Cultural relativism and ‘honour’ killing

Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology has undertaken research that shows that the practice of vigilante justice or ‘honour’ killing usually against women is regarded by a substantial proportion of the students surveyed as morally acceptable. The report suggests that of the 850 Jordanian students surveyed, attitudes in support of honour killing are far more likely in adolescent boys with low education backgrounds:

“In total, 33.4% of all respondents either “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with situations depicting honour killings. Boys were more than twice as likely to support honour killings: 46.1% of boys and 22.1% of girls agreed with at least two honour killing situations in the questionnaire. 61% of teenagers from the lowest level of educational background showed supportive attitudes towards honour killing, as opposed to only 21.1% where at least one family member has a university degree. 41.5% of teenagers with a large number of siblings endorsed at least two honour-killing situations, while this was only the case for 26.7% of teens from smaller families.” (supra)

Cultural relativism too often stifles free discussion of human rights abuse where it appears in a non-Western context. Conversely, there is also a tendency among non-Westerners to regard the freedoms of modern industrial nations as co-extensive with the decadence triggered by the relatively recent boom in the Kinsey-inspired pornography industry. But the foundation of Western values should not be conflated with these excesses if for no other reason than that they are a relatively novel accretion. And the freedom, safety and security afforded women in the West is a great social good worth protecting. Cultural relativism is conceptually incapable of telling us what is wrong with these and other enormities. I reproduce here the faces of some young women who have suffered and died at the hands of abusers who invariably refer back to their own cultures to rationalise their behaviour. In many cases, the perpetrators would have thought themselves morally and religiously justified. Indeed, where death is seen as an appropriate, traditionally and scripturally sanctioned punishment for apostasy, a homicidal reaction is not merely explicable but righteous. For them, the appropriate penalty for a change of religious ways or, worse still, apostasy is precisely death. This may go some way to explaining the remarkable figures surrounding ‘honour’ killing. See Phyllis Chesler, (2010) “Worldwide Trends in Honor Killings”, Middle East Quarterly (17) pp. 3-11. If Chesler’s figures are correct they deserve serious attention. She argues that 91 per cent of honour killing worldwide, 84 per cent in North America, and 96 per cent in Europe is Islamic in character.

There are fundamental differences between cultures and religions. For example, Christ’s admonition in John 8:7 and the Christian insistence on monogamy as distinct from polygamy highlight important differences between the religions. Minimising these in the interests of ecumenism or “all faiths together” initiatives is bound to undermine the interests of women. Equally, for the safety and security of women and children, the pornography industry needs to be neutered. In this the West clearly needs robust assistance.

This collection of pictures and the associated captions are to be found at Pamela Geller’s site (Atlas Shrugs). Although presenting only a tiny fraction of the problem as it appears worldwide, the collection is a useful reminder of what the practice means for the victims. Possibly for reasons of diplomacy and international trade, there is no systematic reporting or central database of these abuses notwithstanding the manifest public interest.