What do you think about the media coverage of the beheading of Buffalo-area woman Aasiya Hassan? I came across the story as it was breaking -- but only because I was on the Buffalo News site looking for information on that Feb. 12 commuter plane crash in Buffalo. I expected the story to be huge because the prime suspect in the killing was Hassan's husband, Muzzammil Hassan. Muzzammil Hassan had received some fantastic national media coverage a couple of years ago -- NPR, Chicago Tribune, etc. -- as the founder and CEO of Bridges TV. Bridges was founded, he said, to counter negative Muslim stereotypes. So just on the irony or hypocrisy angle alone, I figured the story would get quite a bit of media coverage. But it kind of just floated out there -- getting some coverage but nothing terribly substantive. Normally I would chalk it up to the news maxim that only violence against young blond women gets coverage but even with the domestic abuse situation involving Rihanna and Chris Brown, no one seemed interested in a particularly gruesome murder.
Last week the New York chapter of the National Organization of Women commented on the lack of media interest:
And why is this horrendous story not all over the news? Is a Muslim woman's life not worth a five-minute report? This was, apparently, a terroristic version of "honor killing," a murder rooted in cultural notions about women's subordination to men. Are we now so respectful of the Muslim's religion that we soft-peddle atrocities committed in its name? Millions of women in this country are maimed and killed by their husbands or partners. Had this awful murder been perpetrated by a African American, a Latino, a Jew, or a Catholic, the story would be flooding the airwaves. What is this deafening silence?
The thing was that Hassan was a prominent Muslim who had been championed for his efforts to dispel Muslim stereotypes. So while, very sad to say, even if he were simply accused of killing his wife in a more common manner as opposed to beheading her -- something that is extremely uncommon in America -- this story might not have had as much news value.
The stories that were out there seemed to lack substance. They didn't explore why beheadings are more common in some cultures and what, if anything, that has to do with various religious values.
There is much more that could be written about this story but I did want to highlight one mainstream media piece that managed to tackle some of the tough questions while being incredibly respectful toward Islam and Muslims. It comes from the Associated Press and here's how it begins:
The crime was so brutal, shocking and rife with the worst possible stereotypes about their faith that some U.S. Muslims thought the initial reports were a hoax.
The harsh reality of what happened in an affluent suburb of Buffalo, N.Y. -- the beheading of 37-year-old Aasiya Hassan and arrest of her estranged husband in the killing -- is another crucible for American Muslims.
Here was a couple that appeared to be the picture of assimilation and tolerance, co-founders of a television network that aspired to improve the image of Muslims in a post 9-11 world.
One of the things that always troubles me about some of these stories is how quickly reporters sort of get defensive and dismissive about any questions surrounding Islam and violence rather than just exploring them. Far, far too many of stories about Muslims who commit violence seem to lead with the angle that the real victim of the story is the image of Islam. While this story could be interpreted as falling into the same trap, it doesn't shy away from the underlying questions and ends up being much more interesting and doing much more to dispel stereotypes.
The reporter, Eric Gorski, speaks with Muslims about how they're handling the questions and what they're doing in response to the tragedy:
The killing and its aftermath raise hard questions for Muslims _ about gender issues, about distinctions between cultural and religious practices, and about differing interpretations of Islamic texts regarding the treatment of women.
"Muslims don't want to talk about this for good reason," said Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur, a Muslim author and activist. "There is so much negativity about Muslims, and it sort of perpetuates it. The right wing is going to run with it and misuse it. But we've got to shine a light on this issue so we can transform it."
The story moves along using quotes and anecdotes. So, for instance, we learn that the vice president of the Islamic Society of North America sent an open letter to Muslim leaders saying that "violence against women is real and cannot be ignored." He said seeking a divorce over physical abuse should not be considered shameful. The article also gets the response from Muslim women's advocates who feel progress in treatment of women has happened only recently. Various mosques and Muslim organizations agreed to denounce domestic violence this week.
One of the things that I didn't get from the story was enough information about beheading. Much of the story seems to treat the murder of Hassana as a particularly barbaric incident of domestic violence. And that is true. But beheading, as we know, is extremely uncommon in America. History is replete with stories of beheadings, of course. Many Christian martyrs were decapitated. So was Marie Antoinette. But in recent years, most beheadings are associated with Islamic terror. The Wall Street Journal's Daniel Pearl, telecommunications consultant Nick Berg, and many other foreigners have met that gruesome fate from Muslim terrorists. Is it just a fad or is there special significance to that particular form of capital punishment?
To that end, Slate had a most helpful story on the matter. It basically says that there are only two verses in the Koran dealing with beheading -- neither of which seem particularly suited for non-warfare scenarios. And while it doesn't skirt over various other cultures' historic use of beheading, it notes that Muslim history is somewhat known for that method of punishment. The article also discusses the use of beheading in criminal sanctions in some Muslim countries. It's not a huge story but it does decent work.
Back to the Associated Press story -- it's long and includes tons of recent anecdotes of Muslims condemning violence against women at mosques around the country. But it also says that other Muslim clerics likely preached that Hassan could have avoided her fate by being more obedient. And the story gets quotes from people on all sides:
Asra Nomani, a Muslim journalist, author and activist from Morgantown, W.Va., challenged Muslims who say the murder has no link to Islamic teachings. While Islam does not sanction domestic violence or murder, a literal reading of a controversial verse in the Quran taught in some mosques can lead to honor killings and murder, she said.
"It's sort of like the typical reaction to terrorism in the community, where people want to say, 'This had nothing to do with Islam,'" Nomani said. "Well, it doesn't have anything to do with your interpretation of Islam that teaches you can't kill innocent people. But terrorism, violence, honor killing _ they are all part of ideological problems we have in the community we need to eradicate."
The passage -- Chapter 4, Verse 34 -- has been widely translated to sanction physical discipline against disobedient wives. There is disagreement about to what degree and whether it's punitive or symbolic.
The story mentions what was first raised by the NOW statement I cited earlier -- speculation that the murder was an honor killing, in which a woman is slain by a relative who believes the victim has brought shame upon the family. The issue is raised but quickly dismissed. And there's precisely nothing about sharia law and how it treats divorce rights between the sexes. That's notable because the killing took place six days after she served her husband with divorce papers, Hassan's lawyer says, oddly, that the husband isn't very religious and that neither religion nor culture played a role in what happened. Then someone is quoted saying honor killings have nothing to do with religion, really.
"Calling it an honor killing, it sort of takes it out of the mainstream conversation and makes it a conversation about those people from over there from those backwards countries," said [Salma] Abugideri, of the Peaceful Families Project. "In fact, in this country and in mainstream society there are many cases where domestic violence escalates to the point where a woman is killed."
Again, this is all very true. Domestic violence leading to murder is all too common. But for a story that does such a good job of confronting the questions, it is odd that in its length, the beheading aspect is mentioned only once. Domestic violence -- even leading to murder -- is, sadly, somewhat common. Beheading is not. I think it's worth exploring the cultural significance a bit more. And with how well the rest of this story tackled the heavy issues -- with an appropriate respect toward Islam and its adherents -- I wish it had.