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The Barbarians Within

By Stefan Theil | NEWSWEEK

A rash of honor killings sends shock waves through Europe.

Hatun Surucu's crime was that she wanted to be free. Forced by her family to marry her cousin at age 16, the Turkish-born Berliner had divorced her husband, gone back to school and begun dating other men. On Feb. 7, after getting a call from a relative to come out on the street, the vivacious 23-year-old was shot three times in the head in what police describe as "an execution-style killing." Three of her brothers, one of whom boasted to friends about the murder, are now in jail.

Surucu's murder is only one of a series of high-profile "honor killings" sending shock waves through Europe. In Berlin since October, six Muslim women have been brutally killed by their husbands or brothers, who felt the women had besmirched the family honor. In London on Friday, the Metropolitan Police announced that 18 cases of reported "suicide" in the last two years had turned out to be honor killings; another 59 suspicious suicides are still under investigation. These cases, authorities say, are likely just the tip of the iceberg.

Europeans, though aghast at such barbarity in their midst, long hoped such problems would disappear as second-and third-generation immigrants assimilated Western ways. Yet that hasn't happened. Large parts of Europe's Muslim community continue to cling to traditional values in an environment many of them experience as unwelcoming at best. And whether out of xenophobia, indifference or multicultural tolerance, host societies have tended to turn a blind eye. In Germany, for example, judges have often handed out lower sentences for such crimes--in two recent cases going so far as to reduce murder charges to manslaughter--out of deference to so-called cultural differences. Never mind that these decisions have generally been corrected by a higher court. It's telling that Surucu's death in itself didn't even make the news. Only after the principal of a local high school reported on the reaction of immigrant students did Germans really take notice. "She lived like a German," said one student, justifying the killing.

Lately there have been signs that European governments may finally be facing up to the problem. Britain and Sweden recently mounted campaigns to educate police and prosecutors in recognizing and better handling honor-related violence. The German Parliament is considering the world's first law against forced marriage, a practice that often goes hand-in-hand with such crimes. Sentences for the offending parents would run up to five years. In the Netherlands, language and civics courses are now mandatory for new immigrants. For women fleeing their families to escape crimes of honor, activists and social workers have set up a network of safe houses all over Europe.

Ever more often it is immigrants themselves who demand a get-tough approach. After the Surucu murder, German Muslim organizations, for the first time, spoke out publicly against crimes of honor. In a landmark political shift, many of the activists find themselves aligned with Europe's Christian Democratic parties instead of the left-wing preachers of tolerance. "Multiculturalism is just a cover for an ideology that prefers to look away," says Seyran Ates, a Turkish-German lawyer and activist who warns that immigrant communities must not be exempt from German laws and Western freedoms. In Denmark, immigrant activists applauded a recent law by the right-wing government to raise the minimum age of "imported" spouses to 24 and to require Danish-language skills. The measure, they say, will cut the number of illiterate teenage brides locked up at home by the husband's family.

The violence can't stop, of course, unless the immigrant communities themselves embrace a more modern concept of honor--one based on individual dignity instead of tribal codes of conduct. "That means teaching girls they can choose whom they marry, and teaching boys that their sisters are not their 'honor'," says Serap Cileli, a Turkish-born victim of forced marriage who campaigns against crimes of honor. Too often, she says, she is still called a traitor at public appearances and denounced by the Turkish-German media.

Naive multiculturalism, she adds, is no longer an option. "Avoiding confrontation and conflict is not the way to fight this," says Corinna Ter Nedden, head of a Berlin safe house for Muslim women. The only solution is to tackle the problem at its core--within families and communities for whom honor codes are central. For Europeans, long inclined toward the extremes of nativism on one hand and (some say excessive) tolerance on the other, that won't be easy.

From the magazine issue dated Mar 28, 2005