When reporters write stories about traditional Islamic law, or sharia, for Western audiences, they often face a few dilemmas. How do you explain a complex, multilayered legal system that is threaded through the history of Islam, and yet so foreign to Western Europe and the United States, in a way that helps readers understand it better? Here's an even tougher question: How does a journalist limn a situation where the potential repercussions of sharia law are so disturbing that many of his or her readers will consider them morally reprehensible?
Such is the case with a recent story about Rashin Soodman, an Iranian woman living in London whose father, a Christian convert, was the last man -- for now -- executed in Iran for apostasy (renouncing or abandoning one's religion).
Last month the Iranian Parliament approved a bill, the "Islamic Penal Code," which makes it legal to impose the death penalty on any male who no longer practices the Islamic faith. Soodman's brother, Ramtin, also a Christian, currently languishes uncharged in an Iranian prison.
In describing the situation faced by the Soodman family, Telegraph writer Alasdair Palmer has chosen to take a stance of righteous indignation. While this is understandable, it may not be the most illuminating way to tell this powerful story -- one which would have been even stronger if he'd gotten a voice from the Iranian opposition.
A paragraph into the article, Palmer makes his position plain.
Imposing the death penalty for changing religion blatantly violates one of the most fundamental of all human rights. The right to freedom of religion is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and in the European Convention of Human Rights. It is even enshrined as Article 23 of Iran's own constitution, which states that no one may be molested simply for his beliefs.
And yet few politicians or clerics in Iran see any contradiction between a law mandating the death penalty for changing religion and Iran's constitution. There has been no public protest in Iran against it.
Palmer makes a fascinating point here -- there's a contradiction between the code just passed and Iran's own constitution. Why doesn't he quote someone who can address that dichotomy?
Finding a voice from within Iran is difficult, but not impossible. Addressing another disturbing consequence of the Islamic penal code more than a year ago, the New York Times was able to find a dissident within Iran.
We are left with the sense that there is no opposition in Iran, or that they are totally squashed -- something that is clearly not the case. There is, of course, another implication: Being quoted on the record may, in and of itself, be seen as an offense against Iran's version of Islamic orthodoxy and, thus, dangerous to one's health.
Although Palmer does have lengthy quotes later in the story from a representative of a group called Christian Solidarity Worldwide (quoted both as a "he" and a "she"), the article would also have been enriched by perspective from an expert from a think-tank or a university on the complexities of the legal system in Iran. Dollars to donuts most of us are clueless about it.
A little less hyperbole in the next few paragraphs would also have strengthened the article.
David Miliband, Britain's Foreign Secretary, stands out as one of the few politicians from any Western country who has put on record his opposition to making apostasy a crime punishable by death. The protest from the EU has been distinctly muted; meanwhile, Germany, Iran's largest foreign trading partner, has just increased its business deals with Iran by more than half. Characteristically, the United Nations has said nothing.
It is a sign of how little interest there is in Iran's intention to launch a campaign of religious persecution that its parliamentary vote has still not been reported in the mainstream media.
Yet in spite of the flaws in Palmer's story, he has done Western readers a valuable service in raising the issue of Iranian religious persecution in such a dramatic way. At the end of the article, he allows Rashin Soodmand's voice to starkly illustrate the potential repercussions of the new law.
Time may be running out for Rashin's brother. She believes that the new law will be applied in an arbitrary fashion, with individuals selected for death being chosen to frighten others into submission. That is why she fears for her brother. "We just don't know what will happen to him. We only know that if they want to kill him, they will."