This is the second of two posts about CFI Okanagan’s recent screening (in collaboration with UBCO Skeptics) of the Honor Diaries documentary. This post reflects the thoughts of Zena Ryder, CFI Okanagan’s branch manager, not the official position of CFI Canada or of CFI Okanagan.
Bias in the Honor Diaries documentary
The Honor Diaries is a documentary and as such, it has as a slant, a story to tell. Having now seen the film, I can confirm that it does indeed cherry pick data and it presents them without the context that might change their interpretation. For example, it mentioned in passing the rate of literacy (12.6%) among women in a Muslim-majority country, Afghanistan. And, indeed, according to this Wikipedia article, Afghanistan does have the lowest rate of female literacy in the world, as well as the greatest difference between male and female literacy. (43.1% of men in Afghanistan are literate; the overall literacy rate is 28.1% and the difference between men and women is 30.5%.)
However, the audience may have received a very different impression if it had also been mentioned that South Sudan has the worst overall literacy rate, at 27%, and that according to this data from Pew, 60.5% of South Sudan’s population are Christians (in 2010). (40% of men in South Sudan are literate; 16% of women; with a gender difference of 24%.) The audience may also have received a very different impression had we also been told that Azerbaijan, where 96.9% of the population are Muslims, has an overall literacy rate of 99.8%, which is comparable to the rate in Canada, USA, UK, Switzerland, New Zealand, and Japan, for example (all at 99%).
The documentary also didn’t touch on very many good things about Islam or life in Muslim majority countries; it touched only briefly on the fact that honour violence is not a Muslim monopoly (Hindus and Sikhs also perpetrate it and 1 in 5 honour killings take place in India). It also neglected to compare the rates of violence against women in Muslim majority countries to the rates in countries that do not have a Muslim majority population. The documentary also failed to mention how many Muslims accept the notion of honour and how many reject it — like the Muslim women who spoke in the film.
On the other hand
However, we might argue that it is acceptable to temporarily focus on one specific issue: Muslim-perpetrated honour violence. This temporary focus doesn’t mean that issues such as domestic violence more generally is unimportant, or should be ignored, it just means that there are multiple important issues in the world, and it’s acceptable (indeed, necessary) to temporarily focus on just one specific issue. After all, it is impossible for a documentary to include everything! We are able to exercise our critical thinking skills and to evaluate the documentary fairly; we know that it’s our responsibility to approach any documentary with a skeptical frame of mind and to follow up and find that context and those comparisons.
Let’s consider what we might we think about a documentary on the specific topic of Christian bigotry. Let us grant that many Christians are homophobic and that this is a problem. We might argue that it is acceptable to temporarily focus on that specific issue in a documentary. That is, we might say, it would be acceptable for a documentary to talk about Christians’ homophobia without mentioning the good things about Christianity and its followers. Without mentioning how the prevalence of homophobia among Christians compares to the prevalence among other groups. Perhaps we would argue that it is acceptable to talk about homophobia in Christian majority countries, without talking about either homophobia in countries that do not have Christian majorities or about movements to combat homophobia in those same Christian majority countries. What do you think? Would such a documentary about Christian bigotry be worth seeing?
Let’s consider another example of a hypothetical documentary. Instead of debating whether or not the atheist community has a sexual harrassment problem, let’s assume for the sake of argument that it does. Suppose further that a Muslim organization chose to show a documentary that highlighted the problem of sexual harrassment within the atheist community. Of course, it’s a film, so it has a slant, it cherry picks data and presents them with limited context. It doesn’t talk about the prevalence of sexual harrassment within the Christian community or the Muslim community. It hardly touches on the work within the atheist community to combat sexual harrassment. It doesn’t talk about any good things about the atheist community at all. It focuses on only one issue: the problem of sexual harrassment within the atheist community. How valuable would such a documentary be? Would it be worth seeing?
I suspect that few atheists would argue against the right of the Muslim organization to show such a documentary. However, we would certainly appreciate the audience being warned to approach the documentary with skepticism, we would appreciate the film being discussed afterwards and being put into context and we would appreciate having the opportunity to defend our community. We would be concerned about the possibility of all atheists being tarred with the same brush. We would be concerned about the risk of simply showing the documentary and leaving the audience with a skewed impression of atheists.
Imagine how skewed impressions can cause problems for Muslims, many of whom face both racism and anti-Muslim prejudice.
A real problem, nevertheless
Of course, the Honor Diaries also highlights a real problem, with real victims. The documentary mentioned that an estimated 5000 honour killings are reported each year around the world. And, presumably, many more go unreported, unrecognized as honour killings. Furthermore, of course, living with the risk of honour violence is a harm in itself, even if someone never actually falls victim to it.
Was showing this documentary a helpful way to address the problem (“to raise awareness”)? Given the lack of actual information in the documentary, I doubt that it was helpful by itself. Most likely, the people who came to see the documentary didn’t learn much that they didn’t already know about honour violence. You would probably learn more just by reading the Wikipedia page on honour killing, the website of the Honour Based Violence Awareness Network and searching for “honor killing” at the Human Rights Watch website. It did give a “human face” to it, which is what a documentary often does — it appeals to our emotions. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Our brains can tell us that we should care about an issue, but until our heart feels it, we simply may not. We are only human. But is that enough to make it right to screen this film?
Freedom of speech/expression: Was it right to screen the documentary?
Freedom of speech and expression is a vitally important right. Whether or not it was right to show the film is a different question from whether or not we had the right to show it. I absolutely think that we had the right to show it. But freedom of speech is also a responsibility. As the branch manager of CFI Okanagan, I would not provide a platform to an anti-vaccination speaker, even though I support their right to the freedom of speech. I wouldn’t do so because it would lend legitimacy to their view and because their views are false and harmful. Their freedom of speech doesn’t mean that I’m obligated to provide them a platform to exercise that right. The decision to provide a platform is a different issue from that of free speech (although they’re related issues, of course). So even though the filmmakers had a right to make their documentary and even though we had a right to see it, and a right to screen it, was screening it the right thing to do, all things considered?
I was certainly harshly criticized by a couple of people for planning to screen it, but given the care we took with the screening (also screening We Were Children; having an introduction that encouraged the audience to view the Honor Diaries skeptically; and having a discussion period afterwards) I don’t think we did anything wrong in screening it. But I wouldn’t actually recommend that other groups, including other CFI branches, screen it. This isn’t only because of its bias, but rather because it’s not especially informative or enlightening about honour violence.
The consequences of the screening, and the follow-up
If the audience came away from the screening without thinking about its bias, without looking into what the Muslim community is doing to tackle honour violence, without thinking about violence and misogyny in the non-Muslim world, without appreciating how Islam provides value to many millions of people, without acknowledging how any ideology — religious or not — can be used as an excuse to abuse human rights, then showing the documentary (even though it is our right to do so) may well have done more harm than good.
It is our responsibility, after seeing the documentary, to do the follow up work and to not automatically let this documentary have the last word. If an audience is more likely to leave the screening with an anti-Muslim feelings than they are to leave with an intention to find out more and to do what they can to help Muslims who live with the threat of honour violence, or the actual effects of honour violence, then I worry that it will have done more harm than good to show the documentary. If you saw the film, and you’re reading this, please don’t let that be the case.
Many millions of people in places like Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia are suffering. They are suffering because people in power are using Islam to oppress them and abuse their human rights. Some Muslims, in many places around the world, are causing harm to other Muslims by justifying their violence, or threats of violence, by reference to honour and the Quran. These are real problems, and we should not ignore them. Listen to the voices of Muslims. Listen to the voices of ex-Muslims. Listen to those who have lived under Sharia.
If we really do care about violence and misogyny in the Muslim world, we need to demonstrate that — not only watch documentaries that pander to our previously held beliefs or, perhaps, our prejudices. We need to support organizations that are working to eliminate domestic violence and human rights abuses, and those helping the current victims. We need to find out more about the issues involved. We need to make sure we examine other societies, cultures, traditions and religions (including our own) just as carefully as we do Islam and Muslim cultures.
To make it easier for you to do the necessary follow-up work, here are some links to get you started. I am not endorsing the viewpoints of all these articles, or these organizations. I merely suggest that you read them — as always, with critical thinking skills at work — come to your own informed conclusions, and to decide how you would like to help.
CAIR Shuts Down Honor Diaries at Universities (A blog post at Butterflies and Wheels.)
The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society (A Pew Report.)
Project Sakinah (An organization tackling domestic violence in the Muslim community.)
Muslim Resource Centre for Social Support and Integration (This organization has a project designed specifically to address honour violence.)
Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (An “organization of Afghan women struggling for peace, freedom, democracy and women’s rights in fundamentalism-blighted Afghanistan since 1977″.)