An Afghan immigrant’s inability to acclimate to life on North American soil has ended in bloodshed, Canadian sources have recently reported.
Mohammad Shafia of Montreal, Quebec, was convicted of murdering three of his daughters and his first wife in a polygamous marriage on January 29, and this latest decision has sparked outrage in the academic and religious worlds, where a number of prominent authorities have expressed their disdain at the alleged practice of “honor killings” and its increasing presence in the United States and Canada. The question of whether this latest instance was a reflection of the phenomenon was answered in the affirmative by the presiding judge in the Canadian court case.
“The apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended [Shafia’s] completely twisted concept of honour…that has absolutely no place in any civilized society,” pronounced Ontario Superior Court Judge Robert Maranger.
In a grueling three month legal battle, the prosecution presented Shafia as a man with deeply ingrained traditional roots and an irrational conception of honor. A number of wiretaps demonstrated how Shafia had become increasingly disillusioned with his family’s Western ways; Zainab, 19, and Sahar, 17, had begun dating and wearing Western garb; Geeti, 13, was underperforming in school; Rona Amir Mohammed, 50, was supporting the daughters continuing integration into Canadian society. While these efforts liberated the girls, Shafia saw them as a slight to his honor and an outright affront to his identity.
“Even if they hoist me up onto the gallows…nothing is more dear to me than my honor,” Shafia reportedly said. “[When I see pictures of them, I now think] ‘You did well. Would that they come back to life a hundred times for you to do the same again.’ That’s how hurt I am,” he exclaimed in conversation with his second wife, Tooba Yahya. “Tooba, they betrayed us immensely. They violated us immensely. There can be no betrayal, no treachery, no violation more than this.” Both Mohammad and Tooba were sentenced to life imprisonment on four counts of first-degree murder along with their son, Hamed, who is believed to have played a significant role in the disposal of his sisters and stepmother, who were found in a submerged vehicle in a canal in the city of Kingston in 2009. “Curse of God on both of them, on their kind. God’s curse on them for generations…May the devil [defecate] on their graves,” Mohammad would later add.
The Shafia family murders are the latest in a string of honor killings that have swept North America in recent years. In 2007, Aqsa Parvez of Toronto, Canada, was jointly strangled by her father and brother for refusing to wear a hijab, the head covering traditionally worn by Muslim women. Amina and Sarah Said of Irving, Texas, were shot by their Egyptian father for their Western behavior in 2008; Fauzia Mohammed of Henrietta, New York, was stabbed to death by her Afghan family on a similar basis the same year; Sandeela Kanwal of Atlanta, Georgia, found herself in a fatal position after filing for divorce from an arranged marriage in 2008, as well.
Generally, “honor killings” have been perpetrated to rid the “shame” associated with one who dresses improperly, refuses or leaves an arranged marriage, commits adultery, or falls prey to rape or sexual assault. The practice has been exhibited extensively in a number of Asian countries, some of which condone the killing of women found in certain circumstances. Though male homosexuals have also been targeted, the overwhelming majority of the victims of honor killings have been women and girls. According to the United Nations Population Fund, as many as 5,000 females are murdered annually, and women’s groups have surmised the number may be four times as much.
Many have conjectured on the origin of honor killings, and the discussion experienced a resurgence following the recent verdict two weeks ago. While Muslim leaders heavily denounced the Shafia family murders, suspicion has always lurked on possible Islamic influences with such inhumane practices. Muslims and similarly minded thinkers have expressed their indignation at the conflation of their religion with honor killings, and have typically explained the question away by citing a greater phenomenon of which the homicide may be a part.
One theory popularly espoused by said religious and civic authorities regards honor killings as the remnant of a feudal patriarchy, a primitive social structure which has yet to catch up with modernity.
“Undoubtedly, this type of gender homicide is an aberrant relic of a feudal patriarchy that is alien to Islamic teachings and the Muslim way of life,” explained Mohamad Yusuff of the Islamic Research Foundation. “Honor killings for female sexual misconduct (real or imagined) is a practice that is outside my living experience, and that of millions of Muslims born and bred in the West.”
The practice has been found in a variety of places among sundry peoples, and observers view ascribing honor killings to Islam and the Quran as a misrepresentation.
“In countries where Islam is practiced, they’re called honor killings, but dowry deaths and so-called crimes of passion have a similar dynamic in that women are killed by male family members and crimes are perceived as excusable or understandable,” clarified Widney Brown, an advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “[The practice] goes across cultures and across religions,” she added.
History has amply demonstrated the existence of such stringent codes of honor prior to the advent of Islam. Writers who have covered the histories of ancient Rome and the Assyrian empire have come across such conceptions in their studies, but the conclusions reached fail to betray a solution to the conundrums that plague scholars today. What could prompt someone to kill their child for immodest dress? Why do perpetrators of such crimes occasionally cite the Quran (Islamic scripture) and Shariah (Islamic law, based on religious writings and oral tradition) to justify their actions? Some have attempted to brand honor killings under some umbrella trend, such as domestic violence or mental deficiencies, but when one hears the reactions of those who kill and the large-scale family efforts involved in these executions, it becomes clear that honor killings are the product of primitive practices gone awry in the face of Islamic extremism.
“The frequent argument made by Muslim advocacy organizations that honor killings have nothing to do with Islam and that it is discriminatory to differentiate between honor killings and domestic violence is wrong,” notes Phyllis Chesler in an article published in the Middle East Quarterly in 2009. “Fundamentalists of many religions may expect their women to meet some but not all [religious requirements]. But when women refuse to do so, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists are far more likely to shun rather than murder them,” she explains. “Muslims, however, do kill for honor, as do, to a lesser extent, Hindus and Sikhs.”
Chesler continues to qualify the extent to which honor killings are an Islamic practice. “According to this study, 90% of honor murders in the West are committed by Muslims against Muslims.” American Muslims have the tendency to repudiate such barbarism as stemming from their avowed faith, and they may be justified, Chesler says. The problem rests in the fact that Islam may be egregiously abused by those who know less or refuse to know more.
“The perpetrators may interpret the Quran and Islam incorrectly, either for malicious reasons or simply because they are ignorant of more tolerant Muslim exegesis or conflate local customs with religion,” the writer, who frequently contributes opinions to Israel’s Arutzsheva News site, further clarified. “Here, Muslim-American and Muslim-Canadian associations might play a role so long as they cease obfuscation and recognize the religious roots of the problem… Groups such as the American Islamic Congress and the American Islamic Forum for Democracy… [provided with adequate funding]… might be willing to assist in an effort to educate Muslims against honor murder.”
In a telephone interview with the Jewish Voice, the president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, expressed his discontent with the ongoing practice of honor killings and how exegetical errors have exacted a significant toll. “You know, I grew up in a devout Muslim household, and while honor is certainly important in Islam, there is no justification in the Quran for such activity,” Dr. Jasser asserted. “Some may cite certain segments of the text regarding wife beating to legitimize the honor killing, but one well-versed in classical Arabic will find no such premise,” he added.
In a twist of irony, the latest honor killing verdict has come in the wake of a controversial film narrated by none other than Dr. Jasser himself, The Third Jihad, which delineates the threat Islamic extremism currently poses to the West. The film was shown to police officers in New York during counterterrorism training, and implicit state sponsorship of the video has angered a number of Muslim organizations, who characterize the film as misrepresentative of Islam. In an op-ed published in the Jewish Voice last week, Dr. Jasser answered to the complaints of critics and explained how the film was meant to expose radical Islam, not Islam itself. The fact that The Third Jihad elicited so much outrage and apologies from ranking officials did not bode well, Dr. Jasser had suggested. When the public defensively responds to a film that explicitly targets Islamic extremism, one can truly measure the extent to which the two have become intertwined.
As The Third Jihad discusses the history of Islamic jihad, its political and ideological manifestations, and the means radical Muslims have taken to achieve their ends of world domination, it makes mention of the patriarchal structure embedded within Muslim society and the honor killings that have resulted.