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August 22, 2010

Putting the punishment of stoning in some context

Today's New York Times has this very interesting piece about a notorious punishment, which is titled "Crime (Sex) and Punishment (Stoning)." Here are excerpts:

It may be the oldest form of execution in the world, and it is certainly among the most barbaric. In the West, death by stoning is so remote from experience that it is best known through Monty Python skits and lurid fiction like Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.”

Yet two recent real world cases have struck a nerve: a young couple were stoned to death last week in northern Afghanistan for trying to elope, in a grim sign of the Taliban’s resurgence. And last month, an international campaign rose up in defense of an Iranian woman, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who had been sentenced to death by stoning on adultery charges.

Much of the outrage those cases generated — apart from the sheer anachronism of stoning in the 21st century — seems to stem from the gulf between sexual attitudes in the West and parts of the Islamic world, where some radical movements have turned to draconian punishments, and a vision of restoring a long-lost past, in their search for religious authenticity.

The stoning of adulterers was once aimed at preventing illegitimate births that might muddy the male tribal bloodlines of medieval Arabia. But it is now taking place in a world where more and more women demand reproductive freedoms, equal pay and equal status with men — in parts of the Islamic world as well as throughout the West....

The Taliban ... defined themselves in the 1990s largely through the imposition of an incredibly harsh and widely disputed version of Islamic law, under which stonings for adultery became common. Last week’s stoning, by hundreds of villagers in Kunduz Province, was a dire indicator of where Afghanistan may be headed.

“There is no way to say how many stonings took place, but it was widespread” when the Taliban ruled, said Nader Nadery, a senior commissioner on the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. “Often the man escaped, and the woman only was punished, especially if he had connections or was a member of the Taliban.” Other sexual crimes were accorded similarly grotesque penalties: homosexuals, for instance, had a brick wall collapsed onto them.

Stoning is not practiced only among Muslims, nor did it begin with Islam. Human rights groups say a young girl was stoned to death in 2007 in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Yazidi community, which practices an ancient Kurdish religion. The Old Testament includes an episode in which Moses arranges for a man who violated the Sabbath to be stoned, and stoning probably took place among Jewish communities in the ancient Near East. Rabbinic law, which was composed starting in the first century A.D., specifies stoning as the penalty for a variety of crimes, with elaborate instructions for how it should be carried out. But it is not clear to what extent it was used, if ever, said Barry Wimpfheimer, an assistant professor of religion at Northwestern University and an expert on Jewish law.

Some Muslims complain that stoning — along with other traditional penalties like whipping and the amputation of hands — is too often sensationalized in the West to smear the reputation of Islam generally. Most of these severe punishments are carried out by the Taliban and other radicals who, many Islamic scholars say, have little real knowledge of Islamic law. Stoning is a legal punishment in only a handful of Muslim countries — in addition to Iran, they include Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan and Nigeria, but it is very rarely put to use.

Stoning is not prescribed by the Koran. The punishment is rooted in Islamic legal traditions, known as hadiths, that designate it as the penalty for adultery. While the penalty may seem savage to Western eyes, scholars say it is consistent with the values of Arabian society at the time of Muhammad, Islam’s founding prophet.

Adultery “was considered to offend some of the fundamental purposes of Islamic law: to protect lineage, family, honor and property,” said Kristen Stilt, an associate professor at Northwestern University who has written about Islamic law. “It was a tribal society, and knowing who children belonged to was very important.”

That may help explain the link between sexual crimes and stoning, as opposed to another form of execution. A crime that seemed to violate the community’s identity called for a communal response. Certainly the special horror of stoning is rooted in the prospect of being pelted to death by one’s own friends, neighbors and relatives.

But Islamic law requires very strict conditions for a stoning sentence: four male eyewitnesses must attest to having seen the sexual act and their accounts must match in all details, or else they can be subject to criminal penalties, said Aron Zysow, a specialist on Islamic law at Princeton University. Some scholars even argue that the stoning penalty is meant more as a symbolic warning against misbehavior than as a punishment to be taken literally.

August 22, 2010 at 09:54 AM | Permalink


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"Some scholars even argue that the stoning penalty is meant more as a symbolic warning against misbehavior than as a punishment to be taken literally."

Somehow I suspect it's taken literally by the people getting stoned.

The subtext of this article is, astoundingly, to put stoning, of all things, "in context" -- thus better to "understand" it. I can't help but contrast the article's faux-scholarly approach to this gruesome practice with the emotively outraged approach taken by abolitionists in this country to the three drug (or one drug) cocktail administered precisely to ELIMINATE the pain of execution, rather than enhance it.

Still, for all the article's faults, one thing comes through loud and clear: The Taliban is a barbaric, near pre-civilization bunch, and President Obama is doing the right thing by continuing the Afghan war to defeat these people. Whether one is interested in advancing human rights, or advancing the stategic and security interests of the United States, the Taliban has got to go.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 22, 2010 10:27:00 AM

Christians who are familiar with the Bible will know thatthe barbaric practice of stoning dates back to Biblical days. During that time, people did not have access to lethal injections, nor to electric chairs, or even guns to be used in firing squads. So the forms of execution were stoning, crucification, feeding people to lions, etc.
Note for people who believe the Bible condones capital punishment: a young woman accused of adultery (John 8: 1-11) was about to be stoned to death. Jesus, acting as today's Supreme Court, gave a specific ruling about how capital punishment was to be administered. Held: only he who is without sin can cast the first stone (fire the first shot, administer the first injection, pull the first switch).

Posted by: Law Buff | Aug 22, 2010 11:46:54 AM

I oppose stoning. It is public and glamorizes the crime. It is needlessly painful and prolonged, when the sole mature use of the death penalty is incapacitation.

That being said, let's compare a little before getting all huffy and superior. What is the rate of bastardy in these Muslim areas? What is the overall crime rate? Nil on both.

Question. If you could stone 100 people and prevent 10,000 bastards from being born, would you do it? What if I told you, that 500 bastards will be murdered a year, instead of the expected number in legitimate children of 50? By not stoning 100 people, you have reliably murdered 450 unknown but certain young people.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 22, 2010 12:09:42 PM

Law Buff --

1. Use of the sword, and thus the relatively painless practice of beheading, was also available in Biblical times. More gruesome forms of execution were not needed.

2. "Jesus, acting as today's Supreme Court..."

That is incorrect as an historical analogy. But for however that may be, there are those of us who still believe in the separation of church and state. According to the actual (and secular) Supreme Court, the death penalty is permissible, Gregg v. Georgia. The world's four largest countries, China, India, the United States and Indoniesia, all retain it.

3. Do you agree that the Taliban must be defeated?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 22, 2010 12:11:03 PM

Sharia law is a medieval system to be sure, but the Taliban and other modern fundamentalists have instituted it about as well as one would expect a fourth grader to preside over a federal appeals court after watching a few episodes of Law and Order. Reading pre-modern fatwas (which are roughly analogous to common law legal opinions in this context) one gets a much better sense of the subtleties of Islamic Jurisprudence at its height.

Take the stoning issue in this article, for example. When in the history of mankind have there been four reliable witnesses ---willing to testify under oath, no less--- to a physical act of adultery? In practice, actual adulterers were often “prosecuted” under much milder “statutes” and stoning really was largely symbolic. The same is true of other stiff “Islamic” penalties such as loss of a hand for theft. Muslim “judges” ---relying on The Qur'an, the hadith, and the precedence of other fatwas--- ruled case by case with the sensibilities of their time and place always a factor. Doesn't sound so alien...

For a little extra perspective, Usmah b. Munqidh (a Syrian scholar, diplomat and renaissance man of the 12th century) writes in his autobiography with open disgust and bafflement about the legal procedures of the the crusaders. If Usmah is to be believed (and he is a surprisingly open minded fellow for his time) the crusaders employed judicial methods to the “trial by fire or water” tune with punishments including (if memory serves) variations on the theme of being boiled alive.

“If she weighs the same as a duck, that means that she's made of wood and therefore...”

Posted by: Erik Schumann (student) | Aug 22, 2010 9:47:57 PM

But here again is the difference between theory and practice. In theory, there will be no instances where four male eyewitnesses must confirm the adulterous sexual act. In practice, we know that more than a few stonings occur every year in Iran (there are actually leaked videos of them around the internet). As Ayn Rand said, if your conclusion seems wrong, check your premises.

Despite their professed allegiances to the Koran, those in power in Mideast nations will bend religion to do whatever they please. Islam does not require stoning for adultery any more than the Bible requires hanging, drawing, and quartering for treason, boiling in oil for attempted regicide, or burning at the stake for heresy--yet all three were practiced in Britain with the religious authorities' blessing (the French used "wheeling" instead of hanging, drawing and quartering), and stoning is still alive and well in several areas of the world. I think all this says is that people have an amazing ability to corrupt an otherwise good idea in the name of power.

Posted by: Res ipsa | Aug 23, 2010 8:31:49 AM

"What is the rate of bastardy in these Muslim areas? What is the overall crime rate? Nil on both."

There is certainly no shortage of crime in Taliban controlled Afghanistan. Few places in the world are more lawless.

As to "bastardy"? Let's just say that a lack of genetic testing does wonders for the officially reported rated (as it does for the officially reported rape rate in this war zone). I have little doubt, however, that people will be people where ever they happen to be.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Aug 23, 2010 8:11:02 PM

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