Recent terrorist attacks in France, beginning with the brutal slaying of journalists at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, have once again raised the question of how the ideology of honor is related to Islamic religious beliefs. In this, I have a confession to make. Simply pondering how the cultural ideology of honor might be linked to Islamic fundamentalism, I quickly came to the conclusion that the two must be intimately connected. Honor cultures, after all, tend to spring up in places where poverty is widespread and long-term, which is typical of societies with herding (rather than agricultural) economies. Islam sprung up in the Middle East within just such a herding ecology. Honor cultures also develop where law enforcement is weak and unreliable, which has long been true of the Middle East and places where Islam has spread, such as North Africa. Furthermore, Islamic fundamentalists seem to always be angry about insults to Islam posed by western culture, and hypersensitivity to insult is the sine qua non of honor culture. Clearly, the two are related. Right?
Attractive as this notion seems, the answer might not be so straightforward. Some have assumed a similar association between honor and Christianity in the US. This assumption follows in no small part from the fact that “honor states” in the US are most prevalent in the south and west, and the south is the heart of the so-called Bible belt. A simple examination of the percentage of people who report attending church frequently shows that, as expected, people in honor states are more likely to be church attenders compared to people in non-honor states. So, there you have it.
It turns out, though, that this is flawed reasoning. To be clear, it’s a fine start to testing this notion, but it’s not enough (some readers will recognize this as an example of the ecological fallacy, but it’s ok if you don’t). The next step in testing this link between honor ideology and religiosity is to examine this link among individuals, and when my collaborators have done this, what we typically find is an association that’s just about 0. As in, no association. Zilch, nada, nuthin’. Thus, what seemed to some people to be a reasonable connection between Christianity and honor ideology, and was supported indirectly through a regional overlap between honor-oriented states and Bible-oriented states, turns out on closer inspection to be a statistical ghost.
The same sort of presumed association between honor ideology and Islam might also turn out to be a ghost. Yes, the Quran uses language typical of honor cultures, and yes, some of the most extreme honor cultures in the world are Islamic (e.g., Afghanistan). We also know that some of the worst example of honor-related behavior can be found in Islamic cultures, such as the honor killing of women who have been sexually promiscuous, or who have been seen in public with a man who is not a relative or a husband, or even who have been raped and are thus deemed to be a stain on the family honor. These things are all true. But the question at hand is whether these sorts of honor-related behaviors are really about religious devotion.
A recent study that I discovered suggests to me that the answer is ‘no.’ This study, conducted by a pair of criminologists from Cambridge University, Manuel Eisner and Lana Ghuneim, examined the attitudes of about 800 Jordanian teens toward honor killings. There are several remarkable findings from this study, but the one most relevant here is that the teens’ religiosity levels had no relation to the teens’ attitudes toward honor killings, nor did the teens’ religious identification (specifically, whether or not the teens identified themselves as Muslim or non-Muslim). Thus, kids who were Islamic and very religious were not any more favorable toward honor killings than were less religious non-Muslim kids. Strikingly, some 40% of boys and about 20% of girls reported favorable attitudes toward the idea of honor killings, so there was lots of room for religiosity to play a role (not to mention a big social problem for the nation of Jordan!). But religion didn’t seem to matter much, just as we found in a more direct assessment of personal religiosity and honor ideology in the US.
Is religion in general, or Islam in particular, irrelevant when it comes to honor-related violence, such as the recent attacks in Europe? Again, I think the answer is ‘no.’ Religion is not irrelevant. Rather, I think that religion gives people a sense of collective identity, which then provides the framework for their sense of “us” versus “them.” Their religious identity tells them who the good guys are, and who the bad guys are. But religion also provides what I call “symbols of sensitivity.” These symbols tell people what insults should be most offensive, and which insults rise to the level of deserving and justifying the righteous indignation that fuels dramatic acts of violent retribution. Such acts are not really driven by love for Allah, love for Mohammad, or love for Jesus. They are driven by love for self, for one’s reputation, and for the collective honor of a group that a terrorist identifies with. When that group is threatened, either directly or symbolically, the individual is threatened, and that threat can lead to violence in those who embrace the ideology of honor.