How Some Places Still Think Honor Killings (And Other Similar Monstrosities) Are Good Ideas

Over here in the Gulf states, there’s a wretched little practice called “Blood money.”  Say you’re driving home and you just don’t feel like paying attention to the road.  Say you drive over a poor guy from India or Pakistan and kill him.  In developed countries, if it can be proven you were negligent, you’d be facing jail time.  Over here, you might merely be facing a credit card bill.  That’s because Islamic law as practiced within the Gulf states allows a victim’s family the choice to demand cash from the perpetrator in lieu of jail or execution.

The perverse rule here is that the rich (0r those backed by the rich) may kill as they like so long as they do it to families desperate enough to accept cash over justice.  It does not order society any better, and yet remains both unchallenged and popular.  This is not a simple matter of the sheikhs taking good care of themselves, but of whole societies agreeing on this very topic.

And if there were elections allowed here, blood money reform would not appear on them.  Democracy, in other word, would hardly liberalize anything.

Pretty horrible thinking. But some elites will think its more dangerous to take on a bad cultural practice than simply ignore it.

And one might well see such a thing in Pakistan over honor killings

Up to 1000 women die a year in Pakistan over what are termed “honor killings.”  When that poor woman was murdered by her evil little family in Lahore last week, it was merely a more public version of what happens across the country each year.  Even though Pakistan is a functioning democracy, honor killings remain rife and largely unchallenged.  Regular people use them all the time to enforce social norms.  The question is – why?

Culture is that thing that’s supposed to tell us what to do about problems long before we encounter them

Culture is a prescribed set of behaviors for a given group of people.  It tells you who to marry and when, how you can have a good marriage vs. a bad one, what kinds of people are good and what kinds are bad, and has an answer to pretty much every social choice you’ll ever encounter.

Culture is a more primitive form of behavioral science.  It changes according to how successful it is, and, like science, to change a cultural rule requires repeated demonstrations that a certain behavior makes society worse rather than better.  Unlike science, however, culture changes slowly and has less rigidly defined rules.  People can and do reject perfectly good lessons from other cultures simply because they are foreign.

Culture, as well, is heavily influenced by geopolitics and the demands of a nation-state

When did women in America make their great breakthroughs in society?  Not, as it might be assumed, when they won the right to vote, which should have given them the power to make choices independent of their families and husbands.  No, it wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that women firmly and permanently broke ranks and assumed the more modern roles we know and have today.  But why?

Yes, but when the war ends, we’ll have no need for you.

Mostly because America of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s simply didn’t need women to be independent just yet.  This was an America with much of the economy still dominated by physically intensive labor in factories and farms.  They were allowed – and the key word here is “allowed” – to work during World War II with the understanding that when the emergency ended, they’d return to the kitchen.  America’s economy did not yet have a place for large amounts of women; therefore, they remained traditionally rooted.

But the advent of technologies that created America’s now-dominant service sector opened up the economy to women.  Culture followed the money; companies that hired women thrived while those that shut them out grew less and less competitive.  In addition, the great geopolitical challenge from the Soviet Union forced America’s government to mobilize as much of its population as possible and tackle cultural constructs that excluded people from working.  It was no accident that America’s civil rights movement gathered the most steam at the height of the Cold War.  Eisenhower, a former general who understood it didn’t matter what color soldiers were, needed no convincing to force Southern bigots to change their ways at the end of a bayonet.

The fact that no one is allowed to wipe out nation-states any more has meant few cultures face these kinds of emergencies

Turkey is a fine example of a state that modernized because it felt it had to.  In the wake of World War I, with the Ottoman Empire fallen and the rump of its glory under threat from Greeks, Russians, and Kurds, Turkish elites forced modernization down the throats of their people in the belief that only Western-style education, military discipline, and economic organization could save their state.

When elites were threatened by neighboring states, they understood the necessity of advancing as rapidly as possible over the objections of their traditionalists.  This was a process undergone in Egypt in the 50s and 60s, Turkey in the 20s and 30s, America in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and both India and Pakistan in the 60s and 70s.  But as it became clear during the Cold War that the kinds of border changes that happened during World War II were not going to happen again without America or the Soviet Union allowing them, elites realized the great challenge was not from neighboring states, who couldn’t launch invasions to destroy them, but their own people, who could get away with revolutions, coups, and civil wars.

Elites in these states therefore drew not upon the cultural knowledge of the West but upon their own traditions, cementing them in place as they built fortresses to ensure their power was unassailable within their own borders.

The real enemy is within these days.

So it’s no accident that bad geopolitical ideas, as cultural conservatism tends to be, survive unchallenged in many places

In the past century, a lot of states have overseen the change of society from those that value groups to those that value individuals.  This is the only way that you can make a capitalist economy work well, since valuing groups (like tribes, families, etc.) creates your run-of-the-mill nepotism that eats away at efficiency.  Those that have done so the fastest are those that were threatened most geopolitically.  When geopolitical threats subsides, the pace of change slows because the necessity just isn’t there.

Pakistan’s greatest threat today is no longer India.  With nuclear weapons, no outsider can destroy the Pakistani state.  Rather, militant cultural groups, like the Taliban, are the ones who could potentially murder the elites of Islamabad.  To siphon off some of their support, the Pakistani government must embrace certain aspects of conservatism where it can.  When it can’t embrace a practice wholly, it can just ignore the vilest bits if that means they keep the majority of their people quiet.

The process of globalization and worldwide economic competition is pushing these ideas to the side, but not nearly as fast as a war would

In the relatively brief six years of World War II, many European cultures ditched long-held traditions in racism, Antisemitism, militarism, jingoism, imperialism, and extreme nationalism because the emergency and chaos of the war created conditions by which all cultural rules had to be examined.  As Berlin burned, it became obvious that the pointless nationalism embraced by Europeans for centuries was dangerous; that antisemitism had driven away some of Germany’s best scientists and diverted resources to unnecessary death camps; that militarism and jingoism had led to defeat; and that imperialism, when fully exposed, wasn’t much better than what the Nazis were trying to do.

Since we’ll be having no Third World War (thank God), such conditions cannot be repeated.  Globalization, rather, is creating a lesser emergency – an economic one.  Peoples around the world expect a better life and are rightly getting pissed when their elites don’t deliver.  This is the pressure that will force the Pakistani state to act against its tradition of honor killings rather than any high-minded morals.  Honor killings, if anything, slow economic progress, but to be shown doing so will require time and patience.  That’s different than fighting a war, where time is short and action is more valuable than waiting on events.

The days  of such practices are waning, but this isn’t the last time we’ll see something nasty like this appear in the headlines.  The world’s elites will move slowly as they modernize their nations.

4 thoughts on “How Some Places Still Think Honor Killings (And Other Similar Monstrosities) Are Good Ideas

  1. Hey MrB,

    I first off wanna start by saying love your blog and its become one more thing that I look forward to about Friday.

    I just wanted to clarify some things I read in your blog posts. You talk a lot about the Kurdish problem, and create a scenario of Turks vs Kurds as if they have been enemies for good part of history.

    This is simply not true. I am a graduate student focusing on the military history of Ottoman Empire. I just wanted to point out some of the misunderstandings that most people in our country (US) and in the West, seem to have. The Kurds are a group of people indigenous to the southeast Turkey and as you know encompass over a large area comprising Northern Iraq and North-western Iran, most of this territory which formerly belonged to the Ottoman Empire.

    The Kurds, along with many other ehtnic groups, lived in a tribal fashion under the Ottomans for centuries in peace. In fact, there have been some great ethnic Kurdish Ottoman commander like Cevat Pasha in Turkey’s history. As you can imagine, the Ottoman army commanded a multi-ethnic army, with a sizable portion being Kurds. As they were discovered to be ferocious and loyal warriors in the medieval ages, Kurds were specifically recruited, especially in the southern border regions of the Empire to patrol the mountains against possible threats from the Safavids. This relationship between the Kurds and Turks continued all the way until the end of the first world war, where in fact, Kurdish troops were used against the Armenians to quell their rebellion, and they played an important role in the event we now know as the Armenian Genocide.

    The souring of relations between both the Kurds and Turks that you seem to refer to in this post and many ones before, happened after the world war in the early days of the Republic. Mustafa Kemal tried to modernize a former multi-ethnic empire and create a national identity to support the infrastructure of an early developed Republic. In the process of rapid modernization and nationalization, he came up with the “Turk” identity, with the primary official language of “Turkish” under the banner of “Turkey”, which eschewed a lot of minorities, with the most significant one being the Kurds, who were not so happy about this.

    This was further exaggerated by the British and French provoking Kurds into rebelling, resulting in the Dersim Rebellion. The Allied powers were not happy with the Turks regaining most of the Allies’ territorial gains in the Turkish Independence War, and resulting in the annulment of Treaty of Sevres. As such, they used the tense Turkification situation in Turkey to apply the well known concept of divide and conquer. These events still continue today as PKK wages war for independence.

    I hope this wasn’t too lengthy, I just wanted to give a concise overview of what my studies have shown. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any questions and gripes about what I wrote.

    1. Rob –

      Thanks for that! I’ve never given Ottoman studies the in-depth look I’d like, though what you describe does conform to some of the geopolitical rules that I try to impart to readers (i.e., empires can be multi-ethnic, but modern nation-states have a tougher time of it, and those places that transition between the two types often get a lot of violence in the process).

      As someone who studies these things formally, what do you think the odds are of a Kurdish state in the near future (10-20 years)? If Iraqi Kurdistan goes, do you think Turkey will be able to hold its current borders over time, or do you think they’ll be forced to give it up eventually by an American hegemony that prefers regions as divided as possible?

      1. Mr.B that is a great question.
        The consensus among people within my circle is quite divided. Really, these things are quite hard to predict.

        However, I will tell you what is happening now today and events related to it that will surely have an effect the outcome of such an event. You can draw your own conclusions from it.

        Ottoman military history is not an isolated study, you must study the demographics, politics and international events over a big timeline, including before, during and after events. This includes looking at modern Turkey and its politics and history to gain insight into the past.

        The wide consensus in the early 2000s was that PKK problem was largely resolved. Turkey had military succeeded in breaking the back of PKK’s guerrilla branch. At this point, Turkey and its citizens longer viewed PKK as a threat and the Kurdish problem was viewed to be resolved once and for all as it was believed that the Kurds saw that resistance was futile and would be content with living under Turkish rule.

        However, the situation dramatically changed once AKP came to power in 2002. They declared they would find a solution to the Kurdish problem which most people considered solved at the moment, leading to society to think that it was not in fact solved. Around 2009 they made some serious and controversial decisions such as allowing Kurdish language broadcast on TV, and more controversially (and recently) negotiating a ceasefire with PKK which was viewed disdainfully as a terrorist organization by Turks and even speaking with PKK’s former captured and imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan among other things. The result of all these events led to a renewed hope among Kurds for the pursuit of independence and they re-emboldened their efforts, even leading to renewed PKK insurgency from 2004 -2012 (before the ceasefire declaration). These lead to new military conflicts, which lead many losses on the Turkish side. The culmination of these deaths led to Turkey making incursions in to northern Iraq unannounced to pursue separatists and even launched the last major operation into Iraq dubbed Operation Sun, which didn’t lead to much success. Numerous assaults by PKK continued in the years leading up to 2012.

        Most of the secular and left wing Turks today view AKP’s (incumbent government) decisions as disastrous for re-igniting the Kurdish issue that was believed to be solved. The current ceasefire that stands is viewed to be unstable by most as it was believed AKP reignited the Kurdish issue to gain more Kurdish votes.

        From now on, the only way for Turkey to go is to give more concessions to the Kurds if they don’t want to re-ingite armed conflict, which at this point is wise for Turkey not to do as Turkey has made a lot of enemies in the years since due to some diplomatic failures regarding Syria and subsequently PKK and Kurdish insurgency has gained more supporters.

        Regarding US involvement, I don’t know how much you know, but there seems to be a wide held suspicion in Turkey and those who study the PKK topic that US (in addition to some European nations) has supported and may still be supporting PKK. I remember reading a report by the Turkish military saying that PKK used have RPGs and crude weaponry and relied on donkeys to mobilize their forces throughout the region in the 80s and 90s, and in the recent years (2009-2010) have seemed to upgraded their equipment to whole lines of military trucks carrying their equipment and more advanced equipment such as artillery and DhSK machine guns.

        I have talked to some Turks on the subject and it seems that most Turks view the US with extreme suspicion and seem to be aware of “The Greater Middle East Project (GMEP)” which really explains the result of surveys such as this: http://www.pewglobal.org/database/indicator/1/country/224/

        Honestly, since I am studying this for a scholarly purpose, I try to keep an open eye and say that anything is possible in the dirty game of geopolitics. As regards to reality of GMEP, most people believe that this was an overly utopian an idealistic and simplified view of the region and no attempt was ever made to achieve the new boundary lines. However, in the years since I have seen a lot of surprising events like the Arab Spring and Syrian civil war that make me want to review things on the issue.

        Like I said, the situation is complicated and the ongoing Syrian War does not help the situation.

        To end is wall of text post (sorry!), my opinion is that unless there is a regime change in Turkey, or a new leader to blunt the balkanization process, Kurdistan could very well become a reality in 10 to 20 years.

      2. Thanks for the reply! Fascinating details. Feel free to drop more of that anytime!

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