Honour killings: Propaganda or civilisational crisis?

Farzana Azeem was stoned to death outside Lahore High Court.

Zafer Iqbal says that honour killings have nothing to do with Islam but honour most certainly does.

The recent stoning to death of a pregnant woman outside a court in Lahore has shocked the world. According to a recent police report, Farzana Azeem married Iqbal after failing to disclose she was already married. Her husband Mazhar subsequently registered an abduction case against Iqbal.

Police had arrested Iqbal in 2009 for murdering his wife but released him after he was forgiven by her son. The police arrested and released him, only re-arresting him when Mazhar registered a second case. After release on bail Iqbal petitioned the Lahore High Court to quash the case.

Farzana’s family tried to snatch her from outside the court, but with threatening shots fired she resisted and for some reason was pelted with stones that led to her death.

Honour killing or murder?

Despite incendiary reporting it is unclear whether this was an honour killing or murder.

Honour killings are in fact quite rare in Pakistan, less than 0.001% annually (around 1,000 out of a 180 million population). In contrast UNICEF reported 490,000 under-5 deaths in one year alone. It does raise the question why there is blanket media coverage for a relatively low number of honour killings and little relating to extraordinarily high death counts of young children?

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Many writers have unleashed emotional attacks on the notion of “honour” as the root problem, causal to injustices against women, repeatedly citing gory details of a small number of cases. This has led to wide-spread confusion about the notion of honour, its significance in our lives, along with avoiding questions like why ordinary families feel the need to take the law into their hands.

Whilst accusations of misogyny, patriarchy and gender inequality abound, social unrest and anger can only grow in such an ideologically-charged atmosphere as Muslims are placed under repeated siege.

A fundamental and complex problem is emerging – a civilisational crisis across our societies.

Civilisational honour

Why does society need honour?

All civilisations exhibit some form of control to ensure acceptable social norms and conduct. Members are typically socialised into cultural conformity through mimetic practice without the need for overt education programmes. The mechanisms used to achieve this are typically “guilt” or “shame” based, with one becoming core, the other peripheral. Innocence/guilt based approaches expect legal conformity, judiciaries addressing wayward exceptions.

Western civilisations increasingly exhibit these characteristics, members conditioned to accept the state as exclusively authorised to wield violence and control, all others stripped of this right. Individual probity has less significance in social affairs, at best an issue of personal conscience.

Power thus concentrates in the state, depriving families the right to control their members. In parallel with the hollowing of parental roles is the rise in the intrusive powers of social workers, teachers, medics and the police.

In honour/shame based societies, members build reputations over time. Social transgressions incur public disgrace or boycott. Once reputation or honour is brought into disrepute, it can be difficult to recover, with families often forced to move elsewhere or become social pariahs.

Power then is dissipated across society with families empowered to manage and control their members with only serious matters resolved through the state and judicial processes. There is less intrusiveness by the state, making individuals and families more autonomous and self-reliant.

Honour – Cultural or Islamic?

Is honour a cultural practice or from Islam?

Islam endorses both guilt and shame based approaches. Historically across the Middle East, families were important social units responsible for disciplining their members. Oversight was by an Islamic state, responsible for serious matters, addressed through judicial processes based on the Shariah, with the famous jurist al-Shafi’i (rh) pointing out, “The hudud is not implemented on anyone except by the Imam or anyone officially delegated that permission by him.”

Numerous divine texts emphasise honour as not only important but sacred, prohibiting one to bring it into disrepute: “For every Muslim is sacred to one another: his blood, his honour and his property.” (Bukhari/Muslim) “He who protects himself from doubtful matters clears himself in regard to his faith and honour.” (Bukhari/Muslim)

The distribution of power across patriarchal familial units allows for a granular and responsive means of addressing social problems, addressing them at the root – serious issues are escalated to and addressed by the state, personified as the Caliph, seen as a shepherd or guardian: “Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend from their wealth… But those from whom you fear rebellion – advise them; separate beds; or strike them…” (Quran 4:34)

“All of you are shepherds and each one is responsible for his flock. A leader of a people is a shepherd and responsible for them. A man is a shepherd over his family and is responsible for them. A woman is a shepherd over her husband’s house and his children and she is responsible for them.” (Bukhari)

What went wrong?

The British in India and the European powers in the Middle East post-WW1 imposed a new civilization on the Muslim world – its reverberations are still seen and felt. Western-friendly regimes were imposed to ensure totalitarian control over the masses. Secular ideologies and values were promoted through schooling and media, clashing with traditional Islamic patterns of life – leaving deep and irreconcilable cleavages across society.

Nationalistic parties bought and lied their way into power, nepotism was rife and abuse of office widespread. State institutions were often corrupt, inefficient and bureaucratic, with little redress for those facing injustice, leading to a lack of confidence in them, in particular their judicial processes.

Societies historically built around notions of personal/family honour and probity, supported by Islamic institutions like schooling, laws, and courts, were now exposed. The institutions that once protected social values were now re-engineered to promote secular foreign values: self-interest, individualism and the pursuit of pleasure. Foreign laws permeated legal codes, the police and courts were riddled with endemic corruption, bureaucracy and delays, schooling focused on producing workers for the economy ill-preparing students for the new social and cultural context. This contributed to exacerbate rather than resolve conflicts.

It is then little wonder that people regularly take the law into their own hands when institutions fail – in turn providing the opportunity to those promoting foreign ideologies and agendas to further discredit, attack and demolish remnants of a previous noble civilisation.

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