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Could Islam Help Us Against Honor Killings?

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] Yet another horrible honor killing took place in the southeast, the least developed part of Turkey. A 16-year-old girl was buried alive by her relatives simply for befriending boys. Forensic experts found soil in her lungs and stomach, indicating that the poor kid was conscious while being buried into the ground. May God have mercy on her soul. And may her killers face punishment in this world and the next. What they did was cruel, monstrous and evil. Yet denouncing evil is one thing, understanding where it comes from is another. The latter is necessary not just to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, but also to find a remedy with the right strategy. Who is to blame? Honor killings, unfortunately, are a widespread phenomenon in the Middle East, and people have diverse opinions on where it exactly has its roots. These disagreements were also reflected in the dozens of comments the Daily News website received yesterday. One commentator, who probably was a nationalist Turk, argued that the killers of the 16-year-old girl "were Kurds, and this is their culture." Another commentator soon responded by blaming the "Turkish government," for it "kept the Kurds... in the dark age." The truth is, yes, honor killings in Turkey are a problem mostly of the Kurdish population, for the latter is still under the influence of tribalism and all the related patriarchal codes. But this is neither an inherent characteristic of the Kurdish people, nor a conspiracy cooked up against them by the Turkish authorities. The problem is the topography of historical Kurdistan. It is a very mountainous region, which is inhospitable to trade routs, railways and highways. Hence its inhabitants have lived almost isolated from the outside world for centuries, and have remained largely untouched by modernity. The same is also true for the ill-famed "tribal areas" of Pakistan, which is, again, very mountainous. Another issue about honor killings which came out in the comments to the Daily News, and which I want to focus on, was their link to Islam -- or the lack thereof. A commentator was quite certain on this. "The problem [is] not the Muslims," he (or she) wrote. "The problem is Islam." Well, I beg to differ. I rather think that honor killings exist because not just modernity but also Islam could not penetrate enough into the patriarchal cultures of the Middle East. Let me explain. Of course, Islam, like other Abrahamic religions, has laws and punishments about sexual morality. The Qur'an, for example, criminalizes adultery, and thus Islamic law, or the shariah, has developed a system of regulating how it will be penalized. I personally have reformist views on this (for example I am totally against stoning, which is a part of the classical shariah) but that is another matter. What matters here is that honor killings go against even the most conservative interpretations of the shariah. Why?.. Well, because while the Qur'an defines adultery as a crime, it holds both the female and the male equally responsible for it. But have you ever seen a man who is killed for "honor"? I haven't. What I have rather seen is that while women are being killed, beaten, or at least humiliated for extra-marital relationships, men are often congratulated by their male friends for their "virility." In the face of this hypocritical male-domination, the Qur'an actually tried to protect women by penalizing false accusation of adultery brought against them. Unless there were "four eye witnesses" who saw the actual intercourse, no women could be accused of adultery, and those who spread rumors about her would be flogged. So, if the shariah were applied to the situation of the 16-year-old girl who was buried alive by her relatives, it was the latter that should have been punished, for that they brought a false accusation of adultery. An academic who has studied honor killings, Dr. Kecia Ali, agrees that Islam is not to blame here. In her report for The Feminist Sexual Ethics Project she notes that while "some have viewed honor killings as a logical extension of traditional Islamic gender practices," others have "argued that honor killings are the antithesis of Islamic morality." And she finds the latter view as "essentially correct from the perspective of Qur'an, prophetic traditions, and Islamic legal thought." Religion versus tradition Dr. Stefanie Eileen Nanes, another academic who studied the honor killings in Jordan, agrees. "In fact, this practice predates Islam," she notes, "and young men who commit these murders have been quoted as saying that in these cases, despite what Islam says, tradition is stronger than religion." What this means is that religion can be helpful in the much-needed campaign against honor killings. To its credit, the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (the "Diyanet") has noted this and its imams have given sermons throughout Turkey denouncing the horrific practice. But much more is needed. Throughout the Middle East, Islamic scholars and other opinion makers should focus on this problem, and make strong, not half-hearted, denunciations of honor killings. And if they don't find themselves willing to do that, they should question whether they are, too, under the influence of the patriarchal codes of male-domination, rather than the Islamic norms of justice.
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