The conviction of Muzzammil “Mo” Hassan yesterday, a Buffalo TV executive who beheaded his wife, Aasiya Zubair, brings some measure of closure to a horrible story which continues to haunt me.
For several years, we worked together on a show which I created and hosted at Bridges TV, a cable station the couple built to “bridge the gap between Islam and the West.” Having started out to accomplish that important goal, and in light of the friendship I had with Aasiya in particular, the events in Buffalo have been especially painful.
The importance of this case however, is not a function of personal relationship; it lies in the necessity to address a real and growing problem. Tragically, this is not the only such trial going in the U.S. In addition to the Erie County, N.Y. case, there is also the trial of Faleh Hassan Almaleki, accused of murdering his daughter for becoming what he described as “too westernized” begins on Monday in Maricopa County, Arizona.
Honor killing is a real and horrendous reality. According to United Nations studies, 5,000 women are murdered each year in the name of protecting the honor of their family and their faith.
While honor killing is usually linked to the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, it is very much an issue here in the United States. Sadly, and often dangerously, those who claim to address this problem often get it so very wrong.
In the Almaleki case, the defendant admits the religious-cultural justification for his alleged crimes. In the Hassan case, the defendant made no such admission. But the fact that the killing included a decapitation certainly suggests roots, if not rationale, in the same religious-cultural context. And that is where this whole thing gets complicated.
Tragedies of this kind demand both courage and understanding – the courage to engage in genuine critique of our own communities, and the willingness to extend genuine understanding to the communities of which we are not a part.
Those who are animated by hostility to Islam will find in these cases further justification for their hatred, and the overwhelming majority of those who view the tradition favorably will rush to distinguish between what the faith “really teaches” and what is “just cultural,” as if that fine distinction will keep more women from being murdered.
The Muslim community needs to find the courage to seriously address the inevitable questions about the role of religion in these crimes, the extent to which Islam was a factor, the connection between domestic violence and traditional religious cultures, etc. Without raising such questions, more women, some of whose deaths could be prevented, are sure to die. And even if some of the people who really do raise these kinds of questions do not come from a place of earnest commitment to human rights and justice, it is not enough to cry “Islamaphobe” when such questions are raised.
Simply saying this has nothing to do with Islam and/or religion, as too many religious leaders have done, is not acceptable. In fact, such an approach creates the very space utilized by those who use their religion in despicable ways. Defining a problem out of existence does not make it go away. It is only when practitioners take responsibility for the religious elements or underpinnings of those actions they abhor that they can help keep such abuses from happening.
By the same token, it is neither accurate nor appropriate when those who harbor malice against, or fear of, a particular community or religion circle around stories such as the murders in Arizona and Upstate New York like sharks around an injured swimmer. Instead of working the story for the angle that “proves” what they already believe, they need to hold back and resist making rhetorical use out of other people’s tragedies.
If people on both sides of this issue really cared more about preventing more deaths than about defending ideological positions which they already hold, we would see two things. First, we would see more Muslim religious and community leaders who did more than explain away the connections between faith and fighting, in the home or in the world. But that kind of courageous leadership demands a context in which it is reasonably safe for leaders to be that honest.
Appreciating the importance of creating that context will give rise to the second thing we need to see now -- a kind of internal discipline by critics of Islam and by hard secularists, all of whom use tragedies like these murders to “prove” the “inherent deadliness of either religion in general or Islam in particular.
The only thing that really counts here, beyond bringing the guilty parties to justice, is preventing further deaths. That is something to which we will all can contribute as soon as we decide that it’s more important to save lives than affirm beliefs or confirm previously held assumptions.
Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and the President of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.