Honor killings

Here is a gut-wrenching story from The Guardian about a young Iraqi woman brutally killed by her father and brothers because of an infatuation with a British soldier. The police did not detain the father, and even supported him. By and large, the local community considers such honor killings right and proper. Honor killings, indeed, are quite common throughout the Middle East, and are carried out in Muslim immigrant communities in Western countries as well.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, honor killings are among the more appalling, disgusting acts sanctioned by religion. And make no mistake, religion is deeply involved. It is not true that “True Islam” never allows such brutality. There is no such thing as True Islam. The varieties of popular Islam that permeate the everyday lives of very large numbers of Muslims either directly sanction honor killings, or sanctify a relentlessly male-dominated sexual morality that supports an environment in which honor killings are perceived as just.

But I also think that secularists and nonbelievers nevertheless have to be cautious. I am not so sure we can using examples such as honor killings to condemn supernatural beliefs. Look at the very end of the story, and notice that the mother of the murdered woman, who has left her monstrous husband, says “God will make her father pay, either in this world … or in the world after.” In other words, even in the eyes of the people most harmed by the custom of honor killings, God and religion is not something that is called into question. If someone’s moral perceptions go against honor killings, they will rarely doubt Islam. Instead, they will be inclined to think that God’s commands, properly understood, must go against this sort of murder. True Islam, they will come to think, condemns honor killings.

Indeed, people who want to fight honor killings generally find it most advisable to say that Islam opposes such acts. The same goes with female genital mutilation. Many who fight against this practice also emphasize interpretations of Islam that reject mutilation. It is best to enlist what is considered sacred in your cause, not to fight against it.

From this perspective, secularist moral outrage against religious atrocities is itself questionable. After all, if our main goal is to prevent atrocities, we should try to work with people’s deeply held religious sensibilities rather than giving offense and making the task of changing behavior more difficult. When we hold up honor killings and genital mutilation as particularly disgusting examples of the harm religions cause, we are exploiting tragedy for antireligious propaganda. Worse, we use suffering as a kind of secularist pornography, only to reinforce our righteousness and moral superiority.

I think there is something to such charges. If we want to make a case that most of us would be better off without supernatural religion, we cannot just make lists of religious outrages. It is not even enough to point out that the outrages are directly and organically linked to particular religious views. (Remember, I think this linkage holds true with honor killings.) We need something more comprehensive, and I’m honestly not sure this is available. If we really are concerned about honor killings, maybe we should shut up about the evils perpetrated by religion and just support gentler interpretations of belief. We may even have to knowingly promote a false belief, that there is such a thing as True Islam and that it endorses our moral convictions.