Lessons from “Honor” Killings in Germany
A recent article in Der Spiegel reported shocking practices in modern, pacifist Germany. Muslim citizens were being deliberately slaughtered by their own kin. Some died for having the temerity to divorce or leave husbands forced upon them by Islamic tradition against their will. Others committed the unpardonable sin of enjoying love before or outside of marriage. In many cases their killers—their own brothers, husbands, and even fathers—were fiercely proud of these “honor” killings. The killers’ pride and sense of self-righteousness were so brazen that the German justice system, lacking a death penalty, quailed before them.
Reading this story scared me more than anything I have ever read about Al Qaeda or its quest for weapons of mass destruction. As far as German police could tell, these hardened, prideful, unrepentant killers were neither terrorists nor spies. In their own eyes, they were pious, devout Muslim immigrants doing what God wanted them to do.
Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who has a better sense of culture and history than anyone else in the Bush Administration, has called the War on Terrorists a “generational conflict.” By that phrase I think she meant two things. First, she meant that Western society has abandoned the puerile and ultimately evil notion that war means annihilating one’s enemy. Today we call that practice “genocide” and universally condemn it. So despite our arsenal of thousands of thermonuclear warheads, no one has ever suggested—let alone seriously discussed—a “final solution” to the problem of Muslim extremism. And no one ever will. Like the Cold War, the War on Terrorists must be won mainly by winning hearts and minds.
Secretary Rice’s phrase “generational conflict” also has a second meaning. In using the word “generational,” she implied that the war on terrorists would take a long, long time to win. Her rhetoric evoked the Cold War, which took half a century.
Der Spiegel’s article revealed just how prescient Rice was, and just how long the present war may run. The sixtieth anniversary of victory in World War II reminded us of the last century’s horrors. We recalled the death camps, gulags, purges, and mass killings. Yet these orgies of murder were largely impersonal. Tyrants justified mass murder with abstractions—Communism, Nazism, the triumph of the working classes, or German “supremacy” and “order.” But by and large their victims were strangers. Stalin, the greatest mass murderer in human history, explained what made mass murder so easy: a single human death, he said, is a tragedy, but a millions deaths are a statistic.
This same point in reverse is what makes Islamic extremists’ honor killings so terrifying. The motive for murder is still an abstraction: Muslim “purity,” a perverse interpretation of the Quran, or someone’s bizarre view of the word of God. But this time the victims are not strangers; they are the killers’ own mothers, sisters, or wives. The killers murder their own loved ones—sometimes the very mothers who gave them life—for abstractions such as “honor” and “purity.” To accept the logic of these killings is to agree with Al Zarqawi that fellow Muslims also are fair game and can be killed for the cause. Mothers, sisters, cousins, fellow Muslims— anyone—must die for this abstraction.
But logic of terror does not stop there. It does not shrink from the final step. The self must also die for the all-important abstraction. The logic of suicide is just a natural extension of the rule that mothers, sisters, and wives must die for what is “right.” Human life, yours or mine, is worth nothing compared to the all-important abstraction, the “law” of God.
In this distorted moral and psychological universe, it is easy to consider women’s victimhood as no more important than anyone else’s. After all, aren’t women just a fraction of the countless victims of this terrible, murderous abstraction? Is there anything special about them?
Two things suggest an affirmative answer. First, only two human cultures in recent history have made suicide a conscious, deliberate and general policy. The first was Imperial Japan, with its kamikaze suicide pilots. The second is today’s Islamic terrorists, whose parents sometimes display pictures of their “martyred” sons and daughters. In both cases, political and religious leaders successfully exploited abstract notions of honor and piety to get the young to give up their lives. (Kamikaze, after all, means, “divine wind.”)
In both cases, social norms also included suppression of women. Japanese women have come a long way since the Second World War, but they still speak a different language from men. The forms of pronouns and verbs that they use identify their subordinate status. Western men who learn Japanese from women are subjects of mirth, and Western women who learn the language from Japanese men are subjects of confusion and sometimes resentment. As these modern vestiges of linguistic dominance suggest, women in Imperial Japan had virtually no political power or social influence outside the home.
The suppression of women under Islamic extremists is much more dramatic. Under the Taliban, for example, women cannot be educated. They cannot drive; they cannot take work outside the home; and they cannot communicate with men unless their father, brother or husband is present. These rules, although derived from an extreme approach to sexual “morality,” make it virtually impossible for women to exercise any political, moral or social influence inside or outside the home.
Can extreme suppression of women’s influence conduce to a culture of suicide? Mothers spend about nine months in the process of procreation, often enduring discomfort, hardship and pain. Many mothers spend additional years in the care, feeding, nurturing, education and upbringing of their children. For these mothers, children are their lives’ work, as well as their deepest love. To throw that work and love away for an abstraction, however intellectually seductive, would be unthinkable, if only women had the power to prevent it.
In Western cultures they do. Unbeknownst to most Americans, for example, Russian mothers helped stop the Soviets’ misguided adventure in Afghanistan. Afghani fighters’ courage and the shoulder-fired “stinger” missiles that the CIA supplied of course also played their roles. But they only helped build mounting piles of Russian corpses. Soviet leaders might have continued the carnage for decades, just as they had sacrificed millions without hesitation throughout the Communist regime. They did not do so for one reason: Russian mothers of soldiers mounted one of the most effective campaigns of protest, letter-writing, and mass persuasion in Russian history. Their successful campaign, little noted in the West, is perhaps the best example of an effective grass-roots political movement in the entire thousand-year history of Russia under the Czars and commissars. Russian mothers did what they had to do to save their sons, and they prevailed.
Contrast this happy outcome with the picture of the Palestinian mother, who seems to be smiling with her eyes next to a photo of her “martyred” son or daughter. Maybe the smile derives from the $25,000 payment that Saddam Hussein once made to families of suicide bombers. But, try as I might, I cannot believe it. I believe that smile even less than I believe smiles in the old photographs of Soviet children who turned their parents in to Stalin’s purges. The smiles simply don’t ring true.
When I see those veiled faces of the mothers of suicide bombers, I cannot help but think of the men behind and beside them, ready to beat, mutilate or kill them at the slightest transgression. I think of the force and threats of force that daily keep them from driving, reading, getting an education, and communicating with males outside their families. I think of their total personal, social and psychological isolation and their dependence on husbands, fathers, and brothers for virtually all human contact, inside or outside the home. And I wonder what their expressions would be and what they would say if they were really free to speak their minds.
This is what makes Islamic extremism so frightening. It is unlike anything the Western world has seen since the chastity belt fell into disuse.
Stalinist terror came from the top. It was horrible, to be sure, but Soviet citizens resisted. They met in their kitchens and in the parks where electronic bugs could not reach. They produced “Samizdat” newsletters and passed them from hand to hand. Many went to the gulags, some condemned by friends and relatives whom they foolishly trusted. Many perished. But by and large, Soviet citizens could trust their close friends and families even in the maelstrom of terror.
Extreme Islam is fundamentally different. The half of the human race charged by nature with giving and nurturing life is daily terrorized by the other half—all in the name of an abstract and terrible “morality” invented and maintained by the terrorizers. Suppression of women in turn gives the rampant testosterone of youth free reign to fuel fanaticism. Goaded by aging mullahs and self-interested leaders (who, like Osama bin Laden, seem to spare no effort to preserve their own lives), youth cast away their lives like so much garbage, along with the lives of many others, including fellow Muslims. Unlike terror under Stalin and Hitler, Islamic terror does not start with the State; it begins at home. It is “grass roots” terror.
Little illustrates the depth and persistence of the problem better than the “honor” killings in Germany. Muslim immigrants perpetrated these crimes despite their appearance of assimilation into German society and mores. Some of the crimes even touched second and third-generation families. The terror that affects certain Muslim women every day persisted, despite the influence of German secularism, despite the German system of justice, and despite (or perhaps because of) German Christianity, with its reverence for motherhood in the person of the Virgin Mary. Der Spiegel’s story showed just how hard it may be to uproot grass-roots terror directed at women.
If this view of Islamic extremism is correct, the West must learn two lessons to prevail. First, it must respect the wisdom of Rice’s view that the war on terrorists is a generational conflict. It took fifty years to defeat Communism, even though Communist terror came from the top down, and even though many of Russia’s people (especially intellectuals) resisted both passively and actively. In contrast, extreme Islam begins in the home, at the grass roots level. However misguided, the individual commitment that motivates Islamic terror is among the strongest and most fanatic that the world has even seen. It will indeed take generations to change this mindset at the grass roots level, and the task cannot be done without the help of enlightened Muslims who see the need.
The second lesson the West must learn is just as important. Liberation of women from bondage is not just a sideshow; it is part of the main event. Suppressing women and their life-preserving instincts is what makes suicide bombing and mindless jihad possible. Only by nullifying mothers’ influence and making love a sin can extremists turn youthful male testosterone into fuel for machinery of death. If that fuel ever reaches weapons of mass destruction, the resulting juggernaut will make Hitler’s ovens look quaint in comparison. Thinking Muslims and the West must avoid that catastrophe at all costs.
In the end, there is no force on earth more capable of stopping that juggernaut than mothers’ love and the love of free women released from bondage. Therefore Islamic women’s struggle is everyone’s struggle. The female impetus to life, once released, may be the most effective and least costly weapon against terrorists, as well as the most humane. Liberation of women held in bondage by Islamic extremists is thus not just a matter of human rights; it may ultimately be a matter of human survival.