messed up. There was no other way. They were treacherous. They betrayed us immensely. There can be no betrayal worse than this. They committed treason on themselves. They betrayed humankind. They betrayed Islam. They betrayed our religion. They betrayed everything.”

Some articles rule out of bounds any discussion the influence Islam may have on honor killings. In other words, an appearance of unequal treatment is created where Islam is given a pass that reporters would not give to other faiths.

GetReligion reader Ray McCalla directed my attention to an article in CNN entitled “Islam doesn’t justify ‘honor murders,’ experts insist” as an example of this tendency. Mr. McCalla wrote that he kept waiting for CNN:

to find a voice who does think that honor killings are justified by Islam. But no, it was just an apologetic piece, defending “true,” moderate Islam. The subtext seems to be that the perpetrators are acting on a perverted version of Islam or just backwards culture. But is that true, or just what the Western media want to be true?

His point is well taken. The CNN story states:

Leading Muslim thinkers wholeheartedly endorsed the Canadian judge’s verdict, insisting that “honor murders” had no place and no support in Islam.

“There is nothing in the Quran that justifies honor killings. There is nothing that says you should kill for the honor of the family,” said Taj Hargey, director of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford in England.

This is a a good strong quote and the rest of the CNN story continues similar statements and assertions. But which constituencies do these CNN-selected Muslim scholars represent? Do all Muslim scholars share these views? What is the difference in authority between a scholar, a sheik, an imam, a mufti, a kadi? How do their views, teachings or fatwas influence the faith of Muslims?

In a 4 Dec 2008 interview with Al-Hayat TV, Wafa Sultan argued that honor crimes arose from within Islam.

The subjugation of women reduces them to a level lower than beasts – not to mention the laws of inheritance, testimony in court, the beating of a wife who refuses to go to bed with her husband, and ‘honor’ crimes. “Muhammad said in a hadith: ‘Three things spoil one’s prayer: a woman, a black dog, and a donkey.’ Do they ever give this any thought? Do they realize that Allah chose the female body for his greatest invention – creation itself? Wouldn’t it be moral to bestow upon the female body a certain holiness, instead of viewing it as impure?”

Should we take Dr. Sultan seriously? She is a Syrian-born physician and human rights activist who now lives in Southern California and was profiled by Time magazine in 2006 as one of the “100 men and women whose power, talent or moral example is transforming our world.”

How about Ayaan Hirsi Ali? Writing in the Huffington Post Canada about the Shafia case, Ms. Ali stated:

The experiences of the Shafia sisters are becoming all too familiar. A recent spate of honour violence perpetrated in the United States exemplifies the tragic incompatibility between Western liberties and radical Islam.

Can we assume that there is a common moral code across faiths? If the reporting does not lay out why these killers interpreted their faith as allowing them to kill their children, the reader is left to conclude that the killers are moral monsters, are fanatics or insane. Radical Islam, though repellent to Western sensibilities, appears to justify honor crimes, Ms. Ali argues — should not reporters attempt to explain why this is so?

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About geoconger
  • Bill Kinnon

    In response to your opening graf, the Shafia family were Afghan immigrants living in Montreal, Quebec. The four murders took place in Kingston, Ontario.

    • geoconger

      Made the correction. Thanks.

  • Chris Raybourn

    I’ve been following this story through some Canadian political blogs. A story on the Montreal Gazette wed site describes an interview with Tooba Shafia’s family. They explicitly state that they support honor killings. Not shocking, but it is telling that they were so clear in defending the practice.

  • Chris Raybourn
  • Jerry

    The real question which of course is probably impossible to answer is what the murders considered the justification for their crimes to be. And, if religious, could they articulate scriptural justifications for their crimes.

    Absent that, rather than look to extreme voices, the frame of reference should be what the majority of religious scholars believe the Quran and Hadith enjoin and whether or not the majority of Muslims are aware of those religious points.

    We should also keep in mind those very wise words of Abraham Lincoln when he remarked on the use of scriptural justifications for evil:

    Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.”

  • Gina Roberts

    Honor killing has more support in Islam than the apologists are letting on. Sharia says that punishment for murder is not applicable when a parent or grandparent kills their offspring. The Hadith clearly orders the killing of apostates (those who turn their back on the faith). And Sura 18 of the Quran provides a parable in which a “bad” son is killed for bringing shame to the family – and so that Allah can bring them a better son.

  • JWB

    I’m not sure why Mr. Conger is picking on the Yezidis. If he can’t find examples of historically majority-Christian countries whose legal systems have been notoriously bad at obtaining convictions for honor killings, at least in the limited context of men who kill allegedly unfaithful wives in defense of their “honor” getting off scot-free, he hasn’t been looking very hard. (Hint: what country has the world’s largest population of at least nominal Roman Catholics? How recently did that country’s highest court reject the technical validity of the “legitima defesa da honra” and what ultimately happened to the wife-killer in that case? Are historical differences in cultural/legal attitudes toward honor-killing between Quebec and the country in question best explained by differences in theology, or by something else?)

  • matt

    To JWB: This story and your example are light years apart. Please.

  • Will

    ????? Where in this post are the Yezidi mentioned?