Honor Diaries: Silencing Speaks Volumes

by Qanta Ahmed
Islamists aim to shut down a documentary by Muslims about honor violence.

Victims of honor crimes are silenced. Victims of honor crimes are shamed. Victims of honor crimes are made pariahs. And, often, victims of honor crimes are extinguished. This week, Honor Diaries, a documentary focusing on the global manifestations of honor violence, was itself silenced, when two American universities — the University of Michigan at Dearborn and the University of Illinois in Chicago — canceled planned screenings. With this act of censorship, the movie has become a metaphor for its message. Just like the women and girls it portrays, the movie has been silenced and its progenitors shamed.

While honor crimes take place in many cultures, they are most prevalent today in the Muslim-majority world and increasingly in Muslim diaspora communities settled in the West. Our movie examines the work of nine women activists, many of them Muslim, in defending and rescuing these victims.

As an observant Muslim who has lived in Saudi Arabia, the center of the Muslim-majority world, as a woman of Pakistani heritage, and as a female physician who has identified and reported both adult and child victims of abuse, I contributed to the expert commentary in Honor Diaries, and did so willingly without compensation of any form. I did so in accordance with my values as a Muslim: We are mandated by Islam to expose any injustice, including among our own.

Crying Islamophobia, and thus slandering the movie’s backers, Muslim groups have demanded that universities cancel these screenings. Contrast this with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia last weekend, where my colleague Dr. Maha Al-Muneef was honored by President Obama for the humanitarian work she as a Saudi Muslim physician has performed in exposing the abuse of women and girls in her own country — work that won first the admiration and later the patronage of the Saudi monarch himself. If a country as religiously restrictive and theocratic as Saudi Arabia can tolerate educational and social campaigns exposing the violence against women and girls, why in a country as robust as the United States are Muslim groups permitted to stifle public discourse in the academic sphere?

The answer is that an underlying but easily spied agenda is dominating the conversation. Portraying American Muslims as a victimized, besieged group is politically useful to extremist groups despite the documented facts to the contrary: American Muslims are affluent, upwardly mobile, and empowered.

Calls of Islamophobia win political Islamists attention akin to that generated by claims of anti-Semitism, though the two are far from equivalent in historical, moral, or ethical terms. American universities, especially vulnerable to accusations of discrimination or even marginalization, are easily frightened and persuaded to do the bidding of entrenched political Islamists.

Political Islamism is a distinct and predatory beast, quite different in intention and action from mainstream Islam and its followers in all our varied manifestations. Central to political Islamism is the institutionalization of Islamist ideals that pursue Nizam Islami, an official “State” of Islam — a new world order — that prescribes supremacy of Islamist beliefs over all others. A reinvented version of Sharia is required for this goal, along with an evolution of classical jihad into terrorist jihadism.

Islamists actively pursue de-secularization as they seek to define purity and authenticity by Islamist standards — denigrating democratic pluralism and power-sharing as secular ideals that they oppose. They hope to use the ballot box, however, as an instrument to accomplish the institutionalization of Islamist ideals. But if they have their way, the ballot box will not result in democracy over the long term but in a brittle, poorly disguised political theocracy. Political Islamism is a variety of totalitarianism; while not based in Islam, it is very much nestled within Islam.

Peripheral to the Islamists’ beliefs is the position of Muslim women. So inconsequential are we that academicians note that political Islamists have rarely devoted their political treatises to issues relating to women. They do, however, advocate increasingly restrictive measures to curb the autonomy of women in Muslim communities, even in the West.

It is therefore unsurprising that an Islamist group that claims to advocate improved relations between Americans and Islam is trying to suppress a documentary painstakingly made by women, including Muslim women, who seek to bring to light the evils of forced marriage, child marriage, female genital mutilation, dismemberment, and other forms of honor violence.

True to their core Islamist — not Islamic — values, they seek to silence any examination of the deep-rooted plight of the most vulnerable in our own communities. Such examination would expose Islamist ideals as hollow and fundamentally misogynist. By crying Islamophobia, the critics marginalize women and girls, who are utterly dispensable when it comes to realizing the Islamist political vision.

I understand the fatigue and confusion a non-Muslim American might face when encountering this debate. The present administration has committed a string of foreign-policy missteps beginning with the Cairo speech in June 2009. In this speech, President Obama confidently announced a new and improved engagement with the Muslim world. This optimism give way to a deepening American ambivalence about any involvement in the Middle East, particularly in the aftermath of the interminable Arab winter.

Thirteen years into the post-9/11 era, we are weary from two military conflicts in the Muslim-majority world and a smoldering drone war on a third Muslim territory (at Pakistan’s own invitation). Some Americans view U.S. military engagement as villainous. What do Muslims make of it, those who live in regions where the Afghani and Pakistani Taliban are gaining political capital as fast as America loses it, where Egyptian democracy rudely delivered a stillborn Islamist autocracy? What do Muslims make of the long U.S. interventions now that a military dictatorship controls Egypt, and now that the U.S. declines to intervene on behalf of millions of Syrians, both Muslim and Christian?

Certainly it makes sense that Americans now feel uncertain, to say the least, about all matters Islamic. But, in the face of uncertainty, we must hold tight to our uniquely American democratic values. It’s time we return to the lessons of our Founders.

Perhaps better than anyone else, Americans understand the sanctity of separation of church and state, and defend the right of all who take shelter here to freely express their religion. But what many Americans forget, to the great benefit of the political Islamist, is that the right to religious expression does not mean that one faction can encroach upon and dominate public space. Public space can be shared only if it is defended for all, not conceded to some.

Constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom does not mean that we can censor the examination of cultures that endorse abuse in the name of faith. It also does not mean abandoning difficult debate for fear of offending believers. Many cultures that practice honor violence are part of modern Islam, even though they have no place in authentic Islam. Honor Diaries explores these practices as described by Muslims. The film risks giving offense to some, but, if we are to have any hope of ending these abuses, the victims of honor violence need us to take that risk.

It is hard-won, severely tested American democratic ideals — the defense of the vulnerable, freedom of expression for all, and the sincere (not cosmetic) political enfranchisement of the minority — that best serve the interests of vulnerable Muslim women and girls. We can make use of these mighty democratic ideals only if we bear witness, if we share the testimony of victims, and if we educate a community. American schools and universities are perhaps the most important space in which to have this discussion. Muslim groups that truly support good relations between mainstream America and Muslim America should leap to see this movie, rather than seek to have it banned. 

I worked on the documentary for 21 months and believe that the many efforts to delegitimize Honor Diaries represent a desperate effort to control the debate. Such actions, even if pursued in the name of Muslims, and claimed to be in the spirit of Islam, directly penalize the most disadvantaged Muslim women and girls.

Policymakers, legislators, and academics must rise to the occasion. They have an urgent role to play in informing guardians of the academy of their duty to protect free expression and their responsibility to hold open debate. They must not give in to the intimidating tactics of nonviolent but deeply malignant Islamists who are masquerading as public advocates.

Americans must understand that these rabidly political Islamists do not represent most Muslims. Failing to acknowledge this reality not only silences victims of honor violence globally, but emboldens the increasingly aggressive political Islamists in our midst, whose ultimate goal is to silence us all.

— Qanta Ahmed, M.D., is a member of the board of directors of Women’s Voices Now and the author of In the Land of Invisible Women, an account of her experiences as a physician in Saudi Arabia. You can follow her on Twitter @MissDiagnosis.