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Debating ‘honour killing’: Geller vs Pitt

On the recent post about Al Haddad, there was a discussion about how (or whether) bloggers such as Geller and Spencer actually prevent people engaging with the problems posed by Islamism, because they frame their (sometimes fair) points in such an inflammatory way, and mix legitimate stories with more trivial or marginal ones.  This mixture seems quite likely to have the unintended effect of making liberal readers more, not less, sceptical about genuine concerns.

Having noticed this piece on Islamophobia Watch, I thought it would be interesting to investigate a bit further.  The post explains how Jessica Mokdad, who was murdered by her stepfather, has had her name attached to a conference organised by Geller (on the topic of honour killings) to the anger of her family who reject the idea that the murder was an honour killing.  It seems a fair hypothesis that some domestic murders committed by Muslims might get inaccurately labelled ‘honour killings’ when an identical crime committed by a non-Muslim would never be described in such terms. I don’t think this mislabelling is necessarily a symptom of bigotry – but it’s worth identifying such errors, and Muslims are going to be particularly anxious to do this.

Here is Geller’s own report of the issue. As usual, there’s plenty not to like.  Why the snarky comment about the young age of Jessica Mokdad’s stepmother?  It is certainly true that a large proportion of honour killings are carried out by Muslims, but why refer to it as an ‘Islamic practice’ when even conservative Muslim scholars repudiate the crime?  Geller implies that a female relative must have been involved in her death – this is a horrible accusation, and the only evidence seems to derive from the rather circular argument that women are statistically likely to be implicated in honour killings even when they are carried out by men.

However, Geller seems to have a point when she asserts that the murder may have been linked to the stepfather’s anger at Jessica’s refusal to wear the hijab, and that the family is now rather downplaying that. This prompts the question – where does one draw the line between an honour killing and some other kind of murder?  The stepfather’s focus on Jessica’s ‘Western’ ways makes the ‘honour killing’ label allowable, I think. But it’s not just Muslims who are afflicted by a sick and obsessive combination of puritanism and destructive lust.

As I scroll down another Geller piece on the same topic, I once again see a fair (though perhaps not terribly relevant) point – Jessica’s stepmother has posted some nasty anti-Israel comments on Facebook – accompanied by a very tendentious one – a further implication that because the stepmother disagrees with Geller’s evaluation of the crime she must condone the murder.

Look at the vile Jew-hatred and racism posted by Cassandra Mokdad, Jessica’s “stepmother” … Shouldn’t her anger be directed at the honor murderer? But this is typical. The father, brother or any male relative actually do the killing, but it is the female members of the family who aid, abet, excuse or otherwise sanction the honor murder.

So – neither side seems to get it quite right to me.  The crime does appear to have been associated with the murderer’s own vehement assertion of the need to follow the teachings of Islam. This piece in the Arab American discusses this aspect of the case, for example. So Geller has a point, and Bob Pitt seems to go too far when he refers to her ‘falsely claiming that the murder was an Islam-inspired honour killing.’ But, although there seems to be some objective evidence for describing this as a kind of honour killing, there is, as far as I know, no evidence to drag the stepmother into the affair.  She is photographed without hijab on her Facebook page, so she hardly seems like a strong candidate for involvement in an honour killing.  Geller appears to be extrapolating wildly and irresponsibly from the fact that many honour killings involve more than one family member. (And surely if the term or practice of ‘honour killing’ is so strongly tied to whole family involvement – isn’t that a reason to think twice before using the expression in this case, rather than massaging the facts to fit your chosen term?)

But of course ‘honour killing’ is a terrible crime, and the bigotry of a few of those who point out that obvious fact shouldn’t deter anyone from speaking out against it.  A misplaced anxiety about sensitivities is not the answer to Geller and co.