Living in the West, one is occasionally confronted by a disdain for Islam, an example of which is the women’s literature section of the local bookstore (be it Waterstones, Readings, or Borders). There are shelves groaning with oppressed women’s stories from the Muslim world. The genre of ‘lustful violent Muslim first-person female narrative potboilers’ is always oversubscribed: “Not without my daughter”, “My life as a princess”, “My life in the hareem”, “My feudal lord”, “Once I wuz a princess”, “Arab sex slave”, etc. There is always a wonderfully evocative cover that tempts the reader (typically a poorly educated, lower middle class housewife in the ‘burbs) with the ultimate part sexual, part travel fantasy about the desert world. Without exception, these tales are in part or complete fabrications. Frequently, the author cannot get the geography correct, or the names, or even the food, but no matter: there appears to be only one thing better than being ravished by an Arab man, and that is to read about it (in bad, Dan Brownesque prose).
It’s not that these books exist that bothers me: it’s the sheer weight of the genre; the indulgent book tours that accompany them; the communal hysteria at public readings; and the fact that this is the only window to the Muslim world that exists in mainstream literature. Imagine if the Australian section of a Jordanian bookstore was crammed with titles on public drunkenness and sexual assault (“My life with a fat pink alcoholic: one Arab woman’s courageous endeavor to civilise an Australian male”), or if all the French titles were to do with personal hygiene and cowardice in battle.
But what bothers me the most, is that whilst the individual accounts may be fraudulent, Muslim men do murder their daughters for crimes of “honor”. And that should bother us all.
One of the narratives in the seerah that is most profoundly sad is that of pre-Islamic Arabs who buried their daughters alive, for no other crime than being born. One of the first acts of prophethood was to outlaw this monstrous practice. Muslims should be proud to be people who began the defence of womanhood in the ancient world, and yet in the modern one our recent history is replete with examples of the reverse.
An “honour killing” is an execution in which the father or close male family member murders a daughter or wife for alleged sexual corruption. Occasionally, the man involved is also attacked. The family presume (sometimes quite rightly) that their standing in the community will be restored if they do so. These incidents are not confined to daughters, but also to wives, and sisters. The sorts of “crimes” that trigger these killings include alleged sexual misconduct, divorce, or even intention to marry in contravention of ones parents approval. The latter appears to be the case in the brutal murder Samaira Nazir in London. In this particular instance, the girl did intend to marry a muslim, although not one of the family’s choosing and significantly one who was not as wealthy as they would have liked. The “defence” for this type of behavior is that it is to protect chastity; if that were so, then one would expect at least as many male children to be killed, as it is much more the case that muslim boys have sexual relations outside marriage than girls. That the “punishment” is enforced to females only suggests other imperatives. Amongst tribal mammals, dominant alpha males protect their genetic code by similar behavior.
A Muslim doctor friend described a lady he saw whose Muslim husband had poured sulfuric acid over her head and also that of his own daughter after she filed for divorce. The wife lost both her eyes, her nose, one of her ears and all the skin on the head, the 12 year old child was horribly disfigured. What was astonishing was that the man was never charged. The doctor said that he sat in a room with 40 of his english medical colleagues whilst they discussed how to reconstruct her face. He was ashamed to his core: ashamed that this had happened, ashamed that the man got away with it, and ashamed that Muslims have not sorted these problems out.
An interesting feature of these honor assault/killings amongst Muslims in the West and in Pakistan, is that they are rarely if ever committed by religious muslims. In Pakistan, it is typically a crime in the villages of Punjab or Sindh where illiteracy and ignorance are enforced by feudal rule so as to prevent education and advancement of the serfs who cultivate the land. In these cases a primitive village culture and tribal loyalties are the motivation. These people know nothing about their faith beyond its name, many are even unaware that it is the worship of God. In the Western world, the crime is committed by those within the community who are not religious at all (although once in the dock, they all blame religion) and whose secular life has communicated to their offspring that faith is irrelevant. Once the daughter takes this culture to its logical conclusion, the father erupts into violence. I’m not sure why it should come as a surprise to a family who never pray, frequently drink, and casually denigrate Islamic scholarship within the home, that their children adopt the dominant non-Muslim culture of their society. In Australia in the 1980’s there was an infamous case of a Turkish Muslim “Sam” who murdered his daughter in a drunken rage for the crime of not being religious enough. Perhaps he would have been better served to direct the violence against himself.
Many Muslims will argue that assault of women is a worldwide practice (true) and that men killing women in crimes of passion are also a Western problem (also true); but when Muslims do it, then it is our problem and our faith commands us never to be silent on such occasions. Muslims who will loudly proclaim an injustice on the other side of the world will often overlook a comparable crime on their street. They will socialise with, pray next to, and do business with wife beaters, without ever having the courage to confront these men. Whilst all Muslims cannot be answerable for the crimes of an individual, we are answerable to Allah when we see injustice and we fail to confront it.
By that silence, Muslims give the world an impression that we tolerate or even condone such behavior, and thereby we discredit our own Prophet (PBUH) who stood strongly against the abuse of women and malign our faith in front of the world. The issue is then “owned” by Western critics of Islam or by self-styled Islamic reformers. In both cases, neither is in a position to actually help Muslim women, but they do make hay whilst the sun shines. The issue is therefore given extensive media exposure, none of which is in the service of the victim.
We should view these occasions as opportunities to demonstrate how passionate we are about the safety of women, by deed and not just word. Rather than continually whining about some television program or media commentator defaming Islam, we should take care that by inaction or silence we do not do the same. Many Muslims are sick to death of da’wah-by-press-release (e.g. Islam stands against so and so) as opposed to da`wah by the behaviour of its adherents.
It is actually irrelevent if such criticism is unfair and disproportionate, as our intention is not to correct this behavior as a PR exercise, but because it is an article of our faith that we act to protect life. It is unique to our religion that the murder of one soul equates to the murder of humanity, and that the spilt blood of a Muslim is precious and sacred beyond the value of the Ka’ba. One wonders if contemporary Muslim society actually believes this part of our faith, or regards it as a passage of high-fluted, flowery language that we should take “literally”.