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Canada's 'honour killings': Where is the sense of honour?

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Afghan immigrants Mohammad Shafia, 58, his wife Tooba Mahommad Yahya and their 21-year-old son Hamed were found guilty in a Canadian court Sunday of first degree murder in the 2009 "honor killing" deaths of four female family members, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Shafia sisters and stepmother
Shafia sisters and stepmother
(Image by breakingnews.ca)
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These were not poor, uneducated people, but upstanding members of Canada's economic elite. The enterprising Mohammad escaped to Pakistan as "free Afghanistan" descended into civil war in 1992, before emigrating to Australia and Dubai, where he made his fortune in its hot real estate scene, finally settling in Canada in 2007. 

Judge Robert Maranger called the crimes "heinous": "The apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended your completely twisted concept of honour. It's a sick notion of honour that has no place in a civilised society." Mohammad Shafia replied: "We are not criminals. We are not murderers. We didn't commit murder. This is unjust." "I am not a murderer. I am a mother," echoed Tooba Yahya.

The three defendants were found guilty of the deaths of the couple's three daughters and Shafia's first wife. The bodies of the victims were found in a car submerged in a canal lock near Kingston, apparently an accident, but wire-taps of the father revealed he showed no remorse for their deaths because they had damaged the family's reputation by wearing revealing clothes and otherwise rebelling against tradition. This and other circumstantial evidence convinced the jury that the father had arranged their murder, using their brother as an accomplice.

Since 2002, Canada has suffered about 6000 murders, 13 of which involved "honour killings", defined as a homicide of a member (female or male) of a family or social group by other members, for bringing dishonour upon the family or community. Whether or not the accused here carried out the crime, such drastic resolutions of a family conflict are surely reprehensible, though a tradition that has been part of all cultures -- European and American included -- until the recent past. "Shotgun weddings" are just one form, as are "shotgun divorces". A third of all women murdered in the US are murdered by boyfriends or husbands. Both East and West, statistics show that most murders are by family members.

The main difference between the very few honour killers in Canada's legal history and the overwhelming number of whiter, more "civilised" home-grown murderers is that the latter do not justify their actions by a sense of morality however "twisted". They are usually acts of revenge, hatred, drunkenness -- both behind the wheel and through drink-induced madness.

But what about the other homicides which Canadians are increasingly indulging in? Canada is slogging through its 11th nightmarish year of occupying Afghanistan in the name of freedom. Statistics about Afghan "casualities" are notoriously poor, as the occupiers say they're too busy to compile them. How many innocent Afghans, not to mention freedom fighters, have Canadian soldiers and mercenaries killed since 2002? Surely many thousand times the 13 deaths attributed to honour killings on the home front.

And just why are the Shafias with their un-Canadian ways even living in Canada at all? It is a direct result of the destruction of their homeland which the US fuelled starting in 1979 by arming and funding mujahideen. Without that truly gruesome political event, the Shafias would have been living in a peaceful Afghanistan, where compliance with social norms by their children would have been the case, and no thoughts of this ultimate punishment would have entered their stern father's head.

But no. And just as Canada enthusiastically jumped onboard the USS Mission Civilatrice in Afghanistan a decade ago fighting those very mujahideen, it is a high profile participant in the propaganda campaign to convince Canadians that Afghans are barbarians and that exterminating them is a Boy Scout's duty.

The shameful, very noisy trial of the Shafias distorts the real news about Canada's relations with Afghans, a perfect metaphor for the high-tech imperial centre presenting itself (through the embedded media) as the world's sole source of progress and reason, even as it drags that world down into chaos and destruction. The colonial periphery is depicted as savage and cruel, whereas it is in fact the victim of immeasurable violence at the hands of the empire. The handful of "honour killings" and hand cuttings for various crimes (especially popular in US ally Saudi Arabia), however deplorable, are a drop in the ocean of imperial violence, and have actually increased due to Western meddling.

The reality is best revealed by statistics. Muslim countries have far lower murder rates than Western countries. As empire-central, let's focus on the US, where the murder rate is 5.2 per 100,000, seven times higher than Egypt's 0.8 (sorry, no stats available for poor Afghanistan). The US also has the highest incarceration rate in the world bar none -- seven times that of Canada and nine times that of Egypt. US prisons are notorious, where rape and drug addiction abound.

The flip side of honour crime is rape. The incidence of rape in the US is 300 times that of Egypt (Egypt 0.1 per 100,000 vs 30 in the US and 1.5 in Canada). The incidence of rape in Afghanistan was once upon a time also negligible. It is now an epidemic far more horrible than the isolated honour killings there (or by hapless Afghan emigres) -- and directly a result of the occupation's 150,000 killer-invaders and the chaos they have brought. For better or for worse, we must conclude from these statistics that old-fashioned honour killing is a powerful disincentive to rape.

Also for better or for worse, it is a fact that second generation Muslim immigrants often discard their religion and customs, seduced by the overt sexuality and commercialism of Western culture. The Shafias went that route. But at the same time, other immigrants become more devout and angrily reject the alluring trappings. What happens to them?

A famous case is Aafia Siddiqui, a brilliant American-educated Pakistani cognitive neuroscientist, who donned the niqab and showed sympathy for the likes of Al-Qaeda and other groups resisting the US onslaught on the Muslim world. She paid the price by being given a life sentence for supposedly trying to murder her US interrogators in Afghanistan. Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan criticised the conviction and the judicial process saying it was carried out by a kangaroo court, though curiously Amnesty International has not championed Siddiqui's cause.

Not only Muslim immigrants find solace in traditional Islam. According to a survey conducted by Swansea University, Wales, nearly two-thirds of the 100,000 recent British converts to Islam were women, more than 70 per cent white, with an average age at conversion of 27. They identified alcohol and drunkenness, a "lack of morality and sexual permissiveness" and "unrestrained consumerism" as their motivation.

Current NGOs and Western media blithely exhort Afghans and other unfortunates to adopt Western standards with nary a word about how they might be serving the West's implicit imperial agenda. This is rank hypocrisy in the eyes of Muslims. Take for instance the Independent Republican Institute, which was active in overthrowing the Honduran government in 2009. It was just last week caught with its finger in the cookie jar in Egypt, much to the feigned shock of US President Barack Obama, who threatened to cut off US bribes (excuse me, funding) to Egypt unless all charges against the IRI functionaries and other intriguers (excuse me, altruists) were dropped immediately.

The Islamic world broadly disapproves of what it sees as the collapse of morality in the West. While Western critics accuse Muslims of having an "obsession with the purity of women", for Muslims, naked ladies on magazine covers, legalised prostitution -- not to mention the alarming incidence of rape in the West -- do not represent liberation of women. On the contrary, they see much of Western culture as undermining any genuine sense of dignity for women.

Following the verdict against the Shafias, Canadian Justice Minister Rob Nicholson called honour killings a practice that is "barbaric and unacceptable in Canada....This government is committed to protecting women and other vulnerable persons from all forms of violence and to hold perpetrators accountable for their acts."

The only riposte possible is to condemn Nicholson's own endorsement of Canada's "barbaric and unacceptable" involvement in US imperial wars which kill thousands of "women and other vulnerable persons", and to demand that he "hold perpetrators accountable". Fat chance.

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Eric writes for Al-Ahram Weekly and PressTV. He specializes in Russian and Eurasian affairs. His "Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games", "From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-emerging Islamic Civilization" and "Canada (more...)

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