Here’s What the Research Says About Honor Killings in the U.S.

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Pakistani human rights activists hold placards as they chant slogans during a protest in Islamabad on May 29, 2014 against the killing of pregnant woman Farzana Parveen was beaten to death by members of her own family for marrying a man of herown choice in Lahore. Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

There are a lot of questions swirling about President Trump’s newly signed executive order banning travel from six (down from seven) majority-Muslim countries — perhaps most important, whether it will survive judicial scrutiny.

But one line, in particular, stands out, in part because it’s only tangentially related to the travel ban itself. The order dictates that the secretary of the Department of Homeland security will regularly and publicly publish “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.” This is actually holdover language from the last executive order, but it’s still striking: How often does the government go out of its way to highlight a specific category of crime committed by a specific category of perpetrator? It’s especially interesting when combined with Trump’s VOICE program, also created by executive order, which is geared toward a similar sort of “awareness raising” pertaining to crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.

On its face, honor killings, or crimes in which (usually) female family members are murdered by male ones for sullying a family’s honor by, for example, having premarital sex, are a very sensible thing to be concerned about. In some parts of the world honor killings are a major problem — Pakistan is one example, as groups like Amnesty International have pointed out. And to a lesser extent, some Western countries, like the U.K. and Germany, have also dealt with honor killings, often committed by first-generation immigrants from parts of the world where the practice is more common. This isn’t a fringe concern — it has garnered attention from mainstream outlets like the BBC and Der Spiegel.

What makes the language of Trump’s EO odd, though, is that in the U.S. there’s effectively no evidence that honor killings are common at all, according to one of the only (if not the only) studies attempting to estimate how prevalent that crime is. It’s a study that, despite having never been formally published anywhere, is cited fairly frequently, and its origin story is telling.

Three or four years ago, Ric Curtis, a professor at the John Jay College College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, said he was approached by the AHA Foundation, which was founded by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and which bills itself as “the leading organization working to end honor violence that shames, hurts or kills thousands of women and girls in the US each year, and puts millions more at risk.” The foundation asked him to write a report about the prevalence of honor killings in the U.S. “They were interested in law enforcement taking a more serious look as a crime that they should collect regular data on,” Curtis said. “Similar to how they do in Germany, for example, or England. They wanted that done here.” The idea was that the report would provide fodder for that push.

Because so little is known about honor killings in the U.S., Curtis and his team — a group of researchers from John Jay, as well as one from the University of Oxford — had to resort to generating a proxy estimate of their frequency. Basically, they combined statistics about the prevalence of honor killings in the U.K., Germany, and Holland with crime and demographic stats from the U.S. Out popped what Curtis acknowledged is a very rough estimate: 23 to 27 honor killings per year.

There are a number of important assumptions embedded in that estimate, though. For one thing, the paper assumes, as the authors note, “that the rate of honor killing in the US is comparable (or perhaps even higher) to rates found in other industrialized Western countries.” But if, as many scholars think, Muslims face more challenges to full assimilation and integration in the EU than in the U.S., that assumption might be wrong. On the other hand, if Curtis and his team misjudged other variables, as he pointed out, it may be that they underestimated the prevalence of the crime.

But taking the numbers at face value, 23 to 27 killings per year just isn’t a lot in the grand scheme of American crime policy. “Frankly, that number of honor killings nationwide doesn’t justify making this a special thing,” said Curtis. “So I think they [the foundation] were — I wouldn’t say disappointed in the numbers — but I think they were disappointed that it wasn’t a big deal for law enforcement.” In other words, “The fact is that if there’s only 25 honor killings a year nationwide, what agency is going to make this a separate category in their database when they will never have an entry to put in that slot?”

Curtis acknowledged that he and his team were forced into an approach that wasn’t ideal. “It’s not terribly scientific, but I haven’t seen anyone else try to do any kind of credible evidence,” he said. “So it’s something — it’s a start, anyway. The problem that we’ve had up to this point is all we’ve had is anecdotal cases.” But because there’s so little data on this subject, the 23 to 27 estimate, despite its flaws, ended up casting a surprisingly long shadow. Soon the Curtis team’s numbers found their way into into another report, this one commissioned by the Justice Department, that took a broader look at what is known about honor killings in the U.S. One line from that paper lays out the scope of the problem: Taking the Curtis team’s estimate, the authors write that “Expressed as a rate, honor killing occurs approximately 0.008 offenses per 100,000 persons… compared with 4.7 for homicide, 27 for rape/sexual assault, and 113 for robbery in the United States.” That is very low. (Some outlets falsely reported that the DoJ itself had come up with the 23 to 27 figure, lending the estimate a sense of rigorousness that doesn’t quite match up with Curtis’s assessment of his team’s process as “not very scientific,” or with the fact that the paper was never peer-reviewed or published anywhere.)

What all this suggests is that the Trump administration has no significant basis to think honor killings are a significant problem in the U.S. Of course, the genuine desire for better data is just one reason to highlight a certain category of crime. Another reason is to convince people that that crime is more common than it really is — if people hear about honor killings over and over, they will naturally come to the conclusion that they are a serious problem. Since Trump’s cabinet is well-stocked with adherents of a rather fringe “counter-jihad” movement whose members are worried the U.S. is just one or two steps away from the widespread implementation of Sharia law, it makes sense that Trump and his aides would make a concerted effort to sound alarm bells about honor killings, regardless of how rare they really are. It’s not for nothing that the L.A. Times recently quoted a senior White House official — likely Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, or Sebastian Gorka — saying that without tighter controls on immigration, the U.S. could be facing “the kind of large and permanent domestic terror threat that becomes multidimensional and multigenerational and becomes sort of a permanent feature.” Trump and his counter-jihadists genuinely believe that Muslim migration poses a serious threat to the future of American values, and it is in their political interest to stoke this sentiment.

So while homegrown radicalism, whether perpetrated by Christian or Muslims terrorists, is and always will be a problem in the U.S. — one which warrants informed, evidence-based policy responses — there’s just no evidence to suggest that honor killings deserve this sort of spotlight. Not unless the real goal is to gin up fears of Muslims, migrants, or both.

Are Honor Killings at All Common in the U.S.?