City Journal is running a short and interesting article by Ibn Warraq on the American feminist scholar Phyllis Chesler’s work on honor killings. Warraq is a critic of Islam and something of an apostate, which may account for why he writes anonymously under a pen name. And in reading the article it becomes clear that even as Chesler’s work suggests honor killing is embedded in certain kinds of tribal cultures in Asia and is not a simple product of Islam. Yet Warraq hits the Islam theme pretty hard, as though that is the central issue.
Chesler acknowledges that more honor killings are committed by Muslims than Hindus or Sikhs, especially in the West, but also points out that such killings have roots in certain tribal cultures irrespective of religious belief. But the complex interplay between religion and culture has a Rorschach quality to it, and it is not that difficult to put a spin on a desired emphasis. Here is Warraq:
It is a measure of her intellectual integrity that Chesler goes where the data lead. Thus, her conclusion, based on the empirical evidence, is that “the origin of honor killings probably resides in shame-and-honor tribalism, not necessarily in a particular religion.” And she holds each religion—Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism—responsible for failing to abolish, or trying to abolish, honor killing or femicide.
But can Islam itself really have nothing to do with honor killings, even though Muslims have perpetuated the majority of such murders in the West? Yes, honor killings have also been found in various societies in the Balkans, the southern Mediterranean (Sicily, for example), and in India, but could these cultures not have learned from Islam, since they were all under Islamic domination for centuries?
So Warraq’s reading of the Rorschach is to acknowledge the tribal origins but emphasize Islam, and to not let it off the hook. Not only are there a lot of specifically Islamic honor killings but perhaps, Warraq hints, it was Islam that put the idea in the minds of other cultures and religions given the geographic and cultural scope of its historic influence.
That there is at least some Islam-blaming in this has prompted a fair number of Muslims to post angry notes in the article’s comments section. And so right or wrong we are once again pitched into a furious debate about Islam, one in which the issue of honor killings fades into the background, to be replaced by a debate over the merits or demerits of the creed.
In turn, readers interested in the question at hand are advised to take a look at what Chesler herself says. I expect I will track down the book Warraq reviews ( A Family Conspiracy: Honor Killing, Phyllis Chesler, New English Review Press). But in the absence of that you can learn a lot from this April 2018 article by Chesler in the often-interesting journal Tablet.
This article demonstrates the intellectual integrity Warraq mentions. And that includes a more nuanced view of Islam than Warraq’s.
Now, everybody has an axe to grind I suppose, including the author of this blog post (more on which in the conclusion). No one reads, researches, reflects and writes as a computer might do, because the data are there. People are up to something. If Chesler has an axe to grind, and she acknowledges she does, it has more to do with women and feminism than religion. And so she is comfortable considering questions of religion more placidly since her main interest is elsewhere.
Even so she is remarkably fair-minded in the way she takes on the difficult topic of honor killing. While she is clearly motivated by Western feminist principles, and think them to be superior to tribal approaches to gender and culture, she is quite willing to look for the facts first and let them speak for themselves.
Read the article since I can’t do justice to the care with which she has considered the evidence and its implications. If nothing else it is a gripping and terrible tale, filled with tragedy and raising issues of high concern.
But after parsing the data fairly, as she does, one is still left with existential questions that are hard to come to grips with. Chesler herself appears hugely divided on the question of what it means for tribal cultures to have such intense norms concerning collective control of women, especially as regards their virtue and virginity.
She is aware that cultural practices have their own internal logic and are tied to specific conditions of history and conditions.
From a tribal point of view, this shame-and-honor code does enforce social stability but at the price of individual rights and personal freedom. . . Keeping money and land within one’s own family has always been seen as important. First-cousin marriage maximizes this advantage. The disadvantages of first-cousin marriage include all the consequences of inbreeding and lifelong misery in a marriage one may abhor.
The institution of polygamy, or so it is argued, allows first, second, third, and fourth wives to remain with their children and to continue family life as usual. Since divorce is unthinkable in tribal societies, this may be seen as a “kindness” to womankind.
She is aware of female complicity, and sometimes more, in the practice.
Brothers, uncles, fathers, and other male relatives usually commit the murder, although mothers have also been known to collaborate in the murders of their daughters; sometimes, they are hands-on perpetrators. . . .
At the outset, I did not understand the role that women played in honor killings as conspirators, collaborators, and as hands-on perpetrators. As the author of Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, I should have suspected this, but since maternal filicide is such an unthinkable act, my understanding dawned slowly.
Chesler speaks of her sailing “into uncharted territory” as she undertook her research, and while she is speaking here of the dearth of good evidence she may be speaking as well of her own emotional journey, which is ongoing. It is not an easy thing to come to ready conclusions about how someone in the West is to confront honor killings, especially as regards action. How far should the West go? Should it recommend? Advise? Support? Shelter? Cajole? Humiliate? Impose? Demand? Invade-the-world-invite-the-world?
Moreover even coming to grips simply with what is actually happening is hard, since cross-cultural comprehension is always fraught with the risk of misunderstanding. Chesler’s honest and sobering conclusion:
One of the many questions with which I wrestle is this: Is an honor killer, by definition, “mentally ill” according to Western standards?
What if he or she has been extremely abused in childhood, suffers from the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress, including paranoia, a trigger-temper, and rage-aholism, and believes that such murder is being undertaken in “self-defense?” What if this belief system and psychological configuration is no longer possible to change? How is an honor killing, which is a family conspiracy and an act of domestic terrorism, different from an act of truck-bomb or human-bomb terrorism? Both are embedded within a system of beliefs which are not compatible with democracy or the rule of law.
My answers to these questions are still evolving.
Indeed. Seeing what is in the hearts of others requires one to first see what is in the front of one’s nose, a task that as Orwell pointed out needs a constant struggle.
So kudos to Chesler for an honest reckoning of her own axe to grind and her own struggles in understanding.
In turn, my axe to grind. I am sympathetic both with Warraq’s critique of Islam and Chesler’s feminist impulses as regards honor killings. But my identity is not so much caught up with Islam or women’s issues. At the moment I think a lot about the so-called national question. I can’t help it; that is what is going on for me at present and there is as little sense gainsaying that as there is in asking Warraq why he is preoccupied with questions of Islam or in wondering about the origins of Chesler’s feminism.
What does all this tell me? That while the West’s values are to be treasured they are fragile and specific. Universalism is itself a particular thing, having grown up in a specific place and time. Three cheers for universalism when the conditions are fortuitous such that it doesn’t back up on us. Significantly fewer cheers when universalism is forced to meet its opponents on open ground, and faces the battle nakedly, with only its own naivete for protection.
Take the diversity lottery–please. The idea that our sense of universal values and fair play obliges us to select our immigrants from all around this wonderful world is the height of folly, and that is then compounded by chain migration. To think we live in a real life version of Disney’s It’s a Small World After All expresses an almost colonial-era superiority complex over this whole complex world. Even if we do not like honor killings and even if we opt to take some action against the practice here and abroad (especially here!) it is demeaning to think we can wish other cultures away, Disney-style.
We may not respect what other cultures do but they deserve our respect if only as enduring artifacts of human struggles that persist. So there are prudential limits to what we can expect of other cultures in other places. And in turn we have a prudential obligation to our own people, and dare I say it our own culture, to be forceful in rejecting tribal values that are not congenial to our way of life.