//  10/4/17  //  In-Depth Analysis

As Joseph Blocher previously explained on this site, testing to see if animus has been “cured” requires a clear understanding of the original constitutional sin. Accordingly, now that the Trump Administration has issued a third version of its travel ban, it’s helpful to assess just how clearly animus was present on the face of the second version. As I will show, President Trump’s previous executive order contained demonizing references to Muslims. Given such proof of animus on the face of that order—and given questions about whether the latest travel ban is infected by the same anti-Muslim animus—the Administration must affirmatively demonstrate that it has finally cured that taint. This is true even though the patently anti-Muslim language that I will discuss here has been scrubbed from the travel ban’s latest iteration.

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The second travel ban (henceforth “Travel Ban”) was issued on March 6. It’s bizarre reference to so-called “honor killings,” completely unrelated to its alleged national security purpose, was indicative of its animus towards Muslims. While honor killings are not an Islamic crime, the U.S. media and society associates the term almost exclusively with Muslims. Thus, it is telling that in describing gender-based violence, the Travel Ban specifically referenced only honor killings, even though they occur rarely in the United States and are also part of a wider pattern of global gender-based violence. Rather than constituting a genuine attempt to address violence against women, the Travel Ban’s reference to honor killings was a transparent ploy to single out Muslims and exploit stereotypes of Muslim misogyny.  

Other posts on Take Care provide a thorough legal analysis of how animus doctrine applies to the Travel Ban. Here, instead, I will take a step back and demonstrate why the Travel Ban’s use of the term “honor killings” is prejudicial in the first place. To start, I will provide an overview of how academics and human rights groups understand honor killings, a crime with specific attributes that are unrelated to Islam. Then, I will demonstrate that the term is nonetheless associated with Islam in American society, focusing particularly on how President Trump and right-wing groups have referenced honor killings to create fear of Muslim immigration. Finally, I will place honor killings in a wider context of global violence against women. This has attracted less attention from President Trump and his supporters, making it clear that the reference in the Travel Ban is less a means to address gendered violence and more of a way to encourage public stigma against Muslims.

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The term “honor killings” is generally used to describe crimes where female victims are murdered by their relatives to uphold family honor. For instance, Human Rights Watch defines honor killings as murders “committed by male family members against female family members who are perceived to have brought dishonor upon the family,” while Amnesty International defines the killings as “acts of violence against wives, sisters, daughters and mothers to reclaim . . . family honor from real or suspected actions that are perceived to have compromised it.” Although men are sometimes the victims of honor killings, the targets are overwhelmingly female. That’s because in cultures where honor killings are prevalent, men are considered to hold honor, while women—viewed as the property of men—are responsible for maintaining that honor. Honor killings typically punish women for asserting marital or sexual autonomy, often by refusing to enter an arranged marriage or (allegedly) having extra-marital sexual relations.

Honor killings frequently feature three unique characteristics: planning (including premeditation amongst family members and threats to respond with violence at perceived dishonor), family complicity (multiple family members are often involved in the murder), and lack of stigma against the murderers (such killings are approved of within the community). In addition to public support, the legal systems in some communities can further help honor killers evade punishment—often due to blood-money laws, which allow relatives of the deceased to forgive the murderers (who share the same relatives as the victims), or through reduced sentences because the murder is considered understandable, if not justified.

There are no precise statistics accounting for the prevalence of honor killings. As the family (and often a larger community) approve of the murder, honor killings frequently go unreported. The killings also tend to occur in remote communities, where there is limited rule of law. However, the United Nations Population Fund estimates that 5,000 women are the victims of honor killings each year.

While honor killings are prevalent in some South Asian and Middle Eastern communities, they are not unique to any specific region or ethnic group. In fact, they were a recurring crime in southern Italy until the last century. In the Americas, Brazil struck down the honor defense to murder of a wife only in 1991; some Brazilian courts to this day refuse to prosecute and convict men invoking the honor defense.

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Although honor killings are not an Islamic crime, they are nonetheless associated with Islam by the wider American public. Honor killings are considered the “workings of a Muslim patriarchy that was understood to be primordial, unchanging and ahistorical.” Thus, American news media have frequently defined “honor killings” as crimes committed by Muslim men to punish their female relatives for dishonoring the family by violating Islamic tenets—even claiming that some Muslims believe it is a “religious duty.” Fox News has published unsubstantiated statistics holding Muslims responsible for 96% of honor killings in Europe, 84% in North America, and 91% worldwide.

This association of honor killings with Islam persists even though honor killings are universally condemned by both Sunni and Shia Islamic scholars, and have been so condemned throughout history, achieving a “rare consensus” amongst Islamic scholars.  No Islamic texts, historical or otherwise, even remotely sanction the practice of honor killings.

Because differentiating honor killings from other forms of violence against women can make gendered violence seem like a faraway foreign problem, some human rights scholars have even rejected the term “honor killing,” preferring “domestic violence” to underscore the unfortunately widespread nature of violence against women. Sociologists have also accused the term “honor killing” of “outsourcing” patriarchy, especially in relation to Muslim communities.

In Europe and America, the discourse surrounding honor killings has been used to inflame anti-immigrant rhetoric against Muslim communities. A study found that “whenever honor killings occurred in the West,” media reports noted the perpetrator’s race, religion, and ethnic background. The research concluded that coverage of honor killings was used “as a means to justify the exclusion of the migrant group from the nation.” News reports have used invasion metaphors to describe honor killings, with language suggesting that the United States was at risk to succumbing to a foreign form of violence which had “washed up on [its] shores.” Fox News articles have referred to incidents of domestic violence amongst Muslims as honor killings, even those which did not feature any characteristics associated with the crime, and were not referred to as such by law enforcement authorities.

The far-right in particular has used the term “honor killings” to denigrate Muslims. Breitbart, at times under the editorial leadership of Trump’s former chief advisor, Steve Bannon, has been especially prolific in sounding the alarm. The day the Travel Ban was issued, Breitbart described honor killings as a “brutal practice wherein Muslim males will murder or mutilate female family members accused of bringing shame and dishonor to their families and Islam.”

President Trump’s own statements reflect his perception of honor killings as a specifically Muslim crime. At a campaign rally, Trump said, “We [must] take on the ideology of Radical Islam. . . .[M]y Administration will speak out against the oppression of women. . . .This includes speaking out against the horrible practice of honor killings, where women are murdered by their relatives for dressing, marrying or acting in a way that violates fundamentalist teachings.” Similarly, in a campaign statement during his candidacy, Trump said that a ban on Muslim immigration was necessary because Shariah authorizes “unthinkable acts that pose great harm to Americans, especially women.”

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As honor killings occur extremely rarely in the United States, especially when compared to the frequency of other forms of gender-based violence, it is hard not to see the right-wing’s disproportionate response as xenophobia. After all, honor killings are not a unique phenomenon, but part of a global pattern of violence against women, including in the United States.One in four women in America experience intense physical abuse at the hands of a partner, and each day, an average of three women are murdered by their boyfriends or husbands.

Moreover, as Human Rights Watch has emphasized, the conception of male honor in honor killings contains parallels to crimes of passion in the West, where women are murdered by their male partners, but the “crimes are perceived as excusable or understandable.” In the United States, common law has recognized the heat of passion defense as a mitigating factor for murder, reducing both the charge and the sentence. The typical heat of passion defense applies to a man who kills his adulterous wife or her lover in a fit of rage. Historically, the defense, which could then even totally absolve the killer of murder, was not offered to women. Domestic violence activists have lobbied to eliminate the heat of passion defense in the United States, contending that it justifies male violence against women as a “natural response,” and blames female victims for provoking their own murders. In some ways, the heat of passion defense is similar to justifications provided for honor killings, rationalizing male violence in response to women who bring dishonor to men through their perceived sexual transgressions.

In spite of the widespread nature of violence against women, even within the United States, the Travel Ban specifically singled out honor killings as a unique cultural crime. The text deliberately eschewed references to domestic violence, a broader category that would have also encompassed honor killings, in an attempt to specifically invoke negative public perceptions of Muslims by referring to a crime specifically (albeit inaccurately) associated with Islam. As honor killings are otherwise rare in the United States, it is obvious that a nearly-exclusive focus on the crime, particularly at the expense of other forms of gendered violence, was not a way to bring attention to a widespread problem, but instead a means to demonize Muslims.

This strategy is reminiscent of other historical measures that have justified exclusionary policies through disparaging the group that is being excluded. In Nazi Germany, too, Adolf Hitler directed German agencies to focus on crimes committed by Jews to win the public’s support for anti-Semitic legislation. In the United States, anti-immigrant advocates in the twentieth century compiled statistics on crimes committed by immigrants as a way to pressure the government to restrict immigration from certain European countries.Further, in response to the Great Migration, white officials in Northern cities justified racist housing policies resulting in de facto segregation through focusing on black criminality.

Those advocating for discriminatory policies have found a powerful tool in using gender violence in particular. Fears of black boys sexually preying upon white girls were used to defend school segregation. Rhetoric vilifying Asian men as sexually lascivious was used to bolster support for both the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment.

Even today, the Travel Ban’s reference to honor killings was not the only example of the Trump Administration using gender violence to justify exclusionary policies. In his campaign announcement speech, President Trump pledged to build a wall against undocumented Mexican immigrants, whom he described as “rapists.”

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The Travel Ban’s reference to honor killings provides facial evidence that it was driven by animus against Muslims. Honor killings were unrelated to the Ban’s stated national security purpose of preventing terrorism. Because the inclusion of the term “honor killings” was meant to invoke stereotypes of Muslims as violent misogynists unable to assimilate into American culture, the reference was tantamount to “anti-Islamic dog-whistling,” as the Fourth Circuit concluded.

There is also substantial circumstantial evidence that the Travel Ban was based on anti-Muslim animus, rather than any legitimate purpose. In combination with the textual invocation of a prominent anti-Muslim trope, that evidence requires the conclusion that President Trump’s ill-fated venture into banning travel has been shot through with religious animus. And because the President has now twice banned travel on the basis of a forbidden motive, he must clearly and affirmatively demonstrate that his third travel ban is free of such bigotry.    


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