Lying daughter or honor killer dad?

A runaway Muslim teen claims her father will kill her for converting to Christianity. Should we believe her?

By Judy Berman

Published October 16, 2009 3:16PM (EDT)

Earlier this week, a judge ruled that a runaway teenager in Florida must return to her home state of Ohio. Decisions like this must come down all the time, but the case of 17-year-old Rifqa Bary has become controversial enough to pit religious groups against one another. You see, Bary comes from a Muslim family but left home, traveled across the country and moved in with the family of a minister. Later, she claimed in an affadavit that her father, Mohamed Bary, had threatened to kill her if she converted to Christianity. "If you have this Jesus in your heart, you are dead to me!" she says Mohamed told her. "I will kill you!" Rifqa was then moved into foster care in her new state.

But Mohamed denies he ever made such a threat, and CNN reports that an investigation of the Bary family by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement "provided no clear evidence of criminal activity." Still, Rifqa won't be returned to her parents. The judge has instead ordered that she continue her emergency custody in Ohio. (And now, the case has become further complicated by uncertainty over the family's immigration status.)

So who is to be believed? The runaway teen who accuses her Sri Lankan Muslim father of plotting an honor killing, with help from the men at the mosque? Or her parents, who have satisfied investigators that they are unlikely to resort to violence? A thoughtful Christian Science Monitor article delves into the mess of religious and cultural practices and prejudices that permeate the case. The Barys' story, writes Patrik Jonsson, represents a "new and growing challenge to Western jurisprudence: How to reconcile restrictive Eastern cultural and religious codes with Western freedoms of religious expression and guarantees against gender discrimination."

Is this a case of protecting a young woman from dying a horrific death, or does a willingness to believe that a Muslim immigrant father who has allowed his children to become Westernized (Rifqa, for instance, was a cheerleader) would kill his own daughter reflect our own prejudices more than anything? The Christian Science Monitor quotes Nonie Darwish, an Egyptian-American human rights activist: "[M]any Muslims who leave the Middle East for the West thinking they are being protected, we discover when we're in America [that] we are not protected, because radical Islam follows us here." In other words, the very freedom of religion that is guaranteed by the First Amendment still isn't protecting moderate Muslims from discrimination based on the assumptions we make about their faith. The Barys' lawyer, who also works for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, argued in court that honor killings -- only 20 of which have happened in the U.S. and Canada in the past 10 years -- are "cultural and tribal," rather than a part of "the Islamic religious practice."

Meanwhile, in the courtroom, Rifqa and her Christian supporters read from Bibles. And, as Jonsson describes, "Holding Bibles, protesters supporting Fathima gathered outside the Orlando courtroom during hearings of the case, at one point engaging in a yelling match with an angry Muslim man from the area."

I'm reluctant -- and unqualified -- to say what should have happened to Rifqa. For me, it comes down to this: Whether we believe the honor killing story or not, we need to at least seriously consider the plight of a teenager who wants so desperately to be liberated from her parents that she would resort to such egregious defamation. We need to not only examine whether her father is dangerous but also to see what's going on with Rifqa, emotionally and psychologically. Until then, we can't truly say whether she should be with her family in Ohio, in foster care in Florida or something in between. 

What I do know is that it's absurd for one girl's court battle to become fodder for the Christian vs. Muslim culture war, with Team Jesus rooting for Rifqa to stay in Florida while Team Muhammad cheers for the parents. As the Barys' lawyer implies, this is not about the substance of religion at all (though it can't help involving religious prejudice). The outcome of the case has nothing to do with whether Christianity is a "better" faith than Islam, or vice versa. All the judge's decision did -- and should have done -- was decide the fate of a single troubled family.

Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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