Reclaiming the faith
Although a Taliban spokesman has denied that his group had anything to do with the disfigurement of Bibi Aisha, her mutilated face on the cover of Time magazine is nevertheless a reminder of what these people stand for.
Aisha had her nose chopped off by her husband — allegedly with Taliban approval — when she tried to escape the man her parents had handed her over to in a forced marriage.
Just to put the Taliban denial in context, we heard recently that Bibi Sanubar, a pregnant woman, was flogged 200 times before being killed with three shots fired into her head at close range. This barbaric incident took place in Qadis district in the remote north-west Afghan province of Badghis, an area almost completely controlled by the Taliban.
Mullah Daoud, a Taliban commander, was one of the three men who condemned the woman and supervised the savage punishment. Her crime? Years after her husband’s death, she had become pregnant after having an affair. The man has gone unpunished, as so often happens in such cases. Far from denying Taliban involvement, Mullah Daoud told the media that Bibi Sanubar had been flogged and then executed in public to serve as an example.
While such cruel acts were routine when the Taliban ruled much of their country, the present government is hardly more enlightened. The governor of the province is reported as saying that while the woman would have been tried for her ‘crime’, she would still have faced appropriate punishment if the evidence against her had been conclusive.
Whenever I have written against the imposition of tribal customs in the modern era, I have been fiercely attacked by some readers as opposing what they term as ‘Islamic’ punishments. The reality is that almost invariably, it is women who bear the brunt of these archaic penalties. It seems they are the sole repositories of male ‘honour’. While honour killings of women are common in Muslim communities, we seldom hear of men committing suicide because they have been dishonoured by faithless or disobedient wives, daughters or sisters.
One problem is that not enough Muslims raise their voices in protest against this brutal treatment of women. When western critics express their anger against such violence, there is a tendency to close ranks and dismiss this criticism as somehow Islamophobic. To give readers a flavour of the reaction to the brutal flogging and murder of Bibi Sanubar, here’s I. Steele blogging on the online news magazine The First Post: “I hope those who did this never sleep again!”
I doubt if Mullah Daoud and his ilk will lose any sleep over the agony he inflicted on Bibi Sanubar. On the contrary, he probably enjoyed a good night’s rest, comforted by the thought that he had carried out God’s will.
Ian Robertson blogs: “The thinking which leads to this kind of behaviour is part of the culture of much of the Islamic world.… whether Nato pulls out of Afghanistan tomorrow or 10 years from now, the barbaric punishments will continue in sophisticated [!] Saudi Arabia, corrupt Pakistan and backward Afghanistan.”
These are only a couple of comments posted on one of dozens of the websites that reported Bibi Sanubar’s execution. While most civilised societies have abolished the death penalty, few Muslim countries have followed suit. There is a widespread sentiment that harsh punishments involving physical pain somehow serve as salutary examples.
However, judging from the Saudi experience, this has not happened. For centuries, criminals have had their heads, hands and feet chopped off in public after Friday prayers. Iran has had people stoned to death, flogged and hanged. In Pakistan, Gen Zia used to have political opponents flogged. None of these punishments had the desired effect. Crime and political dissent have continued unabated.
While I make no claim to Islamic scholarship, surely there is a strong case for ijtihad, or interpretation of the law in the light of changed circumstances, as laid down in the Holy Quran. Even though Ghazali closed the gates of ijtihad nearly 1,000 years ago, I am sure there are Muslim scholars who are competent to review the punishments laid down hundreds of years ago. Fiqh-i-Jafria (Shia faith) permits this eminently sensible concept to be put into practice, but followers of a couple of fiqhs of Ahle Sunnat have been frozen in the 12th century, at least in juridical terms. Indeed, many historians of Islam ascribe the Muslim world’s decline to the end of ijtihad.
This is not to suggest that Shias are much more progressive, judging from the words and actions of the ayatollahs of Iran. Every now and then, horror stories emerge from the Islamic Republic to remind us of what the people of that ancient land are going through.
When Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani was sentenced to be stoned to death for alleged adultery, her case attracted worldwide protests. Although the government has backed down and announced that she will not now be killed in that gruesome manner, her execution is still imminent.
On another note (no pun intended), Ayatollah Khamenei is reported as having recently denounced music on the grounds of frivolity. While conceding that in Islam, music was halal, or kosher, Iran’s supreme leader went on to say: “… promoting it and teaching it is not compatible with the highest values of the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic … It’s better that our dear youth spend their valuable time in learning science and essential and useful skills and fill their time with sport and healthy recreations instead of music.”
I doubt very much if the ayatollah’s words will cause Iran’s ‘dear youth’ to burn their CDs and scrap their iPods any time soon. Iran has a long and rich musical tradition, and for its leader to make such an eccentric pronouncement reveals yet again the wide gulf that now exists between the religious rulers of the country and its oppressed people. Even Zia at his most deluded was unable to stop Pakistanis from enjoying music.
Over the last two decades, anti-culture and inhuman currents have gained strength across much of the Muslim world. More and more, we have moved away from the liberal and tolerant mainstream. As extremists have set the agenda, the vast majority of Muslims have looked on in mute horror at what their faith has been transformed into. Surely it’s high time to reclaim it from the Taliban and the ayatollahs.