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American Newspapers and Honor Killings (Updated)

Conor Friedersdorf

I've lately been pushing the idea that within the conservative movement, a combination of epistemic closure and a willingness of media elites to mislead their audience is producing a rank-and-file with a skewed view of reality. If you doubt that thesis, this single example is likely enough to persuade you to reconsider.

And perhaps this very post will win you over to my side.

Over at The Corner, Mark Steyn, whose staunch opposition to honor killings I admire and share, writes, "When you look at all the formulaic sludge that wins the Pulitzer Prize for Most Unread Multipart Series, it is striking that not one of the major newspapers has done an investigative series on the proliferation of 'honor killings', not in Yemen or Waziristan but in the heart of the western world."

Later in the same post, he goes on to write:

Multiculturalism trumps feminism, and so the media accept a two-tier sisterhood in which Muslim girls are run over, stabbed, strangled, drowned and decapitated for wanting to live like the women they read about in The New York Times and The Washington Post. No matter how novel or arresting the details of a story are, the PC blinkers go on immediately.
He concludes:

The media's attitude to "honor killings" is not only shameful and dishonors the dead; it's also part of the reason why America's newspapers are sliding off the cliff: Their silence on this issue is merely an especially ugly manifestation of how their news instincts have been castrated by political correctness.
Let's survey "their silence on this issue," shall we?

In The New York Times, America's newspaper of record, a quick search reveals a June 20, 1999 story titled "For Shame: A Special Report. Arab Honor's Price: A Woman's Blood." It is 3,941 words.

That same year -- the first of my search -- a story about the complexity of growing up Muslim in New York City mentioned the practice in passing. A March 2000 story about Unicef efforts to fight violence against women mentioned honor killings among other forms of extreme assault. In May 2000, a 1200 word story focuses on an honor killing perpetrated by a Dominican man. The editorial page inveighed against honor killings in November 2000. Honor killings are mentioned in this 2001 piece, which begins, "Islam preaches equality, yet in most Muslim countries a woman's place is determined by a man's will. It's the law." A 2002 piece titled, "In Pakistan, Rape Victims Are the Criminals" begins:

The evidence of guilt was there for all to see: a newborn baby in the arms of its mother, a village woman named Zafran Bibi.

Her crime: she had been raped. Her sentence: death by stoning.

In October 2002 Nick Kristoff mentioned honor killings in a column about the repression of women in the Middle East. A February 2003 essay centers on an honor killing a Muslim girl witnessed and its impact on her life. The headline on a 2003 Dexter Filkins piece: "Honor Killings Defy Turkish Efforts to End Them." An excerpt from a long 2003 opinion piece from Bagdhad:

Even these brutalized sisters are luckier than many women in Iraq. They have no adult male relatives, and thus are not at risk for the honor killings that claim the lives of many Muslim women here. Tribal custom demands that a designated male kill a female relative who has been raped, and the law allows only a maximum of three years in prison for such a killing, which Iraqis call ''washing the scandal.''

''We never investigate these cases anyway -- someone has to come and confess the killing, which they almost never do,'' said an investigator who looked into the case and then dismissed it because the sisters ''knew one of the men, so it must not be kidnapping.''

This violence has made postwar Iraq a prison of fear for women.

Another 2003 story tells Times readers about an inquiry into honor killings in Pakistan. Several 2004 stories mentioned honor killings while reporting on Turkey's efforts to join the European Union. Here is one. This lengthy magazine piece from 2004 mentions honor killings as one thing an upstart Arab news station wanted to cover. It came up elsewhere in the newspaper that year, but we've got a long way to go, so let's just skip to the fact that they were also mentioned in this lengthy 2005 magazine profile of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. "Turks to Fight Honor Killings of Women," another headline blared later that year, during which Nick Kristof mentioned honor killings in at least three more columns.

Columnist Roger Cohen got in on the act too: "Six recent 'honor killings' in Berlin, where about 10 percent of the 2.5 million Turks in Germany live, have focused attention on a culture of violent male repression of women in some Muslim immigrant communities in Europe," he wrote. "The most talked-about case is that of Hatan Sürücü, a 23-year-old single mother, gunned down near her Berlin home in February."

On December 4, 2005, The New York Times Magazine ran a 4,440 word story reported from Berlin that it commissioned from a German writer and translated. Titled "The New Berlin Wall," it led with an honor killing and includes this excerpt:

...the books of the three Muslim dissidents now tell us what Germans like me didn't care to know. What they report seems almost unbelievable. They describe an everyday life of oppression, isolation, imprisonment and brutal corporal punishment for Muslim women and girls in Germany, a situation for which there is only one word: slavery.

Seyran Ates estimates that perhaps half of young Turkish women living in Germany are forced into marriage every year. In the wake of these forced marriages often come violence and rape; the bride has no choice but to fulfill the duties of the marriage arranged by her parents and her in-laws. One side-effect of forced marriage is the psychological violation of the men involved. Although they are the presumed beneficiaries of this custom, men are likewise forbidden to marry whom they want. A groom who chooses his own wife faces threats, too. In such cases, according to Seyran Ates and Serap Cileli, the groom as well as the bride must go underground to escape the families' revenge.

Heavily veiled women wearing long coats even in summer are becoming an increasingly familiar sight in German Muslim neighborhoods. According to Necla Kelek's research, they are mostly under-age girls who have been bought - often for a handsome payment - in the Turkish heartland villages of Anatolia by mothers whose sons in Germany are ready to marry. The girls are then flown to Germany, and "with every new imported bride," Kelek says, "the parallel society grows." Meanwhile, Ates summarizes, "Turkish men who wish to marry and live by Shariah can do so with far less impediment in Berlin than in Istanbul."

Before the murder of Hatun Surucu there were enough warnings to engage the Germans in a debate about the parallel society growing in their midst. There have been 49 known "honor crimes," most involving female victims, during the past nine years - 16 in Berlin alone. Such crimes are reported in the "miscellaneous" column along with other family tragedies and given a five-line treatment. Indeed, it's possible that the murder of Hatun Surucu never would have made the headlines at all but for another piece of news that stirred up the press. Just a few hundred yards from where Surucu was killed, at the Thomas Morus High School, three Muslim students soon openly declared their approval of the murder. Shortly before that, the same students had bullied a fellow pupil because her clothing was "not in keeping with the religious regulations." Volker Steffens, the school's director, decided to make the matter public in a letter to students, parents and teachers. More than anything else, it was the students' open praise of the murder that made the crime against Hatun Surucu the talk of Berlin and soon of all Germany.

A 2006 story from Turkey reports on a phenomenon related to 'honor' killings: "honor suicide." That year, David Brooks, Nick Kristof and Bob Herbert all mentioned honor killings in columns. They came up in the "Books" section too.

In 2007, The New York Times Magazine ran a 4500+ word story on honor killings in Syria. And you can see the shorter stories published in 2008, 2009 (from the Times own backyard), and 2010 easily enough if you care to search for them. Also note that this hasn't been an exhaustive survey. It omits all mentions of honor killings on Times blogs, numerous stories, and as many news briefs that note individual deaths by honor killing.

Illustrating the depth of Mr. Steyn's wildly inaccurate characterization has taken quite awhile, so I'm afraid I haven't got the energy to delve into the archives of other major American newspapers, though a quick Google search yields the 2009 USA Today piece, "Honor Killings in US Raise Concerns," a Boston Globe column titled "The Islamist War on Muslim Women," the Denver Post version of widely syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts' column "Honor Killing Comes to the US," a column by Rod Dreher, then columnist and editorial board member at the Dallas Morning News, a Los Angeles Times story about honor killings in India... the list goes on and on.

Let's recap, focusing on the New York Times alone. Over a period of roughly a decade, the newspaper ran everything from major internationally reported stories on honor killings in its glossy magazine to a crime story about a local honor killing on its New York regional page. It covered honor killings in Europe, the Middle East and the United States.

The topic garnered attention from magazine editors, freelancers, staff reporters in the newspaper, writers on the book review and arts pages, and multiple op-ed columnists from across the ideological spectrum. One of those columnists wrote multiple items about honor killings across several years (and even mentioned them in a couple columns that won a Pulitzer Prize!). Considering the magazine stories on honor killings alone, the Times must have spent tens of thousands of dollars at minimum covering the subject in its Sunday glossy. Honor killings were also deemed important enough to frequently appear in the World Section briefs.

So what on earth is Mark Steyn talking about? Having reviewed the incomplete summary of honor killings coverage in the New York Times alone, could any rational, informed person honestly characterize American newspapers and their handling of this issue as he did?

Let's look again at his conclusion: "The media's attitude to 'honor killings' is not only shameful and dishonors the dead; it's also part of the reason why America's newspapers are sliding off the cliff: Their silence on this issue is merely an especially ugly manifestation of how their news instincts have been castrated by political correctness."

Does the coverage you've seen dishonor the dead? Does it betray an unwillingness to cover this issue due to political correctness? Can the charge of "silence" possibly go uncorrected in the pages of NRO?

It's a good test. Perhaps Mr. Steyn was just woefully mistaken about the willingness of an American newspaper to cover honor killings. Now that he and the editors at National Review know better -- I've e-mailed this post to Kathryn Jean Lopez -- will a correction be forthcoming so that their audience isn't misled?

UPDATED: Mr. Steyn has responded at The Corner. And I have written another post that provides even more examples refuting his original post.

*Also, commenters are correct to note that one of the pieces linked above, while it mentions honor killings, is a poor example and shouldn't have been included in my argument since the author argues against that characterization. As the other examples in this post and my followup post demonstrate, however, my argument stands.   


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