Not an honor killing

Just a few days ago, a jury convicted an Arizona man of second-degree murder, aggravated assault and leaving the scene of an accident. Faleh Hassan Almaleki's main victim was his daughter. This crime was an "honor killing." No one disputes that the daughter was targeted for becoming too "Westernized." In fact, the phrase "honor killing" is everywhere in the media coverage. Earlier this month, a New York jury took only an hour to find Muzzamil "Mo" Hassan, the founder of a Muslim television station, guilty of beheading his wife, Aasiya. But from the beginning, media reports have taken pains to emphasize that this was "only" domestic violence, not an "honor killing." Murder of spouses happens, sadly, all the time all over the world. My previous congregation lost a beloved couple in an absolutely horrific murder-suicide. The thing that was interesting about this Hassan murder was that the perpetrator had launched -- to much favorable media coverage -- a TV network designed to improve the image of Muslims and the victim was beheaded after she was stabbed 40, 50 or 60 times.

Beheading is uncommon in America. History is replete with stories of beheadings, of course. 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. Perhaps it's just a fad but perhaps it's more common in some cultures and perhaps there are reasons for this.

Anyway, NPR's All Things Considered attempted a bit of media analysis about the murder in the piece "Buffalo's Muslims Battle Stereotype After Murder." Considering it was written two years after the Associated Press' "Gruesome Killing Poses Another Test For Us Muslims," it didn't really advance the story very much. If anything, the previous story was much better. Both talk about how the killing became a crucible for Muslims and how some responded by working to raise awareness about domestic violence.

What neither story does is explain anything about beheading. Maybe I'm the only one who is super curious about this particular facet of the killing, but I'd just like more information about the practice. My father is a pastor and I have enough friends who are pastors or counselors that I know that cultural norms do come into play in domestic abuse scenarios. That is, in moments of rage, culture frequently informs the actions of the perpetrators and victims. It just seems odd not to discuss that in a high-profile killing such as this.

The story's main aim seems to be about dispelling the idea that so-called honor killing played any role. Right up top we're told:

When Aasiya Hassan was murdered in 2009, some journalists immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was an honor killing -- but it wasn't.

Now, I reviewed coverage of Hassan's murder a couple of years ago and I'm not sure this is true. You can read what I wrote here (and what tmatt wrote here) but the situation was such that the National Organization of Women in New York complained about the wholesale lack of coverage. While that group did raise the possibility it was an "honor killing," mainstream media reports didn't. Or, if they did, they dismissed it. I was surprised that the coverage was so shallow and slight, considering how high profile the killer and victim were and, again, the beheading aspect.

Later in the NPR piece we're told:

Some journalists assumed that the killing was sanctioned by Islamic law -- that Aasiya had dishonored her family by filing for divorce and paid for that with her life.

That story line, said Qazi*, was everywhere.

"There was this constant reminder of this monster who we all tried to project and help to establish a lifestyle television channel to show who we are and what we stand for -- and then we get this," he said.

*Previously a Dr. Khalid Qasi, a leader in the Buffalo Muslim community, is introduced. I assume this is the same person. Again, I'm not entirely sure this passive construction and reference to "some journalists" is accurate. I think that many, many, many people probably wondered whether this was an honor killing. It's just that my review of the journalism itself indicates that journalists weren't in that group. They were behaving more like the journalists behind this NPR piece, raising the issue in order to dispel it.

Also, I think this appeal to Islamic law is a bit clumsy. While it's silly to pretend that honor killings aren't a problem in some Muslim communities, it's not accurate to characterize it as Islamic law. Instead, I think it's important to note how certain cultures combine with certain readings of Koranic verses to create the acceptance or embrace of honor killings.

Anyway, let's get to the dispelling part:

Remla Parthasarathy, an instructor at the Women, Children, and Social Justice Clinic at University at Buffalo Law School, says the Hassan murder was a clear-cut case of domestic abuse.

"Honor killings are something that is sanctioned and approved by the extended family, that wasn't the case here," she said. "Religious leaders in the Muslim community came out and denounced it and they said it wasn't an honor killing and I respect that."

In fact, no one could recall ever seeing Mo Hassan at the mosque.

It is interesting to compare that last line with some of the dramatically favorable coverage Hassan received -- including from NPR -- when he started his Muslim network. But what I found interesting about this honor killing definition is that other than this Buffalo Law School clinic instructor's assertion, we don't know anything about the extended family or whether they knew about the situation at all. I'm happy to accept this definition, based on what we've seen in many other honor killing situations, but I just think more information would be helpful.

In fact, if the whole point of the story is about how people thought this was an honor killing but it is "just" domestic violence, it seems a fuller discussion of honor killing would serve the story well.

Instead the story reads as shallow and promoting a particular view. What's more, the "honor killing" emphasis means that we don't get a good discussion of whether there is anything in Islam that is used by its followers to subjugate women -- something Eric Gorski discussed well in his piece two years ago. Many paragraphs are devoted to discussion of domestic violence, but none discuss religion. We're told that the community discusses domestic violence but only as a function of being an "immigrant" community, not as a function of any particular religious views. As such, the piece reads more like public relations and less like a thoughtful look at the particulars of domestic violence in a given religious community.

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