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Honor Killing: Is Violence Against Women a Universal Problem, Not an Islamic issue?

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John L. Esposito and Sheila B. Lalwani

Washington -- Women are murdered in so-called honor killings everyday, and the public has a right to know more about these crimes and their victims.

Take India for example. On Saturday, the first-ever Indian Peoples' Tribunal on so-called 'Honour Killings" gathered prominent lawyers and activists from major Indian non-government organizations, including the Human Right Law Network, the Women's Legal Forum and the Women's Christian Association of India, to raise awareness for these crimes. The event followed an incident earlier this summer when two young people from different backgrounds pledged to marry one another but were killed by their loved ones. Family members perpetrated the so-called honor killing to restore their communal standing. Some praised the murderers as heroes, and authorities treated the crime with impunity.

Were the victims Muslim?

No. That's the point.

Gender equity and violence against women are two issues rightfully attracting more attention in the mainstream press, but in the court of public opinion, Islam is seen as an instigator of women's oppression. Studies show that gender equity is cited as a reason for the public's mistrust of Islam. Mass media message and biased campaigns -- such as the one Ms. Pamela Geller waged in Chicago in August -- that link so-called honor killings to Islam miss the opportunity to address what is truly intolerable: Gender-based violence. Such violence refers to crimes committed against females and cuts across numerous faiths, cultures and societies.

According to the 2009 United Nations Human Development report, approximately 5,000 people -- the vast majority of them girls and women -- fall victim to so-called honor killings annually. So-called honor killings are murders, usually committed against female family members accused of impugning the family honor. These crimes are symptomatic of highly patriarchal systems, where women are held responsible for maintaining personal, family and community honor.

These murders occur in the Islamic World; but, they also take place in other countries, such as India and victims can be Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Sikh. The killings are often treated as a family matter and become extra-judicial. Even in rare cases in which perpetrators are prosecuted, sentences are often disappointingly light.

When so-called honor killings are linked to Islam, they ignore non-Muslim victims and ascribe the issue to "Islam" when these crimes are a cultural phenomenon with a past that pre-dates Islam. So-called honor killings occurred in ancient civilizations, including Babylonia, Biblical Israel and Rome.

In fact, there is no justification for so-called honor killing in Islamic law or religion. Similarly, there is no scriptural reasoning for these crimes in Hindu or Sikh sacred texts.

The Geller ad campaign omitted that in recent years, Muslim scholars, commentators and organizations have condemned these so-called honor crimes as an un-Islamic cultural practice. To illustrate, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a prominent Shii spiritual leader, issued a fatwa banning so-called honor killing and describing it as a "repulsive act, condemned and prohibited by religion." Shaykh Ali Gomaa, Egypt's grand mufti, also has spoken out against these crimes.

The United Nations has also taken actions to comprehensively address gender justice and has not addressed so-called honor killings are an exclusively Islamic problem.

These statements rarely get the attention they deserve and the public is left to contend with false information that fuel personal agendas and undermine the progress that has been made over the last several years to build global awareness on violence against women. Muslim fathers love their daughters just as much as fathers elsewhere.

We live in an unequal world, and women of every religion are victims of cruelty. Let's keep that at the forefront of the debate and address how to make so-called honor killings and other forms of gender violence history, which is exactly where these crimes belong.

Everyone -- Muslim and non-Muslim -- would be better served that way.