“My Dad’s gonna kill me!” Just about anybody who had a social life, or tried to get a social life in high school has uttered these words a few times. This is usually uttered after various shenanigans that teenagers engage in once they realize that their plans are busted. In my own life I uttered that classic phrase a few times, when I trashed my parent’s car sneaking out of the house of a girl they didn’t want me to date; when I broke various valuable crystal figurines at my mom’s house playing basketball, and probably a few dozen other times over various hijinks. And yet, no matter how many times I muttered to my friends and myself that I was “really” dead this time, and they might as well clean out my locker at school—I’m still here. That’s the thing about being a teenager, everything you’re doing seems so intense, so life altering that if your stodgy parents get in the way it’d be like dying. And usually every other adult or child protective services understand this about teenagers: Unless of course you’re a Muslim.
Rifqa Bary has become the new rallying cry for the Christian right, and anti-Muslim groups in America by heating up the “My parents are gonna kill me” pot with a sprinkle of radical Islam. Rifqa, a 17-year-old girl from New Albany, Ohio, ran away from home and has sought asylum at the home of Black and Beverly Loretz, pastors of the Global Oneness Church in Orlando, Fla. Rifqa met the pastors over Facebook and upon arriving in their home quickly released a YouTube video claiming that if she was returned to her parents she would be a victim of an “honor killing” for converting from Islam to Christianity. She passionately states, “In 150 years in my family no one has known Jesus—I am the first one. Imagine the honor in killing me.” Powerful statement, sounds like the teaser to a new Sunday night move on Lifetime.
Needless to say I’m not all the convinced by Rifqa’s claims. Moreover, I’m disturbed by the callous and prejudicial way that many news outlets and organizations are using this story to serve their own ends. By all accounts Rifqa had the life of most other upper middle class kids living in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. Her family had moved from Sri Lanka to the United States in 2000 in order to get her more advanced medical care, her father was a successful jeweler, and Rifqa was an active student and cheerleader at her high school. Law enforcement in Ohio and Florida have found no signs of abuse and her parents seem as worried as any other parent with a runaway child.
By claiming that she’s a potential victim of an honor killing Rifqa has learned one of the most reliable lessons of the suburbs; when in doubt demonize some minority to get your way, even if it’s your own family. It’s like when Susan Smith blamed fictitious Black men for drowning her sons, or the “Runaway Bride” claiming Mexicans kidnapped her. An even better example is Norma Khouri who became world famous for her book “Forbidden Love” about her best friend who was a victim of an honor killing in Jordan for falling in love with a Christian soldier. Except that the whole story was a hoax, there was no friend, there was no soldier and she managed to get a lucrative deal out of Random House books before her fraud was exposed. But she knew the game, demonizing Arabs was going to be good publicity and good business because people were ready to believe it. Nobody would be listening to the tearful cries of some teenager on YouTube if Rifqa, like many women before her hadn’t trotted out a successful racial bugaboo to distract the world.
This is not to suggest that honor killings don’t happen in the United States, they do. But when you consider that in the United States a woman is battered by a spouse every nine seconds, that we have three times as many shelters for stray animals as we do for battered women, but there have only been about five definitive cases of “honor killings” in the last 20 years, it’s suspicious to me that Rifqa Bary’s story can get so much traction. My hope is that eventually family and child will reconcile whatever teenage angst is occurring. But I can’t shake the feeling that if her name was Rachel Barowitz or Rasheeda Brown instead of Rifqa Bary, that we wouldn’t even be hearing about this story.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)