The Strange Case Of The Honour Killing Debate

Posted by on June 25, 2014 in Featured, Thoughts | 4 comments



The Festival of Dangerous Ideas is not your run-of-the-mill festival. In its 6th year, the idea of the festival is for people to freely speak their minds, and in an accepting, but challenging, public environment. The FODI website describes the festival thus:

“Over one weekend, leading thinkers and culture creators from around the world will take to the stage to bring contentious ideas to the fore and challenge mainstream thought and opinion. Speakers at the festival are asked to take their ideas to its extreme to create lively and thought-provoking discussions. Our aim is for audiences to leave each session having experienced the excitement of dangerous ideas being brought to life, and having heard arguments being debated that have made them look at things in a different light.”

It has included many controversial topics over the years, with this year’s panel including such topic titles as “Surrogacy is Child Trafficking” by Kajsa Ekis Ekman, “Women Are Sexual Predators” by Alissa Nutting, “Philosophers are More Important Than Scientists” by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and features such prominent speakers as Steven Pinker, Salman Rushdie and former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.

 FODI yesterday announced that they would be running a talk by a known caliphate Islamist, Uthman Badar, who is a member of the political party Hizb ut-Tahrir. The politics of  Hizb ut-Tahrir are described on their website as:

“… a political party whose ideology is Islam, so politics is its work and Islam is its ideology. It works within the Ummah and together with her, so that she adopts Islam as her cause and is led to restore the Khilafah and the ruling by what Allah (swt) revealed. Hizb ut-Tahrir is a political group and not a priestly one. Nor is it an academic, educational or a charity group. The Islamic thought is the soul of its body, its core and the secret of its life.”

This would be all well and good, since FODI is all about challenging accepted norms, and in this case a good topic would be the separation of church and state (or mosque and state in this case), if it weren’t for one crucial element: The title of his talk was going to be “Honour Killings Are Morally Justified”. Before we all start jumping up and down, although a natural response to such a jarring claim, it is worth considering the many nuances of this rather complex situation.

After the announcement of the title of this talk, social media exploded with outrage, and rightly so. I’m not saying that the idea of honour killings shouldn’t be discussed. It should, if only in order to find a way to rid the world of such abhorrent acts. But the simple idea of trying to justify something as repugnant as honour killings should be enough write someone off as morally bankrupt, but it is because of the political and religious underpinnings of the man delivering this that we assume that his talk would be in favour of justifying the religo-cultural practice of honour killing.

As the social media sphere exploded, Uthman Badar himself answered the critics of his (yet to be delivered) talk on the moral justification of honour killings, saying on his Facebook page:

I anticipated that secular liberal Islamophobes would come out of every dark corner, foaming at the mouth, furious at why a Muslim ‘extremist’, from Hizb ut-Tahrir no less, was being allowed a platform at the Sydney Opera House to speak, but that it would only take a few hours after the advertising was released for mass hysteria to ensue is quite a feat!

Badar is correct in one thing here. The reaction was quick. But to call it Islamophobia misses one crucial point: honour killings are unacceptable, no matter who is involved. It has nothing to do with race, religion or politics, the basics of human rights are being questioned here, and even though the talk has now been cancelled, the mere suggestion of being able to justify the practice of honour killings has stirred the pot on both sides of the argument. That is, if we accept that there’s an argument to be had at all.

The problems here stem from the divisiveness of the entire situation. Firstly, Badar claims he didn’t come up with the topic of the talk, it was in fact fed to him by the festival, and he wrote his talk based on this brief. Alarm bells should have been ringing for him when this happened, because he should know full well that the general public of Australia wouldn’t react in a favourable manner to such a topic. As one commenter said, a fellow Muslim, on Badar’s Facebook page:

Brother Uthman Badar you should not have consented to the topic it’s an abhorrent title. The next time you are given an opportunity to speak at such places can you please take control of the title and stage. May Allah bless you.

Other comments on the feed varied from “Go back where you came from!” to comments which questioned whether this whole exercise was a bungled PR stunt. The former saddens me, but the latter, that is what I’m talking about here. Remember, FODI is “The Festival of Dangerous Ideas”. Honour killings certainly fit into the category of “dangerous”, and this was instantly recognised. Within 2 hours of the announcement of the speakers’ list, the festival had already made moves to cancel this speech. For FODI, a festival which prides itself on being “cutting edge” and “challenging”, and which also depends upon participation of its audience to be successful, any publicity, positive or negative, is good publicity. FODI has now been thrown into spotlight, and after those who visit their webpage because of “rage-clicking” the link to Badar’s page have left the website, others may see something that is of interest to them, click the other links, and pay money to attend this festival. The cynic in me says that Badar’s topic was chosen as “click-bait”, simply to drive traffic to the website. Who knows, maybe they knew this topic would never see the light of day, and had no intention of letting Badar speak at the festival at all?

For Badar, who quickly grabbed for the word “Islamophobia”, this is a situation where, even if he never opened his mouth on the subject, that perceived “Islamophobia” would be the accusation in any case. For instance, if he did speak, and spoke on the topic at hand, anyone who criticised his talk would be labelled “Islamophobic”. Since he has seemingly been silenced in this case, the public at large are also being labelled “Islamophobic”. That’s how criticism of religion works, and depends upon the status of being oppressed to make its case.

Like so often happens today, people are quick to react to anything that offends their sensibilities. The title of this talk was disingenuously engineered to cause this situation, and we as a public fell for this divisive marketing ploy. It was intentionally worded to exclude any race, religion or gender in the title so as to immediately invoke a response that would be seen as anti-Islamic. It immediately sets up a false picture of what happens within Islam, and whom it is against. This ignores the fact that honour killings occur in many religions and cultures, and in many regions apart from The Middle East. The Wikipedia entry on honour killings says:

“Human rights advocates have compared “honor [sic] killing” to “crimes of passion” in Latin America (which are sometimes treated extremely leniently) and also to the killing of women for lack of dowry in India. Honor crimes occur in societies where there is an interplay between discriminatory traditions of justice and statutory law.”

It is true that cultural practices and laws such as Shari’a can exacerbate the moral justification for honour killing. It is also true that most honour killings we hear about are perpetrated against women. But the topic and blurb of the talk sterilised these facts by not mentioning them, ignoring the fact that we are, largely, talking about male violence against women, and “protecting” the honour of the males in the family.

One last thought on this. How would the public react if the title of the talk was “Why Wife Beating Is Good For Society”, and was to be delivered by an Australian man? Given all that’s going on in the world, do you think the public would be in uproar? Damn right they would, because, like honour killings, wife-beating fits into the realm of unacceptable acts perpetrated against another human being.

So there is little doubt that honour killings are not morally justifiable, but this whole debacle smells to me of poor judgement, intentional media controversy, and an engineered “click-bait” which plays upon media generated fears of what Islam is and isn’t. Not to mention the ever so popular xenophobic attitude that is being cultured and grown in this country at the moment. I’m not defending Islam. I don’t see that any religion is in a position of needing to be defended. But I am saying that this whole charade has been an exercise in divisive manipulation, expected outrage, and manufactured hype for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas.

Apart from the right-wing barn-door-swinging (notoriously racist) commentators like Andrew Bolt and his notoriously intolerant ilk, and the knee-jerk reaction of hanging the label “Islamophobic ” on anyone who disagrees with the topic, is that the title of this talk was “Honour Killings Are Morally Justified”. The title of the talk was not “I will show you why I approve of honour killings”, in fact, for all we know, he may have shown a case study on how people justify honour killings using Islamic morality as a guide. There is no doubt that this happens, and many do partake in honour killings, saying that their actions are morally justified by the codified morality of the Koran. I wonder if Badar wants to clarify his position at all, or whether he’s content to live in the self-righteous indignity of being shut down. If he did, perhaps he could release the talk to the public to erase any doubts about the true content and his actual intent. Perhaps we will never know, because the talk has been cancelled.

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  1. I heard the interview with Simon Longstaff (joint founder and co-curator of FODI) on ABC Radio National Breakfast this morning:

    He wasn’t especially convincing in his justification for cancelling the talk, especially seeing his suggestion of the topic better put as a question rather than a statement not actually having been implemented.

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  2. Well said.
    During the explosion of outrage on twitter yesterday, I tried to make the precise point you make in the final paragraph (starting “for all we know”). Note to twitterers: allowing someone to clarify their position is not the same as agreeing with them. Perhaps he should be given the chance to clarify – although the summary of the talk on the FODI website yesterday didn’t make it look like it would go in anything other than an outrageous direction.

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  3. As already stated above, well said. (Unusually for me) I didn’t engage on this debate on Twitter, but (usually for me) I have some very strong opinions. What particularly annoys me is the stance all religions take, but Islam in particular, that if you oppose them your opposition is unfair and based on some form of prejudice, such as Islamophobia. A big part of my opposition to Islam is its treatment of women. I consider my opposition to be completely justified and I would take issue with anyone who tried to defend such treatment of women. However, this opposition is not the only problem I have with Islam, and I am opposed to anyone who considers relationship violence is OK whether religious or not, or, indeed, whether or not the victim is female.

    Provocative debate is good, but imho this was a publicity stunt. Badar could have been relied upon to say something controversial, whatever the subject. FODI managed to get ahead of the ball with the topic.

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  4. Heather Hastie You might be interested in this interview from ABC RN Big Ideas that went to air yesterday:

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