Terrorism, honour and modeling

In June 30, 2009 the bodies of three girls/young women and a middle-aged woman were found in a car that had been submerged in a lock along the Rideau Canal system just north of Kingston, Ontario.  Scarcely a month later, three people from the Shafia family, Afghan immigrants to Canada, were arrested and charged with four counts of first degree murder: the parents of the young people and their brother.  After a long trial, all three were found guilty on all four charges: a later appeal based on the claim that the trial judge had erred in allowing the testimony of a University of Toronto professor was rejected in April 2016.  The murderers are now serving life sentences.

This heinous act got a lot of attention in Canada in part because it appeared to be an instance of an “honour killing”.  These crimes are often carried out by males against close females (wives, mothers, daughters or sisters) who are accused of somehow besmirching the family’s honour or reputation.  We normally associate these killings with countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan or Somalia, and yet the Shafia act was not the first in Canada to warrant widespread attention.  In 2007 Aqsa Parvez was strangled to death by her brother when she refused to wear the hijab.  The Shafias killed their daughters/sisters (and the elder Shafia’s first wife) because they would not follow traditional Afghan ways and had embraced “Canadian” culture (dating boys for example).

In the November 12 edition of New Scientist Emma Young wrote a fascinating overview of honour killings, providing some very good insight into motivations and scope.   According to Ms Young, Ryan Brown of the University of Oklahoma at Norman believes that these crimes are more widespread than generally believed, extending throughout the US South for instance, are tied to perceived insults to one’s reputation and thrive in environments where there is deep economic insecurity and lawlessness.  The article is definitely worth reading.

What does this have to do with terrorism?  I am not convinced that there is any link between the two, but what caught my eye was a dissenting opinion in this article by a psychologist at Hillsdale College in Michigan, Collin Barnes, which I want to cite at length:

” It is difficult to support claims of cultural causation because even when researchers control for confounding factors, attributing behavioural differences to one construct requires a heavy burden of evidence. ..It is not too much to ask that the result of this experiment and others like it be replicated.  To my knowledge, no such attempt has been made, and this makes me hesitant… the methods of social psychology tend to oversimplify reality. In that sense, Mr. Barnes’ reservations) don’t apply exclusively to research into honour culture”.

There is a lot in here that IS relevant to our understanding of terrorism.  In our continuing search for meaning and explanation as we try to comprehend why people become terrorists, there are many who put forward elaborate theories, some of which are based on experiments, that purport to provide that understanding. And yet, there is so much that defies easy analysis. People are complicated and so are terrorists who, after all, are people.  We need to stop reducing a complex phenomenon to oversimplified models.  If these efforts were limited to internal arguments within specialised fields of study perhaps it wouldn’t really matter.  But I have lived in government and I have seen the effects of well-sold arguments on the minds of policy makers, most of whom are not experts in terrorism.  What deputy minister wouldn’t latch on to a proposed solution to an intractable problem such as terrorism and launch a policy/programme based on that promise?  The results, however, can be disastrous.  I have said it before but must repeat it yet again: bad input leads to bad output.

In the end a little more honesty would be welcome in those that look at terrorism from their particular specialisations.  People need to acknowledge that there is a lot we don’t know and will probably never know about why terrorists are what they are.  By all means carry out your studies and present your findings but be humble.  With all being said, wouldn’t that be the “honourable” thing to do?


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

One reply on “Terrorism, honour and modeling”

As a psychologist and researcher, I could not agree more. We cannot account for idiosyncratic variables hidden deep within the psyche and experiences of individuals. We teach our students that we can never be 100% certain of our findings, that is why we employ confidence intervals. I often ask students on the first day of class to tell me the colour of a swan – almost invariably, the response is white. Then I ask them how they account for black and brown swans – silence. The same goes for the causes of terrorism. Humility is indeed the key.

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