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Domestic Violence in the Muslim Community

Aftermath of a Beheading

by WAJAHAT ALI

The tragic beheading of Aasiya Hassan, a Muslim Pakistani American mother of four, will finally force a community to confront and remedy the overwhelming – but frequently ignored and intentionally hidden – demon of domestic violence that has persecuted its silenced women for far too long.

The entire world reacted with shock and outrage as Muzzammil Hassan, a Pakistani-American businessman and co-founder of Bridges TV, was arrested for the gruesome murder of his estranged wife. Mrs. Hassan, an architect and MBA student, had recently filed for divorce and received a restraining order against Muzzammil as of February 6, 2009.

Contrary to some spurious reporting, this was not an "honor killing", a barbaric practice that has its own unique motivations and historical culture, rather it personifies the all too common phenomenon of domestic abuse. Asma Firfirey, the sister of the deceased, stated her sister suffered last year from injuries that required nearly $3,000 of medical bills – allegedly the result of spousal abuse.

According to Zerqa Abid, the first cousin to Mr. Hassan’s first wife, "Both of his earlier wives filed divorce on the same grounds of severe domestic violence and abuses…it took [my cousin] several years to get rid of the fear of living with a man in marriage."

Despite his shameful history, Mr. Hassan mind-bogglingly remained a prominent and often-adulated figure in Muslim American circles for his contributions to the media. His example, amongst several others, highlights the egregious failure of foresight and insight of American Muslim leadership to carefully vet, screen and ultimately renounce appointed representatives with reprehensible backgrounds.

This horrific tale serves as an exaggerated and grotesque microcosm of a pervasive epidemic of violence against women that has been intentionally ignored by all communities – not just Muslim and Pakistani. For example, in the United States, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44.

Sadly, despite the universality of the problem, the antiquated tropes of "the savage Muslim" have emerged to crudely tar all Muslims and South Asians with the same brush. I received a colorful comment on my blog to that effect: “Islam and Muslim are both clear fuc [sic] ups. All Muslims need to be pushed to their Allahlands. They have no business being in the non Muslim countries…Muslim is unable to live in non Muslim cultures for which he has no respect.”

Although simplistic knee jerk reactions like this would certainly make xenophobes proud, they ignore the millions of Muslim, Pakistani and immigrant couples who share the same joys and burdens of marriage like any other, yet never resort to violence, abuse or murder.

Many assume the root cause of such atrocious behavior towards women exists within Islam itself and legitimized by Quran and sanctioned by the Prophet Muhammad. However, Dr. Muhammad Rajabally, Chairman of The North American Islamic Shelter for Abused (NISA), established in 2002 as a vehicle towards alleviating issues related to abuse and domestic violence, strongly disagrees: “There is no room for domestic violence in Islam. More over the Prophet, peace be upon him, said ‘the best among you is he who is best with his wife.’”

Imam Tahir Anwar, an Imam at South Bay Islamic Association located in San Jose, California, concurs and says instead the problem lies in a  “culture” of misogyny that induces fear and shame: “Culturally, women are taught to ‘not speak out’ even if they are beaten. They have to ‘save’ the family and honor.”

Rima Chaudry, a domestic violence victims advocate and counselor based in San Francisco, CA, says survivors of abuse often “face a community that is ignorant about domestic violence and unsupportive.”

However, there is still hope. It seems the absolute brutality of Aasiya’s murder has served as a clarion call to many American Muslims who have passionately responded to the tragedy with a resounding desire to confront this festering calamity.

Imam Mohamed Hagmagid Ali, Vice-President of The Islamic Society of North America – one of the largest and most influential Muslim organizations in the U.S. –wrote a public response to the murder in which he exhorts: “Our community needs to take a strong stand against abusive spouses…This is a wake up call to all of us, that violence against women is real and can not be ignored. It must be addressed collectively by every member of our community.”

Rima Chaudry offers “Mosques are the gathering place for the Muslim community” and Muslims must use them “to bring people together and educate them on the dynamics of domestic violence, and emphasize the need to break the silence around it.”

A nationwide, unified effort entitled “Imams Speak Out: Domestic Violence Will Not Be Tolerated in Our Communities” has commenced to ask all imams and religious leaders to finally discuss this recent tragedy, as well as domestic violence, in their weekly sermon on this upcoming Muslim holy day of Juma’a [Friday prayer services.]

Those given a platform on Friday to address American Muslims must do so with a passionate resolve and righteous anger that speaks up for the countless mothers, daughters and wives suffering silently and very visibly from domestic abuse and violence.

It is ironic and bittersweet that the heinous murder and tragic death of Aasiya Hassan forces the American Muslim community to build a bridge of “understanding” that leads to a new, hopeful beginning where the silenced voices of abused and battered women will finally find conciliation  – and a receptive audience.

WAJAHAT ALI is a Muslim American of Pakistani descent. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders” is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at http://goatmilk.wordpress.com/