Complex laws in Afghan stoning age

Excuse me if I head deep into the tmatt guilt folder and make a point or two about a story that I've been mulling over for more than a week. Your GetReligionistas frequently criticize the mainstream press for its simplistic coverage of issues linked to Islamic tradition, doctrine and law. The problem, of course, is that journalists keep writing as if there is only one approach to Islam. Journalists say, "Islam teaches this" and "Islam teaches that" without pausing to admit that, repeat after me, "There is no one Islam."

This amazes me because journalists frequently write about "moderate" Muslims and (excuse me for typing the following words) "fundamentalist" Muslims, yet rarely offer any practical details that tell us the beliefs that define the lives of people in these camps.

Well, in this case I want to compliment a recent story in the Los Angeles Times, sort of, for a story in which the newspaper did a fabulous job showing the complexity of recent events in Afghanistan that pivot on clashing approaches to Sharia law. At the same time, let me note that the reporter and editors that produced this story never noted or explained the facts about Sharia that are demonstrated in this story.

In other words, it's a good story, even if they didn't realize why it is such a good story.

Here's the context, at the top of the story.

The young lovers didn't stand a chance.

In a desolate field on the edge of their village in northern Afghanistan, hundreds of men, stones in hand, closed in to carry out the mullah's death sentence, handed down after the pair eloped against the wishes of their families.

"It was an act of great cruelty," said Mutasem Khan, an uncle of Abdul Qayuum, the 28-year-old man who was stoned to death this month in Kunduz province along with the village woman he had wooed, identified only as 19-year-old Siddiqa.

The couple's gruesome deaths came just one week after another public execution, also in a remote northern village. There, a widow in her 40s was flogged and then shot for conceiving a child out of wedlock with a man she intended to marry, according to accounts by villagers and local officials.

Human rights groups, which verified the killings, say such draconian punishments are becoming more commonplace as conservative religious and tribal leaders become emboldened by the Taliban's growing influence and by the weakening grip of the central government. But the reemergence of the rough justice that was a hallmark of the Taliban's five-year rule could also signal a split within the movement's ranks.

As you would expect, this theoretical division among the Taliban leaders center on Islamic law. Thus, we read:

Even as hard-line village mullahs loosely aligned with the Taliban seek a return to the harshest forms of physical punishment permitted under Sharia, or Islamic law, the Taliban leadership has been trying to rally public support by painting itself as a defender of civilian lives.

So these punishments are permitted under Sharia, but are not mandatory. What is the nature of the religious authority that makes these calls? Just a few phrases later, we are told that the "insurgents" had actually issued a "code of conduct" that "discouraged" -- not banned -- these killings of civilians. What does this "code" have to do with the first reference to Sharia?

By the way, all of this represents a high hurdle in Taliban talks with the U.S.-supported Afghan government. But doesn't this government already have its own system of courts that includes a special role for Islamic law and, thus, represents another approach to Sharia? After all, we are told:

For countries contributing troops to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force, such a settlement could set the stage for an exit from what has become an increasingly unpopular war. But the West says, echoed by the government of President Hamid Karzai, that negotiations can take place only with insurgents who promise to renounce violence and respect Afghanistan's Constitution and legal system, which call at least in theory for due process under the law.

What does "at least in theory" mean in this context? That the "due process under the law" has to yield, on some issues, to the reality of Islamic tradition?

A few lines later, we see another level of complexity:

Summary justice, governing everything from land disputes to adultery, was a feature of daily life long before the Taliban rose to power in the 1990s and will probably remain part of the landscape regardless of how long the Western military presence lasts. Even religious leaders who do not consider themselves affiliated with the Taliban often call for a more traditional Islamic system of justice, often with the tacit support of elected officials.

A gathering of senior religious scholars, the Ulema Council, this month called for wider use of Sharia-style penalties for transgressions such as theft and adultery.

In cases of impromptu capital punishment, such as the stonings in Kunduz, those carrying out the violence are almost never tracked down or prosecuted, even if their identities are widely known.

So, this "summary justice" approach does not go as far with applying Sharia as the Taliban, but it includes many of the same kinds of punishments. What is the difference? And the Ulema Council? Does its approach to Sharia represent a stance that is somewhere in between that of the government and the more radical elements of the Taliban?

By all means, keep reading and try to keep all of this straight in your mind. Remember that all of the advocates of these various approaches to crime and punishment would almost certainly argue that they are being faithful to Sharia law and to Islam. It would be hard to imagine a more vivid demonstration of this reality -- that there is no one approach to Islam and to Islamic law.

It's a devastating story that vividly demonstrates this reality, even if the Los Angeles Times editors did not realize that.

Please respect our Commenting Policy