‘We are happy to make clear that Islam as a religion does not support so-called “honour killings”.’ Last August that sentence appeared in the corrections pages of both the Sun and the Mail Online. Why had these newspapers suddenly felt inclined to weigh in on this contentious theological debate? Because a complaint had been made against them to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), the non-state-backed press regulator set up after Leveson. It was lodged by Miqdaad Versi, the assistant general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, acting in a personal capacity.
Versi took issue with the way the papers had reported on the tragic killing of Saima Khan, a woman who was stabbed to death in a suspected honour killing in Luton. First the Mail Online, and then the Sun, reported on it May 2016, and had the temerity to refer to it as an ‘Islamic honour killing’. Honour killings, Versi said, were rooted in culture, not faith. Though the Sun and the Mail at first challenged this, IPSO ruled they were in breach of the editor’s code regarding accuracy, and the papers capitulated, printing what was not so much a retraction as a theological declaration.
Just take that in for a moment. Versi was effectively able to leverage an independent regulator to force newspapers to print what he deemed to be the true interpretation of his religion. He told the Guardian that ‘it is vital that news outlets do not encourage Islamophobia through the usage of clearly inaccurate and inflammatory headlines’. But neither of these reports were inaccurate, necessarily. Islam is a body of teachings, principles and texts, interpreted differently by Muslims and non-Muslims across the world. Whether or not it ‘supports’ honour killings is not something anyone can say definitively – certainly not a press regulator.
As the National Secular Society has pointed out, there are many Muslims across the world who would disagree with Versi: in many Muslim-majority countries, the belief that women can be murdered in some circumstances is common. Whether or not Versi or IPSO claim to have the direct line to paradise, the question of whether Islam supports honour killings is up for debate, like anything else. And, indeed, the newspapers weren’t even necessarily weighing in on that debate. The Sun argued that it was merely reporting that the honour killing was being investigated as such.
This is backdoor blasphemy law, and it’s positively pre-modern. Just as Henry VIII cracked down on heretical publications – which were spreading reformist religious ideas he would, ironically, later enforce – IPSO was complicit in pressuring these papers to print a quasi-official interpretation of Islam. In some ways, it’s far more insidious. Islam isn’t the state religion. And IPSO isn’t the Star Chamber. The terror of appearing ‘Islamophobic’, of daring to even raise the dark side of Islamic practice, has led an independent institution to force papers to self-censor, to bow to, in this case, one man’s interpretation of a religion.