Documenting and honoring the lives of Muslim victims of domestic homicide
By Denise Ziya Berte
From June 2022 to Sept. 2022, there were six publicly reported incidents of domestic homicide and suicide with over 14 lost souls in the Muslim American community. In examining these cases, the most frustrating and terrifying commonality is the absence of identifiable patterns. Six of the perpetrators were men; one was a woman. The victims ranged in age from an unborn fetus to grandparents in their 60s. All but one incident included a firearm. Some of the victims were married; others were divorced or separated. Among them were those who wore the hijab, had children and/or college degrees, were immigrants, had family support and/or good economic standing, and those who had sought spiritual, legal and social assistance. The incidents occurred in environments from suburbs to cities. In most cases the perpetrator took his/her own life as well that of the victim, children and extended family members.
Domestic homicide, defined as a murder that occurs in the context of an intimate (spousal) or family-based relationship, is a tragic but well-established phenomenon among Muslim Americans as well as in Muslim-majority countries worldwide. In the Americas, the rate of domestic homicide of women/girls has increased 9% over the past two years. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC, 2021) reports that over 47,000 women and girls internationally were killed by intimate partners or family members in 2020, a figure equal to someone being murdered by a family member every 11 minutes of the year.
Sadly, these numbers have remained stagnant over decades despite numerous programs and legislation. Women and girls make up only 10% of the general homicide rate but 58% of domestic homicides, demonstrating that they are safer in the street than in their homes.
While domestic violence (DV) doesn’t always reach the level of homicide, the potential for lethality is always there. This crime is built on the premise that one person in the family or relationship, because of their status (e.g., parent, husband or primary financial contributor), has the right and responsibility to control others through force. This is diametrically opposed to the leadership based in love, compassion and mutual consultation described in the Quran and demonstrated by Prophet Muhammad (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam).
DV may start as a pattern of behavior directed at managing the life of another individual through restricting his/her finances (e.g., if the individual can work, where they can receive funds from and what they can use their own money for), movement (where and when he/she can leave the home), legal status (withholding passports, marriage contracts, immigration visas and other important documents) and association (what friends and relatives he/she can see). DV includes emotional (humiliation, continual criticism), verbal (cursing, threatening and name calling), sexual (forced sexual activity) and physical abuse (biting, hitting, pushing).
Historical data has established that those who seek help and try to actively stop the pattern of abuse are most at risk in terms of serious injury, the kidnapping of their children and even death. This leaves victims little hope of escape or change. Domestic homicide occurs when the perpetrator feels that the situation is out of his/her control and becomes convinced that the mere right of existence of the other person(s) outside of his/her “governance” is unacceptable. Sadly, the perpetrator’s family and friends may even increase the pressure by framing the situation as an embarrassment to the family, the work of Satan or the spouse “getting away” with something, instead of helping him/her accept reality and reform his/her behaviors.
The Peaceful Families Project (PFP) is a 22-year-old U.S.-based national nonprofit organization working to eliminate family-based violence in Muslim homes using Islamic values and teachings through training research, resource development and affiliated partnerships. The Quran and Hadith are clear on women’s rights (4:1); the model of a marriage based on love, compassion and mercy creating peace for all involved (30:21); and the prohibition of oppression and maltreatment (4:19) — yet somehow our communities aren’t upholding these most basic tenets.
The level of denial seems to be the biggest obstacle: “Not in our community,” “I’ve never heard of such a thing,” “It’s a Western problem” are the most common responses to the presented data. If people don’t acknowledge a social reality, it’s almost impossible to address or prevent it.
In 2011, PFP, in coordination with Project Sakinah, conducted a community-wide survey of DV in the Muslim community. It found that 53% of Muslims had faced violence perpetrated by family members and 66% knew of a Muslim that had been physically abused by a family member (parent, sibling, or spouse), despite Islam’s clear mandates and models for leadership, conflict resolution and peaceful partings.
PFP offers a wide variety of relevant programs, resources and curriculums focused on Peaceful Parenting (non-violent child rearing), Peaceful Futures (curriculum on Muslim identity and developing healthy relationships for middle school, high school, and university-aged youth), Peaceful Partners (Male Allies programs), Muslim Abusive Patterns Intervention (a faith-based curriculum for those engaging in family-based violence), Peaceful Partings (programing for divorce and co-parenting), as well as Peaceful World (international initiatives to spread Peaceful Families’ mission to Muslims worldwide).
These programs are open to all and generated locally through PFP trainers and supporters. PFP holds an annual training of trainers workshop for interested individuals as well as several community-based trainings and activities — both virtually and in person — monthly for organizations willing to host events.
Incidents of domestic homicide cast a shadow on Muslims by tarnishing Islam’s reputation as the perfect religion and plant seeds of doubt in Muslims, who begin to consider leaving Islam due to this misrepresentation and the support given to the perpetrators. In 2013, the Pew Foundation reported that 25% of individuals raised in Muslim homes abandon Islam. Victims of domestic and family-based violence, especially where the perpetrator uses the Quran or Hadith to justify their brutality, often become confused and believe that Islam promotes oppression, injustice and violence against the innocent.
Due to the recent tragic events, PFP is initiating a national and international project to recognize, document the stories of and honor all Muslim victims of domestic homicide. Data will be collected to help DV experts identify the critical factors that lead to domestic homicide and how we can prevent any more loss of life. Equally, as a community we will be able to hear the victims’ names and stories, make du‘a for them and place their lives in the high regard — as they so rightly deserve.
While we are aware of and deeply understand the effects of the pervasive Islamophobia faced by many Muslims worldwide, community members cannot use this as an excuse to deny the reality of domestic homicide in their midst. PFP is committed to gathering information about these narratives, for increasing our knowledge about the dangers of family-based violence and honoring its victims is part of the basic Islamic obligation to oppose oppression. Having definitive data will increase our community’s awareness and create more effective responses.
PFP asks everyone who is aware of a Muslim victim or incident of domestic homicide in the North American community to participate in this critical activity. The data will be analyzed in its conglomerate form, and no personal narrative will be used in an identifiable manner without the appropriate family members or representative’s explicit desire and permission.
DV is a form of oppression, and we are responsible for confronting oppression in all of its forms.
“I heard the messenger of God say ‘Whoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand: and if he is not able to do so, with his tongue, and if he is not able to do so, with his heart. And that is the weakest of faith (Muslim, 34; “40 Hadith an-Nawawi”).
In contemporary terms — with our hands (offering direct support to victims, donating to organizations like PFP, volunteering at a local DV shelter, physically stopping domestic violence when it occurs in front of us), with our tongues (speaking out against DV in our masjids, at community events and within our families; teaching about healthy relationships in youth programs and in pre-marital classes, etc.), and in our hearts (making du‘a for the victims of family-based violence, researching and learning more about DV in our community and studying the verses and hadith that address family relationships).
Three things you can do immediately: • Muslim Men. Take the peaceful partner pledge • Muslims aged 18+. Complete the American Muslim Intimate Partner Violence Survey (bit.ly/AMIPVsurvey) and • All Muslims. Learn more about DV, support PFP’s efforts to eliminate DV in our community by following us on social media, sharing resources and donating.
Denise Ziya Berte, Ph.D., is PFP’s executive director.