Sandela Kanwal wanted a divorce for unknown reasons. Maybe her husband in Chicago was a wife-beater. Maybe she just didn't like him. We don't know. For months, she had been trying to get her father to end her unhappy marriage and in July 2008 Sandela tried again. This time, Chaudhry Rashad strangled his daughter to death. When the police arrived, he stated that he did nothing wrong and later demanded that he be provided halal food while in jail.
What kind of an ideology causes a man to show no remorse for murdering his own daughter, but rants and raves at being served ham sandwiches while in prison? The media picked up the story quickly and asked, "Is Islam to blame?"
On CNN, Zuhdi Jasser, of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, tried to paint Rashad as a backward cultural aberration, stating:
It [the honor killing of Sandela] has nothing to do with Islam. This is a tribal, medieval mentality that is seen in tribes in Pakistan and India, and often is not even seen in Islamic communities. It's basically part of the ignorance of the tribal community.
On Fox News, Irshad Manji, on the other hand, stated that these killings are often done in the name of Allah and compared them to honor killings in the last century in Italy, which were carried out by Catholics. She notes that these killings are often done with the name of "Allah dripping from their lips."
The media and moderate Muslims like Jasser and Manji miss the point. The victim was not Islam but a 25-year-old girl. An honor killing is defined as the murder of a girl or woman who has allegedly committed an act that has shamed and embarrassed her family. For the family to show its community that it has reasserted control, the woman is killed. Thus, "harm to reputation" is a partial or complete defense to murder. No passage in the Koran discusses honor killings, but Muslim clerics justify them and secular Muslims either do not punish them or pass laws to mitigate punishment for them. With this, Muslims make honor killings a part of Islam.
Honor killings are justified under Islam in some Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia. For example, tenth-grade textbooks teach Saudi children that it is permissible to kill adulterers. In April 2008, a girl was killed by her father for talking to a boy on Facebook, an online social networking website. A leading Saudi cleric, Sheikh Ali al-Maliki, was outraged that girls had access to such websites where they could post pictures of themselves and otherwise "behave badly," but showed no concern over the girl actually killed.
Honor killings are justified as a necessary part of culture in other Muslim countries such as Jordan, which is technically a secular kingdom with a representative parliament. In 2001 King Abdallah presented a bill outlining stiff penalties for honor killings, but parliament rejected it, stating, "it [punishing honor killings] would encourage adultery and create new social problems." Four years later, honor killings accounted for one-third of all violent deaths in Jordan in 2005, where perpetrators received as little as six months in prison under the penal code.
Secular Iraq offers no punishment. Consider the following anecdotal evidence. This year, a 17-year-old named Rand Abdel-Qader was killed by her father because she had a crush on a British soldier. The arresting Iraqi sergeant stated that "not much can be done when we have an ‘honor killing' case. You are in a Muslim society and women should live under religious laws." The father also killed his wife, who left him after the murder of their daughter. He will not be prosecuted for either murder in Iraq.
Leaving honor killings at the doorstep of illiterate villagers, as Jasser does, ignores the problem on a humane level in favor of intellectual debate. The more secular, educated elites of Muslim countries may not be so backward as to commit such crimes themselves, but they know it is happening and prefer to look the other way. The upper and middle classes have a responsibility as civic and political leaders to defend women through education, the law, and enforcement of meaningful punishments. The "Qatif Girl" case in Saudi Arabia is a good example. Attorney Abdul Rahman al-Lahem represented a gang-rape victim who was punished for being with non-related men (the rapists) without a chaperone. Al-Lahem lost his license for bringing the case to the media. Following international pressure, the disciplinary committee at the Justice Ministry in Riyadh agreed to return it.
Irshad Manji's analysis hit closer to the truth, but is incomplete. By bringing in Catholic honor killings a century ago, Manji throws in the "you too" defense — the "you" being the West — and implies that such murders will fall out of favor as societies modernize and become more secular.
Neither Jasser nor Manji addresses the issue of accountability. Chaudhry Rashad was not raised in a vacuum. If moderates reinforce the line that honor killings are "dripping" with Allah or are part of Eastern culture, those prone to such violent acts will continue on the same path. No Muslim will claim theological authority to enforce change from the mosque. Nor will Muslims be forced to act now if the implication from Manji is that culture takes centuries to evolve. But if everyone starts pointing the finger at Muslim society collectively and asks, "why do you let this happen?" maybe change will finally come.
Such reorientation away from divine "Islam" to fallible, human "Muslims" would move violence such as honor killings from the margins of society into the spotlight.
This will allow the current tangential debate of whether such killings are religious or cultural to finally end so we can focus on the girls who continue to be killed daily.
Supna Zaidi is assistant director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.