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Does Trump Care About Honor Killings?

The practice of ritual murder is horrific, but don’t mistake Trump’s prohibition for compassion.

By Jared Keller


(Photo: John Moore / Getty Images)

After five weeks marked by protests and court battles, President Donald Trump signed a revised executive order on immigration on Monday, prohibiting refugees and passport-holders from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. The new immigration restrictions make several significant changes to the previous executive order that touched off chaos at airports across the country: Iraq, an essential U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS, was dropped from the list of countries considered compromised by foreign terrorism, and the Department of Homeland Security will loosen restrictions on permanent residents regardless of passport status.

The new order comes with a new objective, according to the New York Times: to stand up to the fusillade of court challenges by immigrants and activists on the horizon. But there’s one section of the order that captured a sliver of attention on Monday: To help justify the controversial ban, Trump ordered the collection and public dissemination of “information regarding the number and types of acts of gender-based violence against women, including so-called ‘honor killings,’ in the United States by foreign nationals.”

“Honor killings” are, simply put, ritual executions. The practice is deeply rooted in “the perception that the behavior of a woman or girl, betraying her chastity, is an affront to the honor of her family and community,” Ayaan Hirsi Ali, founder of the AHA Foundation, wrote in The Atlantic. “Examples of such dishonorable behavior include premarital relationships, dating someone not accepted by the family, or simply wearing clothing considered to be immodest or “too American.” The punishments for such infractions are honor violence—forced marriage, domestic violence, genital mutilation, and murder — carried out at the hands of a (usually male) family member.

This extremely specific prohibition isn’t new: Trump’s first executive order issued at the close of January stated that the U.S. “should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including ‘honor’ killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation,” as well of the publication of data about those individuals. In 2016, then-Senator Jeff Sessions (now Trump’s attorney general) freaked out over honor killings during testimony from a Department of State official regarding the Obama administration’s vetting procedure for Syrian refugees. And a rejection of the practice isn’t specific to the Trump administration, either: In 2013 and 2014, President Barack Obama signed legislation explicitly targeting the practice of female genital mutilation.

But here’s the thing: While the United Nations estimates that honor killings total some 5,000 worldwide each year, a 2014 analysis sponsored by the Department of Justice suggests that, statistically, between 23 and 27 honor killings occur each year in the United States. These crimes are still horrific — 91 percent of North American honor killing victims between 1989 and 2009 were murdered for being “too westernized,” according to the report — but they’re far less common than the forcefulness of Trump’s sweeping executive order would have you believe compared to other forms of honor violence. Indeed, the Department of Justice-sponsored report found that forced marriages (and the systematic domestic abuse that comes with it) far outpace executions at 1,500 annually. Much like Trump’s concerns around foreign terrorists and criminals filtering through our borders, the prevalence of honor killings is greatly overstated.

This, of course, is part of the politics of white fear that scapegoats and alienates marginalized groups for the sake of “order” rather than in service of the law, the same white fear that helped Trump capture the presidency. As Jesse Singal observes in New York, the honor killings line comes in conjunction with other information-sharing apparatuses within the Trump administration, namely the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement program established by executive order to, quite literally, “[provide] a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests.” These are measures meant to sensationalize and commoditize fear and anger, distrust and hate, to turn American taxpayers against immigrants of all colors and creeds in order to justify Trump’s executive branch.

Honor killings are part of that machine. Despite the Trump administration’s continued assertion that the travel restrictions do not constitute a Muslim ban, the emphasis on honor killings, unique to Muslim communities, tips the administration’s hand. “Honor killings stand in for the idea of Muslim barbarity,” wrote University of California–Berkeley law professor Leti Volpp in TheHill. “Their invocation in the executive order helps make apparent that the ‘foreign nationals’ whose entry poses a terrorist threat are Muslim…. Gendered violence is a problem around the world, including in the United States, and violence against women in the United States is not only perpetrated by immigrants.”

This wouldn’t be the first time that Trump invoked protecting a marginalized group in the name of America’s war on terror. Trump vowed in his speech at the Republican National Convention “to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology,” only to roll back protections for transgender students in February, citing “state’s rights.”