Honoring Life: How the Moral Absolutes Elevate Human Life
On the evening of January 1st, 2008, at approximately 7:30pm, a call came in to the Irving, TX, 911 emergency response line. A female voice came screaming onto the line, “Help me … my dad shot me and now I’m dying!”
The caller was 17-year-old Sarah Said. She and her sister Amina, 18, had been shot multiple times in a taxi cab which had been abandoned at the service entrance of the nearby Omni Mandalay hotel. Amina was incapacitated instantly, but Sarah had been able to make this one call before the ninth shot unloaded into her body silenced her voice for good. It is believed with good evidence that the girls’ father, Yaser Abdel Said, an Egyptian-born Muslim who was working as a taxi-driver at the time, is the perpetrator. The girls, both of whom had American boyfriends, had previously fled home with their mother and had been resisting his plans to “sell” them as wives to men of his choosing in Egypt. Said has not been seen since, and is wanted by the FBI.
The Price of Honor, produced by Iranian-American journalists Neena Nejad and Sogol Tehranizadeh, takes an in-depth look at this crime through the eyes of people who knew the girls: close friends, their American mother Patricia Said, and other family members on their mother’s side. (Said family members were contacted but declined to comment.) The film is partly a tribute to the two beautiful and otherwise normal, American teenagers who were murdered in cold blood. But more primarily, it was made to draw attention to the practice of honor killing, which, according to the producers, is on the rise in the United States.
Human Rights Watch defines “honor killings” as:
… acts of vengeance, usually death, committed by male family members against female family members, who are held to have brought dishonor upon the family. A woman can be targeted by (individuals within) her family for a variety of reasons, including: refusing to enter into an arranged marriage, being the victim of a sexual assault, seeking a divorce—even from an abusive husband—or (allegedly) committing adultery. The mere perception that a woman has behaved in a way that “dishonors” her family is sufficient to trigger an attack on her life.
Honor killings are carried out, ostensibly, to restore family honor, which has been tarnished by the actions of the accused woman. “These crimes are often collective and premeditated,” the filmmakers continue, but the perpetrators often escape justice because of differing practices of law enforcement. “Rather than ruling on cases with gender equality in mind, the judicial systems seem to reinforce inequality and, in some cases, sanction the murder of women who are considered dishonorable. Often, a suspected ‘honor killing’ never even reaches court. In cases where they do, the alleged killer is often not convicted or is given a reduced sentence of three to four years in jail.” Estimates of women so murdered annually range from five to twenty thousand worldwide. Clearly this is a grievous injustice.
Or is it?
Nabeel Qureshi, who grew up a devout Muslim but later converted to Christianity is very helpful here. In his exquisite autobiography, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity, he explains some underlying differences between Eastern and Western cultures that influence moral reasoning.
Islamic cultures tend to establish people of high status as authorities, whereas the authority in Western culture is reason itself. These alternative seats of authority permeate the mind, determining the moral outlook of whole societies.
When authority is derived from position rather than reason, the act of questioning leadership is dangerous because it has the potential to upset the system. Dissension is reprimanded, and obedience is rewarded. Correct and incorrect courses of action are assessed socially, not individually. A person’s virtue is thus determined by how well he meets social expectations, not by an individual determination of right and wrong.
Thus, positional authority yields a society that determines right and wrong based on honor and shame.
On the other hand, when authority is derived from reason, questions are welcome because critical examination sharpens the very basis of authority. Each person is expected to critically examine his own course of action. Correct and incorrect courses of action are assessed individually. A person’s virtue is determined by whether he does what he knows to be right or wrong.
Rational authority creates a society that determines right and wrong based on innocence and guilt.
Much of the West’s inability to understand the East stems from the paradigmatic schism between honor-shame cultures and innocence-guilt cultures.
He goes on to explain how reliance on positional authority enables certain Eastern practices such as honor killings and blood feuds to continue unabated. “No amount of sheer reason is going to change these practices, nor will externally imposed prohibitions. The change will have to be social, internal, and organic.” I would add that expressions of moral outrage concerning violence against women and appeals to gender equality will pretty much fall on deaf ears in the East.
So what is a clear-thinking Christian to do? This is where the absolute claims of the Bible shine beautiful, much-needed light by giving us clearly defined moral boundaries. The murder of Amina and Sarah Said is a grievous injustice, and the filmmakers are to be commended for taking it up as a cause. But gender inequality and domestic violence are pitifully inadequate moral categories for a deed as monstrous as a man shooting his only two daughters at point-blank range and leaving them to die.
We can do better than that. Here is moral clarity: Honor killing is murder, and murder is wrong. For all people, at all times, pure and simple. Intuitively, we know this – in fact everyone with a working conscience has this moral sense with respect to murder. But in our public discourse we’ve all but lost the foundational principle undergirding it. Only the Judeo-Christian tradition writes it out for us as the moral absolute that is actually is: You shall not murder.
There is no room for cultural relativism when it comes to moral absolutes. We need to resurrect the absolutes and unapologetically state them where applicable, and You shall not murder clearly applies to the Said case. Applying it catapults the discussion onto a whole new plane, implying that every honor killing is not merely an offense against a woman. It’s an offense against God. Framing the discussion this way doesn’t diminish the value of the lives we’re talking about. It elevates them.
Given world events, with ISIS threatening death to anyone standing in their way, if good people intend to face down evil and overcome it, we will have to muster the cahones to call evil evil. Any moral reasoning that falls short of that fails to honor human life, regardless of gender, as it should be honored.