Upending the Orientalist Logic of “Honor Killings”

“Honor killings” figure prominently in portrayals of majority-Muslim countries as barbaric threats to Western culture. Islamophobic politiciansincluding President Trump in his Muslim ban executive orderpresent murders of women by male family members for perceived sexual indiscretions as a timeless characteristic of Muslim culture and law. Molly Bangs, a Senior Associate at The Century Foundation, has a new report out that flips the orientalist logic of the “honor killings” narrative on its head, demonstrating that laws protecting men who kill women whose sexual choices they disapprove of are widespread in the West and arrived in the Middle East through colonialism rather than the institution of religious law. I spoke with Molly over email to discuss her report and its implications for how we think about gender-based violence as a foreign policy issue.

SR: I think the best place to start is with how you came to the topic and what the conventional wisdom is regarding so-called “honor killings.” What made you dig into gender-based killings in the US and Muslim-majority countries, and how would you describe the policymaking community’s current understanding of the problem?

MB: When Dr. Alanoud Alsharekh came to The Century Foundation to discuss her work on gender-based killings in Kuwait and spoke of the legal codifications of such practices in the country’s penal code as remnants of colonialism, some of my coworkers and I got to talking about comparisons that could be drawn between Kuwait, other countries in the Middle East, and our own United States. The policymaking community, to my knowledge, has not previously focused on “honor killings” as being an issue in the US (except when the killer is a Muslim immigrant), instead separating such murders from the pervasive cases of intimate partner violence resulting in death at the hands of non-immigrant Americans. So recognizing the orientalist choices of labels for these murders on the basis of who the perpetrators are, I started to analyze the colonial roots of the Kuwaiti and American legal systems (and their sequential development), and found many similarities deriving from British Common Law and the French Penal Code in terms of men’s ownership of women and presenting the murder of women in cases of adultery as excusable and less than first-degree murder.

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Down with the demos! Long live democracy!

A review of Daniel Bessner’s Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual (Cornell University Press, 2018).

By Jasmine Chorley

In his December 1939 essay “The Jews and Europe,” German critical philosopher Max Horkheimer pilloried a certain group of his fellow refugee intellectuals:

“No one can demand that, in the very countries that have granted them asylum, the émigrés put a mirror to world that has created fascism. But whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism … No matter if the hymn the intellectuals intone to liberalism often comes too late, because the countries turn totalitarian faster than the books can find publishers; the intellectuals have not abandoned hope that somewhere the reformation of Western capitalism will proceed more mildly than in Germany and that well-recommended foreigners will have a future after all. But the totalitarian order differs from its bourgeois predecessor only in that it has lost its inhibitions … Fascism solidifies the extreme class differences which the law of surplus value ultimately produced.

Hans Speier  exemplified such an émigré-turned American patriot, playing foundational roles at the RAND Corporation, MIT’s Center for International Studies, and the Ford Foundation’s Center for Behavioral Studies. Born in Berlin to conservative, middle-class, Lutheran parents, Speier forged an independent path, declining to accept his confirmation blessing, aligning himself with the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), and leaving Berlin in 1926 for Heidelberg to pursue doctoral studies. His years as a young sociologist in the Weimar Republic (1919–1933) were formative, not only for Speier’s own intellectual development, but for the American defense intellectualism and foreign policy that he would go on to embed himself in: this relationship is the subject of historian Daniel Bessner’s book Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual.

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Ending the War on Weapon States

By Michael Youhana

In April, I moderated a public discussion at UC Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies on the Trump administration’s decision to bomb Syrian regime facilities in response to a chemical attack in the city of Douma. At one point during the event, someone broached a question I always hear when outcry erupts over the use of chemical weapons in Syria: What makes chemical weapons so special? The majority of deaths in the Syrian Civil War are attributable to so-called “conventional” weapons, so why do chemical weapons uniquely demand a military response?

Answers standard to modern arms control discussions followed: Chemical weapons are especially inhumane. They are also especially indiscriminate. Responding to chemical weapon attacks with force deters the future use of such weapons and ensure that the international legal prohibition on the use of chemical weapons will not erode. And the Trump administration had to respond simply because it said it would; American credibility was at stake.

I am sure that these humanitarian and legal concerns were advanced in good faith. But I also think that Syria’s chemical weapons elicit deeper anxieties about the United States’s power and purpose in the world. Accordingly, I see the April strikes as an eruption in a broader, open-ended war on what Charles Krauthammer once called “Weapon States.”

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From the ashes of order, what next?

Traditional American foreign policy is dead. The President of the United States is now fundamentally hostile to the institutional structure of traditional American diplomacy, from his own State Department and intelligence agencies to international organizations like NATO and the WTO that the US has traditionally championed. Republican elected officials  are broadly okay with this, believing it to be a worthwhile trade for its economic and social agenda. And the Republican base thinks it’s awesome, or, at minimum, an acceptable tradeoff for other priorities. So, now what?

The current liberal foreign policy agenda is primarily defensive, an attempt to preserve what is already lost. This is doomed to failure. The rest of the world knows there are going to be future Republican presidents. The GOP was only in exile for one presidential term after Watergate. George W. Bush started a war of aggression based on a lie and served two terms and the Democrats still only had a united government from 2008-2010. Iran-Contra, possibly the closest analogy to the nebulous Trump-Russia scandal, led to no negative electoral consequences for Reagan at all. And given where the GOP base is, they’re highly likely to nominate candidates in the Trumpian mold for the foreseeable future. Thus, unless drastic measures are taken, the next Republican president will take another chunk out of the “Rules-Based Liberal Order” and the next one yet another until there’s nothing to defend at all.

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Fights of Fancy

Consider a novel in which a man must grapple with an advanced new technology to prevent cataclysm. Perhaps he (and it is typically a he) is a member of the military or an intelligence analyst fighting the next world war. He could be a scientist enlisted by the powers that be to help stop some new machine over which they’ve lost control. Or he could covertly wield that device against enemies of the United States foreign and domestic. Perhaps science has already run fully amok and he’s left to reckon with the consequences in a brave new world. This is the technothriller.

The technothriller—alongside true crime, pop history, exploitative detective fiction, and Christian-themed memoir—is a staple of the pallet of hardcover bestsellers at Costco Warehouses across the country, and is likely to remain so. Technothrillers are popular among general audiences, but they’re also notably popular in the world of politics and the military. Former troops and ex-spooks frequently write fiction informed by their careers and politicians like to illustrate the policymaking process with examples from popular culture. Jurassic Park is an easy touchstone for questions of genetic engineering; Tom Clancy is the common man’s military strategist. Recently, political scientists have stated to interrogate the technothriller’s ubiquity in the halls of power.

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Disaster by Design

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) was the toast of boardrooms and newsrooms alike in his recent visit to the United States. Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates were happy to stooge for the monarch in candid, jolly photo ops.

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Billionaire Jeff Bezos with MbS (Saudi Press Agency)

Those photos are a perfect representation of the US-Saudi relationship when it comes to Yemen – billionaires cheerfully posing for professional photos while thousands starve.

Senators Bernie Sanders and Mike Lee recently sponsored a bill that would have ended US involvement in the brutal, Saudi-led and US supported imperialist war in Yemen but the legislation didn’t even come up for a vote. Ten Democrats, including recently elected Alabama #resistance hero Doug Jones, flocked to the side of their Republican colleagues to table the bill.

While US lawmakers continue to “resist” the Trump administration through acquiescence, Yemenis – already some of the world’s most impoverished, food insecure people – face US bombs dropped by Saudi pilots, Houthi ordnance, cholera, famine and mass death.   

Who is responsible for what the UN now calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis?

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Make Aggression a Crime Again

Last week, Sinan Antoon published a reflection on the fifteenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq in The New York Times. An emergent antiwar left would do well to contemplate his essay in its entirety. One line, in particular, struck me:

“The invasion of Iraq is often spoken of in the United States as a ‘blunder,’ or even a ‘colossal mistake.’ It was a crime.”

Zahra Ali, Matt Taibbi, and even Jill Stein made similar statements on the solemn anniversary. Much of the American left seems to agree on this point.

But was the invasion of Iraq actually a crime? Kirk H. Sowell, a meticulous analyst of Iraq’s domestic politics, doesn’t think so. He argues that such accusations are little more than petty slogans:

“The use of the term “crime” is mindless. No evidence of a crime is put forward; Iraq in fact violated the armistice, which followed the 1991. And a “crime” requires a mental state. Bush’s ignorance was historic, but the evidence is clear he sincerely believed the WMD rhetoric.”

I disagree with Sowell. While I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with sloganeering for a good cause, doing so is not necessary here. The Iraq War was a crime. And the war was criminal whether or not President Bush was genuinely concerned about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It was criminal for the simple reason that the war’s architects violated the well-established international prohibition against waging a war of aggression.

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