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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How Racism Feeds Militarism

While most public opinion research on foreign policy asks the public to evaluate specific policies and interventions, a new working paper by Ohio State political science PhD student and Data for Progress co-founder Jon Green takes the novel approach of measuring support for hypothetical justifications for military intervention against racial attitudes. The research is still in progress, but early returns suggest that being racist — scoring high on a scale Jon calls “Acceptance of Racism” — is associated with increased support for war for oil and attacking terrorist camps. Racism also predicts much lower support for using the military to prevent genocides, support allies, or enforce international law. I spoke with Jon over e-mail to discuss these and other findings, and what they tell us about the future of progressive foreign policy in America.

SR: What do scholars know so far about how people come to their preferences about military intervention?

JG: In general, we know that the public is less supportive of war if they perceive high human costs, and we know that low income communities of color typically shoulder a disproportionate share of those human costs. So in general (though not always), when scholars have looked for a racial dimension to foreign policy attitudes, they’ve found one. Observationally, black citizens became less supportive of the Vietnam War more quickly than their white counterparts. Experimentally, framing opposition to the (then-potential) Iraq War in terms of disproportionate human costs significantly reduced support among black respondents who were high in in-group consciousness (the same experiment found that framing opposition in implicitly as opposed to explicitly racial terms — highlighting the likelihood that war funds would divert resources away from the social safety net — increased support among white respondents who were high in out-group resentment).

With respect to racial attitudes, as opposed to racial identity, most of the work that’s out there has focused on specific conflicts in the Middle East, and not without good reason. Scholars have found both that the targets of American foreign policy in the region are racially constructed, and that support for interventions in the region has consistently been associated with various attitudinal measures that implicate race: value of hierarchy, ethnocentrism, anti-Muslim stereotyping, e.g. However, there’s a growing body of work showing that racial attitudes are becoming increasingly associated with all manner of policy attitudes — from health care to environmental regulation — such that it seemed reasonable to at least check to see if the same sorts of relationships would carry over to uses of military force that less-obviously invoke the Middle East, such as helping the UN uphold international law.

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