January 30th, 2012
01:30 PM ET
By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
(CNN) - Zainab Shafia's crime was to run off to marry a man her parents hated. Middle sister Sahar's crime was to wear revealing clothes and have secret boyfriends. Youngest sister Geeti's crime was to do badly in school and call social workers for help dealing with a family home in turmoil.
The punishment for all three teenage Canadian sisters was the same: death.
Their executioner: their brother, acting on instructions from the father to run their car off the road.
Another family member, their father's first wife in a polygamous marriage, was also killed.
Hamed Shafia, his father, Mohammed, and his mother, Tooba Mohammed Yahya, were sentenced to life in prison for murder, with Judge Robert Maranger excoriating their "twisted notion of honor, a notion of honor that is founded upon the domination and control of women, a sick notion of honor that has absolutely no place in any civilized society."
Leading Muslim thinkers wholeheartedly endorsed the Canadian judge's verdict, insisting that "honor murders" had no place and no support in Islam.
"There is nothing in the Quran that justifies honor killings. There is nothing that says you should kill for the honor of the family," said Taj Hargey, director of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford in England.
"This idea that 'somehow a girl has besmirched our honor and therefore the thing to do is kill her' is bizarre, and Muslims should stop using this defense," he said, arguing that the practice is cultural, not religious in origin.
"You cannot say this is what Islam approves of. You can say this is what their culture approves of," he said.
The Shafia family is originally from Afghanistan.
Experts say honor murders take place in many parts of the world.
"It's definitely a problem that happens in many different places: the Middle East, Pakistan, Bangladesh and among immigrant communities in North America," said Nadya Khalife, a researcher on women's rights in the Arab world for Human Rights Watch.
Several Arab countries and territories, including Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Yemen and the Palestinian territories, have laws providing lesser sentences for honor murders than for other murders, Human Rights Watch says.
Egypt and Jordan also have laws that have been interpreted to allow reduced sentences for honor crimes, the group says.
Reliable figures of the number of honor murders are hard to come by, Khalife said, but she pointed to a United Nations Population Fund estimate of 5,000 per year.
Khalife agreed that the practice should not be blamed on Islam.
"It's not linked to religion; it's more cultural," she said. "There have been several Islamic scholars who have issued fatwas against honor killing."
Mohammed Shafia, who denied murder, said himself in court that Islam did not justify honor murders.
"In our religion, a person who kills his wife or daughter, there is nothing more dishonorable," he testified.
But Shafia was heard condemning his dead children in wiretapped conversations played in court.
"May the devil defecate on their graves! This is what a daughter should be? Would a daughter be such a whore?" he said.
Hargey, the director of the Muslim Educational Centre, said violence was sometimes the result of painful transition.
"Muslims are in a state of flux," he said.
"They are between two worlds: the ancient world and the new technological age," he said. "Women are getting rights and the ability to choose their own spouses. The family in Canada didn't know how to respond to this: the conflict between the discipline of children and the new reality."
Irshad Manji, the author of "Allah, Liberty and Love: Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom," said there was another conflict at work in honor murders, a term CNN uses in preference to "honor killings" because the latter phrase does not properly describe the crime.
It is "a tribal tradition that emphasizes the family or the tribe or the community over the individual," she said.
Although the practice may not be Islamic, she said, not all Muslims understand the distinction.
"It is a problem within Islam because of how Muslims often confuse culture and religion," she said. "It's Muslims who have to learn to separate culture and religion. If we don't, Islam will continue to get the bad name that it gets."
But one vocal British campaigner against honor violence points out that not all the crimes are perpetrated by Muslims.
Jasvinder Sanghera, who was the victim of a forced marriage, is not Muslim; she is Sikh.
"Significant cases are happening within South Asian communities, be it Pakistani, Indian, Sikh, Muslim, Kurdish, Iranian, Middle Eastern communities," she said.
"And we have to recognize that because the statistics don't lie. I am not standing here trying to embarrass those communities. But equally, those communities should be ashamed because this is happening in their community and they are not taking a stand," she said.
On the other hand, honor murders are not a problem in Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population.
"No such a practice can be found among Indonesian Muslims," said Azyumardi Azra, the director of the graduate school at the State Islamic University in Jakarta, Indonesia.
" 'Honor killing' is, I believe, a cultural problem among Arab and South Asian Muslims. I don't think that kind of practice has an Islamic basis," he said.
Although women and girls make up the overwhelming number of victims, there have been at least some male victims, including Ahmet Yildiz, a gay Turkish man whose fugitive father is the main suspect in his 2008 shooting death.
Britain has had about a dozen honor murders per year for the past several years, said Ghayasuddin Siddiqui of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain.
He, too, said the crimes were not justified by Islam.
"This comes from tribal customs where the father - not both parents - see children as their property. A girl decides to marry somebody of whom their parents do not approve, and they conspire and find some way to kill and dispose of this body," he said. "This is a kind of misplaced shame that parents feel that their daughter has decided to marry somebody of her choosing, not theirs."
Britain's Crown Prosecution Service has an expert devoted to prosecuting honor-based violence, Nazir Afzal.
Convicting perpetrators can be difficult, he said.
"There is a wall of silence around this, and people are not prepared to talk," he said.
But Afzal insisted that it was "absolutely important that you bring every single person to justice because you want to deter other people from doing it."
And along with the Islamic scholars and human rights advocates, he rejected out of hand the idea that religion justified it.
"At the end of the day, murder is murder. There is no faith on Earth, no community on Earth that justifies this," he said.
"Abrahamic faiths say 'Thou shalt not kill,' " he pointed out. "At the end of the day, nobody should die for this."
CNN's Paula Newton, Atika Shubert, Bharati Naik, Ashley Hayes, Ivan Watson and Becky Anderson contributed to this report.
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