There is no honour in cheapening tolerance in Islam
When the bodies of four Afghanistan-born Montreal family members were found on June 30, 2009, in a submerged car in a Kingston, Ontario canal, the case initially looked like a tragic fatal accident. But after 30 months of probes and lengthy court sessions, a jury's verdict this week declared the incident was actually a first-degree murder - in the name of family honour.
Mohammad Shafia, 58, his wife Tooba Yahya, 42 and their son Hamed, 21, were found guilty on Sunday in the killing of three of Shafia's daughters - Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13 - and Shafia's first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, 52.
The case obviously shocked Canadians, but it has also sparked a clash of cultures that could have long-term implications on how Islam is perceived around the world, and how Muslim communities in the West handle their relations with others.
As horrendous as the practice is, honour killing is a social problem in the Muslim world, wherein male relatives believe they must cleanse disgraces brought upon their families by female members. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that perhaps as many as 5,000 women and girls are put to death every year at the hands of their own families over honour.
As I followed up on Canadian media coverage of the Shafia honour killing case, I was heartened to see Canada's Muslim leaders denouncing the heinous act as un-Islamic.
In December, the Imam of the Ottawa Mosque condemned the practice, telling a newspaper reporter that it "speaks to a perverse sense of honour that is alien to Islam, and has no place in society". That same view has been echoed by Ontario Superior Court Judge Robert Maranger, who declared that Shafia's slanted concept of honour "has absolutely no place in any civilised society".
Still, the way the Shafias' case has been handled by some media channels in Canada, as elsewhere, has only reinforced negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslims. Among Canada's one million-Muslim community, the trial has provoked a profound sense of frustration. This is especially felt with statements attributed to the elder Shafia, that he was mad at his three daughters because "they betrayed humankind; they betrayed Islam; they betrayed our religion and creed; they betrayed our tradition; they betrayed everything".
Canada is not the only western nation where Muslim honour killings have taken place. Britain's police statistics for 2010 reveal a 47 per cent rise in honour-based crimes against women. In the United States, a surge in honour killings was reported in 2011. But regardless of where Muslim-related honour killings take place, the important question should be how to tackle this problem.
The fact that some Muslims continue to be steered by medieval attitudes about women presents a grave challenge for Muslims in the West. In Canada, honour killings should be addressed through more education, not only about the true nature of Islamic values that forbid domestic violence against women, but also about how Muslims should co-exist with other faiths.
Based on my conversations with Muslims in the Ottawa area it is clear how Canadian Muslims community leaders can contribute in this regard. Indeed, some media reporting of the Shafia murders, especially that of CBC, has been helpful in facilitating the education process.
But the presentation of the trial in a highly sensational fashion by other media was rather disappointing, and more dangerous.
In the post 9/11 era, most of the discussions of Muslim-Western relations have suggested terrorism is the prime source of tension. But as the Shafia case suggests, horrible acts carried out by Muslims with no political motivations are also incredibly damaging.
The Shafia murder case, like an act of terrorism, has been perpetrated in the name of Islam; it has destroyed innocent civilian lives; and far more important, it has further fuelled anti-Islamic sentiments around the world. It is therefore the responsibility of Muslims everywhere, in the West and at home, to promote modern Islamic values that respect women and urge peaceful coexistence.
Muhammad Ayish is a former professor of communication at the University of Sharjah who is currently a media researcher and commentator based in Canada.
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Published: February 2, 2012 04:00 AM