The martyrdom of an Afghan: New York Times brings clash of law and culture to light

Farkhunda Malikzada actually died last March; a 27-year-old Afghan woman who thought she was standing up for the integrity of Islam when she spoke out against a corrupt fortuneteller at a local shrine. However, someone accused her of desecrating a Quran and a few minutes later, her life was over.

What follows a "Lord of the Flies" style death scene where a mob of some 1,000 men pummel the woman to death, run her body over with a car, then set her on fire.

The New York Times has assembled a 7-minute video of her death along with a lengthy article. It’s not fun viewing but if you can get through a "Game of Thrones" episode, you can get through this. Because you only get glimpses of the woman being killed. What is so chilling are the shouts of “Defend Islam!” and the sight of the police doing nothing as she died.

This is not some Taliban outpost folks. This is Kabul. Although some in the comments section suggest that maybe Kabul is a Taliban outpost. As the article says:

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Farkhunda had one chance to escape the mob that wanted to kill her. Two Afghan police officers pulled her onto the roof of a low shed, above the angry crowd.
But then the enraged men below her picked up poles and planks of wood, and hit at her until she lost her grip and tumbled down.
Her face bloodied, she struggled to stand. Holding her hands to her hair, she looked horrified to find that her attackers had yanked off her black hijab as she fell. The mob closed in, kicking and jumping on her slight frame.
The tormented final hours of Farkhunda Malikzada, a 27-year-old aspiring student of Islam who was accused of burning a Quran in a Muslim shrine, shocked Afghans across the country. That is because many of her killers filmed one another beating her and posted clips of her broken body on social media. Hundreds of other men watched, holding their phones aloft to try to get a glimpse of the violence, but never making a move to intervene. Those standing by included several police officers.
Unlike so many abuses against Afghan women that unfold in private, this killing in March prompted a national outcry. For Farkhunda had not burned a Quran. Instead, an investigation found, she had confronted men who were themselves dishonoring the shrine by trafficking in amulets and, more clandestinely, Viagra and condoms.

The article goes on, depressingly, to talk about how each person who was guilty of inciting the riot or not doing anything to stop (when they had it in their power to do so) was let off by Afghanistan’s sorry excuse for a justice system. After more than a decade of efforts by the U.S. and European countries to train lawyers and install a more Western legal system in the country plus many billions spent, there is very little to show for their efforts.

It’s true that hundreds gathered for her funeral and that in shocking disregard for tradition, women served as pallbearers for the casket. But all those people were not around when Farkhunda needed them most.

The rest of the piece goes into all the legal processes surrounding the murder trial; how some of the people who were detained and charged with killing Farkhunda had no access to legal counsel while others who were plainly seen on the video attacking the hapless women managed to flee town to evade arrest. In the end, the article concludes, most of the parties in the trial had some Western legal training. And they all chose to ignore it. This is a country where the concept of a defense lawyer is quite new. The reporter concludes:

But Afghan and Western observers alike said the efforts had been hobbled by ignorance of Afghan norms and, in some cases, by arrogance. Some trainers tutored Afghans about how to pick jurors, but judges decide cases in Afghanistan. Some also brought young lawyers in to teach older Afghans in a society where age is a symbol of authority and knowledge. The intricacies of law were often literally lost in translation from English to Dari…
Siavash Rahbari, an American lawyer who speaks fluent Dari and works on rule-of-law issues for the Asia Foundation, said the West fundamentally misunderstood Afghanistan’s needs. The experts thought they were helping to rebuild a system in transition from the Taliban period to a more secular one. Rather, Afghans are still trying to determine what kind of system they want. The Afghan system still draws on Islamic law, as well as its own legal code, which has roots in both the German and Egyptian systems.
Defense lawyers and prosecutors study law and political science in college, but almost all judges study theology and Shariah, Islamic law. So when the two meet in a courtroom, they come with completely different frames of reference. Often, they are talking past each other.

That is the religion ghost that’s absent in much of this piece. The people in that mob were completely controlled by their concept of Shariah.

The desecration of a Quran carries with it a death sentence, often carried out by whomever is at hand to supposedly witness it. I'm not saying that mob rule doesn't exist in other countries. It does, but in this particular country, the mob is informed by their religion. And it seemed to me that what's downplayed is this very obvious factor: Where is Islamic law in all of this?

I looked up whether there's any punishment stipulated for burning a Quran but didn't find much other than a note that apostasy deserves a death sentence. Before the Afghan government condemned the attacks, announced the victim's innocence and announced an investigation, there were mosques that exulted over Farkhunda's death. So to blame this mess over the failure of Afghans to inculcate basic values of a a fair trial and the accused being innocent unless proven guilty is part of the story. The part is society's involvement in a religious system, informed by shariah, that isn't able to protect the innocent.

In an earlier Times story on Farkhunda, the reporters say she had some unspecified mental illness that caused her to take risks in criticizing the operators of the shrine. Yet another story said the mental illness part was untrue; the family said that police had forced them to come up with this story earlier as a way to mollify people who might attack Farkhunda's body.

I know that Afghanistan is in a class of its own when it comes to the savage way people treat fellow citizens. This is a country where they behead 9-year-old girls. And in a place like Afghanistan, nothing is totally secular. What reporters can say is the problem might not be that the country doesn't get Western law. Maybe they do get it, but they prefer their version of Islamic law instead.

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