Uthman Badar was scheduled to address the topic of “honour” killing at Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas in August. Yesterday, festival joint founder and co-curator, Simon Longstaff, announced that the talk had been cancelled, due to “the level of public anger” over the title: Honour Killings are Morally Justified.
What’s the difference? The ideas discussed at my conference were no less dangerous than the ones flagged in the advertisement for Badar’s talk. An international roster of activists and scholars, with expertise in honour-associated violence in Muslim and non-Muslim communities, worked to de-exoticise the term “honour” killing, by asking how and why violence has been linked to the value of “honour” in many cultures.
Badar had intended to “explain the world view that could lead people to assume that it was morally justified” to kill in the name of honour. Had the title been put in the form of a question, Longstaff conceded, members of the public might not have assumed that the speaker would condone the practice.
Badar tells the story differently. First, he categorically denies that he endorses “honour killings or any form of violence against women”. He agreed to discuss the topic after the organisers provided the title.
In Badar’s view, posted on Facebook, there was no difference between his “dangerous idea” and the others the festival has aired.
“What is different is that I’m Muslim,” he wrote, “one willing to intellectually challenge secular liberal ideology and mainstream values – and that says a lot about the true extent of freedom and equality in modern Western liberal democracies such as Australia.”
The festival is certainly not shy of courting controversy or provoking outrage. One of this year’s talks, by Lissa Nutting, is titled Women are Sexual Predators. A 2011 talk by Marc Theissen, former speechwriter to George W. Bush, was titled Is Torture Necessary? and argued that there are circumstances in which “enhanced interrogation techniques” are justifiable. Theissen’s talk went ahead.
In Badar’s case, however, organisers anticipated a “wall of hostility” if the event were to take place. Hence the cancellation.
The idea of difference is contentious in any discussion of honour-based violence. On the one hand, violence inflicted on family members in Muslim communities is condemned as an outrageous and intolerable cultural practice. Family-based violence in Christian and secular societies, on the other hand, is largely seen as a series of tragic individual aberrations. Both approaches divert attention from the global challenge of confronting misogyny and its cultural and legal underpinnings.
On the other hand, there are significant distinctions between so-called “honour” killings and so-called domestic violence. These must be faced, as the participants at my conference emphasised. Religion plays a significant role in justifications of “honour” killing but many acts of violence are prompted by economic and social disparities. Scholars and activists involved in the fight against “honour” killing stress the need for multi-causal analyses of the problem, and multi-pronged approaches to tackle it.
For decades, Muslim women and progressive men have been working within their own communities to dissociate the concept of family honour from the violent control of women. One of the keynote speakers at my conference was Karachi-based art director Niilofur Farrukh, who curated a touring exhibition between 2008 and 2010 called Making Visible Buried Truth.
The artworks, most by female artists, confronted the taboo subject ofKaro-Kari (the killing of women believed to be immoral). The show appeared in Sindh, the Punjab and Islamabad, where such violence is still practised. What could be more dangerous?
Farrukh reported that the exhibition brought together artists and activists, as well as community workers and general audiences drawn to the provocative exhibition. As the human rights commission of Pakistanunderlines, the work of civil society and independent media has been critical in keeping pressure on the government to amendment the criminal law to punish the perpetrators of Karo-Kari more severely.
Would it be more dangerous to attract an audience to the Sydney Opera House to hear a Muslim speaker discuss the same subject in Australia? Longstaff stated that Muslim representatives had contacted him, concerned that Badar’s talk would reinforce the notion that all Muslims support “honour killing”.
“Have we got to a point now in Australia where, because of their religion or political views, they are automatically disqualified from speaking on a matter of this kind?” he asked.
Fortunately, the successful running of my conference, open to the public, and supported by the ANU gender institute, the centre for Arab and Islamic studies, and the centre for international and public law indicates that Longstaff’s dire assessment is incorrect.
It also suggests that publicly-funded universities, as institutions that foster considered thought and grounded debate, remain a safe and essential forum for the investigation of dangerous ideas.
via – http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/25/are-honour-killings-really-too-dangerous-to-be-discussed-in-public