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14. September 2010

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Stoning without Protest

Guest Commentary by Edit Schlaffer, Die Presse 10 September 2010

Where is the broad, resolute opposition to the misuse of Islam in the Islamic world?

The threatened stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani has shaken the world. Her case has triggered a singular global echo. Hers is not an isolated case, however; hundreds of stonings have taken place in recent years, and the majority of the victims are women. Even if men are sentenced, there is still no equality between the genders: men are only buried to the waist, and if they manage to free themselves, it is taken as a sign that they should be freed. Women, on the other hand, do not have even a glimmer of hope for a similar turn of events—they are buried up to the neck. The qualifications for the stone-throwers: Muslim and male.

The details surrounding Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani’s case are now well-known; the charges against her fluctuate between two accusations: accessory to her husband’s murder and engaging in “immoral relationships.” The 99 lashes she received years ago set the stage for her enduring ordeal. This punishment was apparently meted out to her in the presence of her children.

The authorities were acting in accordance with the Qoran when the ordered the lashing. Sura 24, Verse 2 deals explicitly with fornication: “The adulteress and the adulterer you shall whip each of them a hundred lashes.” It also advises a lack of sympathy for the pair: “Do not be swayed by pity from carrying out God's law, if you truly believe in God and the Last Day.”

Ashtiani’s lawyer, a high-profile defense lawyer and critic of the Iranian judicial system, specializes in such cases. He has worked on 13 stoning cases. He won ten of them, and the draconian measure was commuted into a lashing. Today, he is no longer able to support Ashtiani, for he has sought exile in Norway after an adventurous escape on foot and horseback through Turkey. His wife, who stayed behind, was immediately jailed at the infamous Evin prison, where she was held under abominable conditions for 14 days.

Ashtiani had already been sentenced to ten years in jail as an accomplice to murder. When her case was reopened, a different tribunal took up her case of “infidelity” and condemned her to death by stoning. Her lawyer pointed out that three of the five jurors found her guilty—and all three were especially fanatical clerics. Ashtiani did not even understand her sentence, because the word “stoning” was pronounced in Arabic—“rajam.” The women with whom she shared her prison cell finally explained it to her.

This case is being dealt with at the highest political levels. The Brazilian president, Lula da Silva, placed himself at the forefront of the protest movement by offering Ashtiani asylum; support from European Ministers, including Kouchner and the President of the European Commission, has followed. The protests from the Muslim world come predominantly from opposition circles; the Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, a lawyer and now living in exile in England, argued in the Wall Street Journal that Iran had to reconsider this ancient form of punishment, “which most Islamic countries long ago discarded in their quest to harmonize Islam with modern norms.” But where is the broad, resolute opposition to the misuse of Islam in the Islamic world? This case should present a golden opportunity to all those who defend Islam as a religion of peace.

“In the depths of your cell…”

The Western protests impressively supplemented by a series of letters. The actress Isabelle Adjani writes: “Sakineh, your name beats in my heart, and my heart beats, writing to you…They are crazed with rage at the simple idea of love—yes, love—your liberty represents.” Sakineh probably never received this letter, just as she likely did not receive the letter from Carla Bruni, the wife of the French president: “…stoned to death…this vision terrifies us and seems to come from a long ago age…In the depths of your cell, know that my husband will plead your cause unfailingly and that France will not abandon you.”

The Iranian press did not mince words in their reply: Bruni is a prostitute, who earns a fate similar to the adulteress who was sentenced to death for her lifestyle. Carla Bruni’s reference to the distant past is interesting; cultural relativists like to refer to the Middle Ages at this point in the conversation, when in Europe people were quartered, skinned, and stoned.

This relativism must be countered with the reality, however, that we live in a globalized world in which nuclear powers stand opposite each other, such that recognizing parallel worlds would have dangerous consequences. Iran can only develop into a reliable international partner on the global stage when it guarantees the security and treatment of its citizens in accordance with universal human rights conventions. For this reason, the protests are important not only for Ashtiani’s survival, but also for the safety of us all.

Yesterday, Ramin Mehmenparast, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, told the state-run English television channel that the sentence had been suspended.


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