Imam: Shafia murders were “unbelievable.” Really?

Last week in Montreal, three Muslims from Afghanistan were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for killing four family members, including three teenage girls. According to prosecutors, Hamed Shafia killed his three sisters—Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13—upon orders by his father, Mohammad. Hamed’s mother, Tooba Yahya, was also convicted for playing a part. Mohammad’s wife from a polygamous marriage was the fourth victim. The family had moved to Canada in 2007—two years before the crimes were committed—under a program for affluent immigrants.

Montreal honor killing

Mohammed and Hamed Shafia and Tooba Mohammed Yahya

Evidence showed that the victims were condemned to die because they “dishonored” the family with their life choices: Zainab married a man her parents disapproved of. Sahar wore revealing clothes and had secret boyfriends. And the youngest victim, Geeti, did badly in school and called social workers to help with family conflicts. It is unclear just how the victims died; evidence indicates that, after they were killed, the crimes were made to look like an auto accident. The victims’ bodies were found in a Nissan Sentra submerged in a canal on June 30, 2009.

The New York Times reports: “Police wiretaps recorded Mr. Shafia repeatedly expressing the view, often in graphic, vulgar language, that the girls had disgraced his family by dating and by wearing revealing clothing. Other evidence showed that at least one of the dead girls was so frightened of her father that she sought help from the police to escape the household and be placed in foster care with her sisters, without success.”

Naturally, many Muslims find the killings horrific and have openly condemned the violent acts. They insist that honor killing is not part of Islam, pointing out that the practice is not discussed in the Qur’an. One of those Muslims is Ali Falih Altaie, the imam at the Shafias’ mosque. In a media interview, Altaie denounced the murders as “unforgivable,” “unacceptable by any religion,” and “unbelievable.” Said Altaie, “Only people who have lost their brain do that.”

But as shocking as the crimes were, why did Altaie find them to be “unbelievable”? This case is not the first honor killing to take place in Canada or the United States. In fact, honor killings are on the rise in Canada, often perpetrated by Muslim immigrants. Just last summer, a Pakistani father and brother of 16-year-old Aqsa Parvez of Ontario were sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to murdering Aqsa, when she would not wear a hijab covering.

Dallas honor killing

Amina and Sarah Said

There have also been numerous honor killings in the United States. The first known case took place in 1989 in St. Louis, Missouri, in which a Palestinian father and his wife stabbed their 16-year-old daughter more than a dozen times after learning that she had taken a part-time job and was dating an African American boy. In 2008, near Dallas, Yaser Abdel Said allegedly shot to death his two daughters, Sarah, 17, and Amina, 18, in what many conclude was an honor killing. According to family members and friends, Said was incensed that Sarah and Amina were acting western and dating non-muslim boys. He fled the scene and has not been seen since.

Despite the fact that most Muslims deplore honor killings, some Muslims do, indeed, believe that their faith requires them to kill in the name of family honor. While the Qur’an does not speak of honor killing, it clearly places men in a superior position to women, even giving husbands the right to beat their wives. Muslims often set strict rules about female purity.

We should never assume that all Muslims believe in honor killing, even those who come from parts of the world where the practice goes on. That said, any imam who is completely psychologically unprepared when such atrocities are committed by his congregants must be living in deep denial.

In searching for a way the murders could have been prevented, Altaie said, “Maybe if they [Zainab Shafia and her boyfriend] were married, this might not have happened.” He also expressed concern that the very public trial will lead many to believe that honor killings are common among Muslims.

Perhaps imams like Altaie should consider another way to prevent this violence: Talk about it. Talk to child protective services, who have traditionally not dealt with this problem. Talk to police, who continue to simply, and mistakenly, categorize these crimes as domestic violence cases. Talk to the media. And, most importantly, talk to the Muslim community. Explain that honor killing is not part of Islam but that it still happens. And urge Muslims to report all suspected cases of domestic violence and child abuse.

According to Altaie, “His [Mohammed Shafia’s] brain was back there in the Middle East or somewhere else he came from. Usually, in this society we don’t have people thinking things like that.”

Victims in the Shafia murder: Rona Amir Mohammad, 52 (left); Zainab Shafia, 19; Sahar Shafia, 17; and Geeti Shafia, 13.

Rona Amir Mohammad and Zainab, Sahar, and Geeti Shafia

That’s right, usually. So let’s not turn a blind eye to the problem of honor killing. If we spend less time defending a faith and more time educating the public about the potential dangers, we have a chance to stop the practice. It’s the least we can do to honor the victims.


  1. Very well said. I love your ability to be level-headed, not overstating or overgeneralizing, but still cutting through the fog of denial.

  2. “He also expressed concern that the very public trial will lead many to believe that honor killings are common among Muslims.” Hey, it ain’t all that “uncommon.”

    Religion of peace? Anyone who has taken the time (and mustered up the intestinal fortitude) to actually READ the Quran, will come away from the experience knowing that’s not true. The same is true of the Old Testament, BTW. I guess we can be thankful that christians and jews are slackers and don’t actually stone to death people who work on Sunday, or lippy kids, etc. (there’s a pretty long list of potential “stonees”).

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