Honor killings

Here is a gut-wrenching story from The Guardian about a young Iraqi woman brutally killed by her father and brothers because of an infatuation with a British soldier. The police did not detain the father, and even supported him. By and large, the local community considers such honor killings right and proper. Honor killings, indeed, are quite common throughout the Middle East, and are carried out in Muslim immigrant communities in Western countries as well.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, honor killings are among the more appalling, disgusting acts sanctioned by religion. And make no mistake, religion is deeply involved. It is not true that “True Islam” never allows such brutality. There is no such thing as True Islam. The varieties of popular Islam that permeate the everyday lives of very large numbers of Muslims either directly sanction honor killings, or sanctify a relentlessly male-dominated sexual morality that supports an environment in which honor killings are perceived as just.

But I also think that secularists and nonbelievers nevertheless have to be cautious. I am not so sure we can using examples such as honor killings to condemn supernatural beliefs. Look at the very end of the story, and notice that the mother of the murdered woman, who has left her monstrous husband, says “God will make her father pay, either in this world … or in the world after.” In other words, even in the eyes of the people most harmed by the custom of honor killings, God and religion is not something that is called into question. If someone’s moral perceptions go against honor killings, they will rarely doubt Islam. Instead, they will be inclined to think that God’s commands, properly understood, must go against this sort of murder. True Islam, they will come to think, condemns honor killings.

Indeed, people who want to fight honor killings generally find it most advisable to say that Islam opposes such acts. The same goes with female genital mutilation. Many who fight against this practice also emphasize interpretations of Islam that reject mutilation. It is best to enlist what is considered sacred in your cause, not to fight against it.

From this perspective, secularist moral outrage against religious atrocities is itself questionable. After all, if our main goal is to prevent atrocities, we should try to work with people’s deeply held religious sensibilities rather than giving offense and making the task of changing behavior more difficult. When we hold up honor killings and genital mutilation as particularly disgusting examples of the harm religions cause, we are exploiting tragedy for antireligious propaganda. Worse, we use suffering as a kind of secularist pornography, only to reinforce our righteousness and moral superiority.

I think there is something to such charges. If we want to make a case that most of us would be better off without supernatural religion, we cannot just make lists of religious outrages. It is not even enough to point out that the outrages are directly and organically linked to particular religious views. (Remember, I think this linkage holds true with honor killings.) We need something more comprehensive, and I’m honestly not sure this is available. If we really are concerned about honor killings, maybe we should shut up about the evils perpetrated by religion and just support gentler interpretations of belief. We may even have to knowingly promote a false belief, that there is such a thing as True Islam and that it endorses our moral convictions.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13562135000111792590 RBH

    Taner, normally I see you as a rational person who holds well thought out views, but this I have trouble stomaching:

    …maybe we should shut up about the evils perpetrated by religion and just support gentler interpretations of belief.

    Support gentler interpretations while women die? How about “Condemn in the strongest possible terms the killing of women for specious and irrational reasons, and tell the fucking ‘gentler’ versions to speak out against it as firmly themselves or make it obvious that they’re part of the problem”?

    The ‘gentler’ versions of theism have the same fundamental value as the killers: Belief in the absence of evidence is a good thing, and it’s even better if it is inconsistent with the evidence. The core problem is not ‘gentler’ or more violent forms, it’s their shared high value placed on evidence-free beliefs.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00763792476799485687 J. J. Ramsey

    I find the statement, “We may even have to knowingly promote a false belief …” to be a very dangerous one. Furthermore, it is unnecessary. One need not pretend that there is a “True Islam” in order to point out that those who claim that “True Islam” supports honor killings do not speak for all Muslims and are not representative of a “True Islam.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    “From this perspective, secularist moral outrage against religious atrocities is itself questionable. After all, if our main goal is to prevent atrocities, we should try to work with people’s deeply held religious sensibilities rather than giving offense and making the task of changing behavior more difficult.”

    As far as strategy or effectiveness is concerned, it is probably most effective if some people take a moral-outrage stance and others take a this-is-not-in -keeping-with-True-Islam stance. There is no need to insist that only one response be taken by all concerned people. I’m not sure that it would even be inconsistent for one person to respond in both ways.

    But let me say something in defense of the moral outrage response. Jesus and Siddhartha both founded world religions, and one thing they seem to have in common is moral outrage at corruption and injustice in the religious and social establishments of their respective societies.

    The great prophets of the Old Testament often expressed moral outrage at the injustices of their time. I don’t know much about Islam, but I seem to recall that Mohammed was very concerned about promoting justice and boldly fighting injustice.

    Although religions as institutions may be frequently guilty of promoting cruelty and injustice, at the core of their respective belief systems there is a definite concern for human well-being and justice. The greatest prophets and religious teachers did not hold back their expression of moral outrage against the established leaders, institutions, and practices of their time.

    So taking the moral-outrage stance actually has a connection with the this-is-not-True-Islam stance. Moral outrage is actually in keeping with basic insights or values of Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism. When atheists and skeptics express moral outrage at religious atrocities and injustices promoted by some religious leaders or institutions, we are actually pointing religious people towards some of the core values of their own belief systems.

    Personally, I view my own defection from Christianity to atheism and Secular Humanism as not so much a complete rejection of the teachings of Jesus, but as being deeply rooted in the values and insights of Jesus.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05501109533475045969 Explicit Atheist

    Whatever our goal is, we should be willing to join in political alliances with almost any peacefull group that shares that goal. If that means joining with groups who make religious arguments against honor killings then I don’t see that as a big problem. We don’t have to all agree on why a particular goal is good or what the relationship of that goal is to other things to work together for that goal.

    Generally speaking, IMO, it is better to just be oneself and to speak as oneself, but obviously there are day to day and ongoing contexts where it is better to keep quiet about, or even to dissemble about, naturalistic views. This is itself a problem, and one of our goals should be to try to create a larger context where we can all be ourselves without having to hide our views or dissemble. But absent that, then of course, compromise as you judge is required by the context.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16913404169743975327 Big Whiskey

    “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” – Arabian Proverb.

    We should not have to embrace any religion to help fight this cause. We can make allies with the people that are against these atrocities as well.

    We shouldn’t come across and say Islam as a whole is wrong just because of “honor killings”. That is like trying to stop a semi by hitting it with a mosquito. Or how about saying a vehicle needs to be totaled because of a bad alternator. We shouldn’t try and stop the whole religion on that alone. We should first start by stopping the moral injustices that do go an because of said religion.

    We should join forces with any good standing group that is against honor killings, genocide, or mass killings of any sort.

    Stop the bad things of a religion as fast as you can, then show the good things of a religion can be done without it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09010421115826273321 Rourke

    I agree with you, Taner. To use a Christian example, I’m one of the only (perhaps *the* only open) atheist at my Catholic school. I’ve learned from experience that complaining justly about the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Church’s modern positions, etc. turns people off completely. Most of the religious people I know, even the more extremist-inclined ones, are otherwise rational, decent people. While I agree with you in saying there is no “true” interpretation that lets one truly say “my religion doesn’t allow this, really”, I see your point. If it makes people more inclined to support rational, decent causes, let them say “true Islam doesn’t support x practice” or “true Christianity doesn’t support y belief.” It may not be completely true, but if it makes people stop doing bad things for stupid reasons, let them say it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Thanks for the comments. By the way, I’m not sure whom I agree or disagree with, and to what degree. This is one of those cases where I’m really not sure. My gut-level instinct is to say *&^%$#@! the religious fanatics and their beliefs that sanction such atrocities. But then, asking what is the best way to oppose such atrocities stops me from running with my instincts, and causes no end of confusion.

    By the way, this is not a question confined to matters of the clearly (from a secular point of view) atrocious. In fact, I most often encounter it in the context of the much more peaceful creation/evolution wars.

    For anyone who cares about science and honest education, creationism is a major nuisance. And this is an issue about which I have done a lot of work and can claim some significant expertise. But in many cases, the best thing I can do to help the pro-evolution side is to shut up publicly. When people get up in arms because they equate evolution with godlessness, it does not help when I join the conversation. After all, I am a outspoken nonbeliever who has been known to argue that evolution does, on balance, count toward a full-blown naturalism. Creationists love to point to scientists and nonbelievers who defend evolution (most notoriously Richard Dawkins) and keep the atmosphere of moral panic going.

    This isn’t an abstract worry. I have had a couple of minor incidents where I have learned that the anti-ID book I co-edited was not displayed or I was struck from a possible speakers’ list. This was because the pro-evolution organizers didn’t want their cause hurt by association with nonbelief, precisely the image they were trying to fight.

    In all likelihood, their judgment to steer clear of me was, in fact, correct. They are the ones up to their necks in their local fights, not me. And maybe I also have to defer to the judgment of those who fight honor killings and genital mutilation. They are more likely to know what’s effective.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16415287407278685717 Lamar

    It seems to me that until we are able to be skeptical of what books like the Bible or the Koran tell us, (or what even other people tell us) we will never get rid of evil that humans naturally should find disgusting. I think we can treat the enemy of our enemy as our friend in this case for only so long, because the real enemy lurking behind it all is irrational belief. It’s not just religion, after all. The irrational beliefs of Stalin led him to kill innocent chemists and musicians. That his minions had blind faith in him was the reason they were able to go against their natures by mercilessly killing those innocent men and women. (And the same goes for any despotic regime.) So I don’t think this should be about, in the long run, moderates versus fundamentalists, or even atheists versus theists. It’s not atheism per se that we need, but rather more open skepticism and individuality. At base, this is about those who think we should be skeptical of all claims versus those who think that there are some claims that we should not be skeptical about (whether those claims be in the Bible, the Koran or come from the mouth of a despotic ruler).

    Because all claims require interpretation of some kind, as long as one continues to be utterly non-skeptical with regards to the claim (whatever it may be), there will always remain the chance that he or she will be driven to do unreasonable (and perhaps evil) things because of certain interpretations of that claim.

    We need to somehow teach people that it is okay to be skeptical of anything, even of that which they hold most dear; and that it is not offensive to question beliefs, even religious ones.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05501109533475045969 Explicit Atheist

    There are serious problems with the “best thing atheists can do is shut up publicly” approach.
    One problem here is that this complaint that atheists who argue on behalf of what they believe undermine the cause they argue on behalf of by tainting it with their atheism is a generally applicable complaint. If an atheist argues for stem cell research then that hurts the cause of stem cell research by assoicating with nonbelief, etc. There is no end to this “don’t publicaly argue for X because you will hurt the cause” complaint. It is a fundamentally bigoted complaint.

    The pro-evolutionists who don’t want their cause hurt by association with nonbelief probably include a considerable number of pro-evolutionists who themselves consider nonbelief to be bad and therefore who agree with the anti-evolutionists that associating of evolution with nonbelief really does hurt the argument for evolution. You should at least consider that this is an underlying motive here evne among the pro-evolution for people who don’t want you name in books. It is not necessarily a fact that they are making that censorship decision because they are unbiased and more knowledgeable about what is more effective.

    My own view is that the fact that the resistance to evolution is so anti-atheism based is strong evidence that to defeat the anti-evolution, and more generally the anti-science movements, we utlimately have to also tackle the underlying anti-atheist fears. Without attacking the underlying anti-atheist phobias that animate and motivate the anti-evolution and anti-science movements the anti-evolution and anti-science will remain strong.


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