Murder while Muslim

Was Aasiya Hassan's beheading really an "honor killing"?

Published February 18, 2009 6:20PM (EST)

The New York Daily News and Fox reported yesterday the speculation that the recent beheading of a Buffalo-area woman by her husband -- both of them Muslim -- was an "honor killing."

"While Muslim leaders have urged against applying cultural stereotypes to the crime, advocates for women linked the killing to attitudes in Muslim societies," said the News. "'This was apparently a terroristic version of honor killing, a murder rooted in cultural notions about women's subordination to men,' said Marcia Pappas, New York State president of the National Organization for Women."

Phyllis Chesler, interviewed by Fox and writing at greater length here, argues, for one thing, that the "extremely gruesome nature" of the crime fits the "honor killing" profile. "Leaving the body parts displayed the way he did, like a terrorist would do, that's very peculiar, it's very public," Chesler said. "He wanted to show that even though his business venture may have been failing, that he was in control of his wife."

Not so fast, says an article in the New York Times -- which, like the other pieces, noted that the couple, Aasiya and Muzzammil Hassan, had founded a satellite channel dedicated to countering negative images of Islam. And that they apparently had a history of domestic violence.

"The gruesome death of Ms. Hassan prompted outrage from Muslim leaders after suggestions that it had been some kind of 'honor killing' based on religious or cultural beliefs," reported the Times. "Dr. Sawsan Tabbaa, a Muslim community leader who teaches orthodontia at the State University at Buffalo, said, 'This is not an honor killing, no way ... It has nothing to do with [her husband's] faith." His wife was "more of a practicing Muslim" than her husband, according to Dr. Tabbaa's son. "She really believed in the cause, wanting to present her faith in an accurate light and now people are blaming her very faith for her death."

Just to be clear: "Honor killings" are about culture, not religion. (And yes, they do happen in the U.S.) Pappas and Chesler are right to put Aasiya Hassan's murder -- like so many other domestic killings -- in a cultural context. Just not this one. Murder "rooted in cultural notions about women's subordination to men" -- and stemming from the desire to "control" one's wife: how, exactly, is that different from "regular" domestic violence? Yes, there are crimes and "hate crimes," violence and "domestic violence," killings and "honor killings"; we can argue about the usefulness of this kind of taxonomy in the first place. But here, it's hard to argue that Mr. Hassan was not, at first and by some, found guilty of killing while Muslim.


By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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