Islam Under Scrutiny by Ex-Muslims

A Question of Honour

In 2005, a Danish newspaper published a series of satirical cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Mohammed. For Muslims, depictions of Mohammed are considered sacrosanct. And in some contexts, even the writing of his name can be seen as blasphemous. Muslims across Europe staged protests that turned violent. More than 100 people were killed in these riots.[1]

Eventually, more than 50 countries around the world reprinted the Danish cartoons.[2] Some of those reprints were accompanied by denouncements of the drawings while others supported them on grounds of freedom of speech. But the Western Standard was the only mainstream publication in Canada to reprint the images--and in doing so the Standard became the subject of scrutiny.

Levant was incredulous: “The cartoons were the central artifact in the largest news story of the month.”

How could any self-respecting "news" outlet--other than radio stations that are forced to paint pictures with words--not display them? It wasn't for us to answer why we published them, it was for the rest of the media to answer why they did not. [3]

 

A national survey by Compass found that 7 in 10 Canadian journalists believed the cartoons should have been published in the mainstream media.[4]

So why didn’t the cartoons appear in major Canadian media outlets? Survey respondents listed fear of backlash, cultural respect and bias as some of the reasons for self-censorship. Ironically, the Danish cartoons were meant to be a commentary on media self-censorship in matters concerning Islam.

Long before the cartoon riots, a wave of violent attacks had seemingly caused a chill effect in Europe. One of the most high profile incidents involved controversial artist Theo van Gough, great-great-grand-nephew of the famed artist Vincent van Gough. In 2004 van Gough was assassinated for making a film that scrutinized Islam’s treatment of women.[5]

But, in Canada, no such violence has occurred. And yet, the Canadian media is cautious in its handling of issues regarding Islam. But, not because the media is afraid of attacks from the Muslim community, but rather, attacks against it.

Many Canadian journalists seemingly regard themselves as stalwarts of multiculturalism, rather than objective observers.

And while promoting such an agenda is fine when shining light on matters that are peripheral to the day’s news, such an agenda becomes dangerous when it shapes and colours coverage of unfolding stories.

 

***

On December 10, 2007, 16-year-old Aqsa Parvez was allegedly strangled to death over a dispute concerning her refusal to wear a hijab. Parvez’s brother, 26-year-old Waqas Parvez, and father, 57-year-old Mohammed Parvez, were both charged with first-degree murder.[6] [7]

 The international media and human rights groups plainly reported on the teenager’s death an “honour killing.”

Every year, thousands of women and men, around the world, are killed in order to preserve some nebulous notion of honour--and thousands more are kidnapped, forced into marriage, stoned and maimed. The perpetrators of these “honour crimes” are usually related to their victims. And the decision to commit such an act is often a family affair.[8] [9]

A person can become the target of an honour crime after committing some perceived infraction against cultural norms—wearing clothing that is deemed inappropriate, rejecting an arranged marriage, or even being the victim of rape can be seen as dishonorable.

Honour crimes are not the product of any particular religion or culture. But the practice is rooted in patriarchal societies.

Parvez’s death appeared to be a textbook example of an honour crime. But Canadian Muslim leaders denied there’s any such thing. Instead, they wanted the Canadian media to ignore the obvious cultural overtones in Parvez’s death and broaden the context of her story as a domestic violence issue—a crime of passion.[10] But remember, Parvez’s brother and father were both charged with 1st-degree murder—which is, by definition, a premeditated act. What’s more, their allegedly shared involvement in Parvez’s death is consistent with the modus operandi of honour killing.

Toronto Life was one of the few mainstream Canadian publications to raise the question of honour in Parvez’s death.[11] The magazine and the article’s author, Mary Rogen, were immediately accused of Islamophoia.[12]

Rogen was unapologetic:

"If three white guys grab a black man and put a rope around his neck and hang him from a tree, we know what that is. We have words like 'lynching.' It's powerful. It's evocative. It's specific. To be specific is not racist."[13] 

Yes, Parvez’s death was an act of domestic violence. But that label is too broad and vague to have any real world application or meaning. Honour crimes have a distinct and clearly defined pathology that is wholly different from any other type of domestic violence. But acknowledging this simple fact does not condemn an entire race or culture. (Obviously, victims of honour crimes, don’t condone such violence; nor do the activists and concerns citizens who speak out against such violence within their communities.)

To squabble about semantics and rhetoric is nothing more than an exercise in political correctness and whitewashing.

The United Nations plainly recognizes honour crime as a disturbing international problem. African, European, South Asian, and Middle Eastern nations plainly label honour crimes for what they are. And there are numerous organizations that are specifically dedicated to tackling this singular, supposedly non-existent, issue.

But, it’s understandable that Islamic leaders would attempt to obfuscate the issues at hand in order to protect their interests. What’s inexcusable is that the mainstream Canadian media dutifully parrots the language of PR officials and spin-doctors rather than serve the interests of the public at large.

Shortly after Parvez’s story broke, the Canadian media congratulated itself for sanitizing the news.

The Ryerson Review of Journalism praised the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for its “great lengths not to portray Parvez's murder as a “Muslim issue.’”[14] And in Mediascout’s précis of the day’s headlines author Daniel Casey singled out Montreal’s La Presse for its role in “averting controversy.”[15] But really, it is the Toronto Star that stood out from the pack. The Star didn’t just merely censor itself, rather, it served as a mouthpiece for Islamic leaders while ignoring those from the Muslim community who believed Parvez’s death needed to be scrutinized in a cultural context.

In an editorial titled, “No place for ‘culture of silence,’” the Star declared:

The central issue in this horrible incident is not a young girl’s attempt to assimilate into Western culture, but how violence towards women remains hidden in homes across the GTA.[16] 

But honour crime can’t be neatly reclassified as a women’s violence issue since men are also the victims of such crimes as well.

Regardless, within the same editorial, the Star went on to contradict itself.

How many more deaths of women and children at the hands of their partners or parents must there be before there is real outrage in the community, especially in the South Asian community, to end this madness? 

Especially the South Asian community?

For the black community in Toronto, the pivotal problem we are facing is the loss of many young men to gangs and street violence. In the South Asian community, the pivotal problem is that we are losing our women to a culture of silence that is psychologically damaging them, and in the worst cases killing them.

Here, the Star relates the problem of domestic violence in the South Asian community to the problem of gang violence in the black community. Nobody would ever try to whitewash gang violence as a nondenominational issue free of any cultural context. Yet, that is precisely what the Star was attempting to do with the “pivotal” issue of domestic violence in the South Asian community.

Ultimately, the Star’s schizophrenic editorial stance is symptomatic of the untenable position they were trying to maintain: they wanted to address a problem while denying its existence. And this misguided effort was made even more evident in a series of one-sided profiles on hijab and choice. (Note: the following articles were filed under the Star’s “news” section.)

“Why I wear a hijab … and I don’t” profiled two Muslim girls: one who chooses to wear a hijab and another who chooses not to wear one.[17]

“Hijab can divide families” profiled women who choose to wear a hijab despite their parent’s wishes.[18]

And “Choosing hijab doesn’t make me more pious” was a personal essay by a Star reporter exploring her decision to wear a hijab even though she doesn’t think it’s really required of her.[19]

Yes, not all Muslim women in Canada are oppressed. And yes, many Muslim women can choose to wear a hijab of their own accord. But what about Muslim women who have no choice? What about women who are abused and killed out of some dubious notion of cultural honour?

In 2006, Adi Abdul Humad asked the Supreme Court of Canada to be lenient in his sentencing for the murder of his wife--whom he believed to be having an extramarital affair. Humad cited “family honour” as a justification for stabbing his wife to death using a steak knife.[20]

 A year earlier, Rajinder Atwal was convicted for the murder of his 17-year-old daughter. Atwall stabbed his daughter, Amandeep, 11 times because he disapproved of her Christian boyfriend.[21]

And in 2000, Jassi Sidhu was murdered by contract killers allegedly hired by her parents because they did not approve of her husband. The couple has not been charged or extradited despite pressure from Indian authorities.[22] [23]

The media treated each of these incidents as if they were unique and isolated events. And every time someone is murdered for honour, pundits and bloggers decry “there is no honour crime in Canada” while simultaneously arguing there’s no such thing. 

In 2002, Britain had a widely publicized honour crime that mirrored the murder of Aqsa Parvez.

Abdalla Yones slit the throat of his 16-year old daughter, Heshu, because he disapproved of her Christian boyfriend and her Western clothing. [24]

Prompted by Yones’ death, the Scotland Yard re-examined more than 100 suspicious deaths in recent years, including suicides. And the British media facilitated a dialogue on the question of multiculturalism and moral relativism. The British Broadcasting Corporation provided reams of text on its website exploring the issue of honour crimes. And in one damning poll, the BBC found that 1 in 10 British Asians believe that honour killings could be justifiable.[25]

It is estimated that at least a dozen honour killings occur annually in the U.K.—with more than 17,000 incidents of honour crime overall.

Ultimately, Yones’ death served as the impetus for the creation of the Forced Marriage Unit and other initiatives designed to combat the various facets of honour crime.

In 2006, the Department of Justice Canada commissioned a report on forced marriage.[26] The report cited the U.K.’s initiatives as a model for setting Canadian policy

…due to the similarities and close ties between the two countries, as well as the depth to which the UK has gone in investigating the issue. 

However,

Since there is very little information about forced marriage in Canada, it is difficult to determine what steps the government should take to tackle the practice.

 

***

In an attempt to appear balanced, members of the Canadian media have confused sympathy with fairness--causing irrevocable harm to the very people they are trying to protect while betraying their responsibilities as journalists.

It is not a journalist’s duty to take “great lengths” to portray a story as one thing or another. Nor is it the media’s responsibility to avert “controversy.” A healthy democracy relies on the media to report on the news dispassionately so citizens can reach their own conclusions.

Feelings should not be a factor in the litmus test of truth. Niceties have no place in the business of journalism. And efforts to make the news more palatable only produces pabulum.
 



[1] Buch-Andersen, Thomas. “Danes in poll tussle over migrants.BBC News. 13 Nov. 2007.

[3] Levant, Ezra. “What Were We Thinking”, The Western Standard. 13 Mar. 2006.

[5]Life of slain Dutch film-maker”, BBC News. 2 Nov. 2004.

[6] Wingrove, J., Wilkes,  J., & Mitchell, B. “Teen died of strangulation”, Toronto Star. 12 Dec 2007.

[7] The Canadian Press, “Brother of girl killed in apparent hijab incident charged”, The Globe and Mail. 27 June 2008.

[8]Chapter 3: Ending violence against women and girls”, The state of the world population, United Nations Population Fund.

[9] Mayell, Hillary, “Thousands of Women Killed for Family ‘Honor’”, National Geographic News. 12 February 2002.

[11] Rogan, Mary. “Girl, Interrupted”, Toronto Life. Dec. 2008.

[12]Critics: Toronto Life feature ‘puts a whole religious community on trial’”, Masthead Online, 11 Nov. 2008.

[13] Wente, Margaret. “To be specific is not racist”, The Globe and Mail. 12 Nov. 2008.

[14] Rose, Rebecca. “Kudos to Sensitive, Sensible Coverage”, Ryerson Review of Review of Journalism Blog. 15 Dec. 2007

[15] Casey, Daniel,  “The Death of Aqsa Parvez”, Mediascout. 12 Dec. 2007.

[16]Sidhu, Jasmeet. “No place for ‘culture of silence’”, Toronto Star. 18 Dec. 2007.

[17] Doolittle, Robyn. “Why I wear a hijab… and I don’t”, Toronto Star. 15 Dec. 2007.

[18] Smith, Joanna. “Hijab can divide families”, Toronto Star. 11 Dec. 2007.

[19]Javed, Noor. “Choosing hijab doesn’t make me more pious”, Toronto Star. 30 Dec. 2006.

[20] Tibbetts, Janice. “Top court refuses to hear whether religion can be a murder defence”, CanWest News Service. 10 Nov. 2006.

[21]Father guilty of murdering daughter”, CBC News. 4 Mar. 2005.

[22] “The Murdered Bride.” The Fifth Estate. CBC-TV. 17 Oct. 2001.

[23] “Update on The Murdered Bride.” The Fifth Estate. CBC-TV. 5 Dec. 2001.

[24] “'Honour killing' father begins sentence”, BBC News. 30 Sept. 2003..

[25]One in 10 'backs honour killings.'” BBC News. 4 Sept. 2006.

[26]Annotated Bibliography on Comparative and International Law ” Department of Justice Canada. 27 Nov. 2008.

 
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