In a widely publicized incident this week a man and a woman in Afghanistan were stoned to death for adultery at the orders of a Taliban commander. While this incident has been promoted in the media as an example of the problems with Sharia law, what has largely been overlooked is that this level of punishment for adultery is not actually common under Sharia law nor is it authorized by the Q’ran.
In this instance as in many of their other extreme religious views, the Taliban and other groups like the Wahabi and Salafi sects go far beyond the punishments described in the Q’ran in how they punish certain social sins and especially in how they treat women, who are accorded some very clear protections in the Q’ran which these groups routinely ignore.
The specific guidelines for adulterous women in Sura 4-15 of the Q’ran are that they must be accused by four witnesses, which does not seem to have happened in this case, and that the punishment is that the woman should be quarantined in her home until she is no longer adulterous. The Q’ran is quite liberal about marriage and divorce and the solution which it specifies is for the woman to get married. In this case the proper application of the law would have been for the man involved to either divorce his wife which Islamic law allows him to do very easily and marry the unmarried woman he had an affair with, or take her on as a second wife because the Q’ran allows each man to have up to four wives.
However, in Sura 24-2 a more rigorous punishment for adultery is outlined in which both parties are to be given 100 lashes. While that might well be fatal, some scholars suggest that the lashes are to be more symbolic than real and it still isn’t as bad as stoning. This Sura also echoes Sura 4 in emphasizing that true repentance should exempt someone from punishment.
This practice of singling women out for extreme punishment seems to be a product of the internal culture of the more radical Islamic sects, and it is a political strategy and clearly not religiously inspired or approved. They discourage literacy and the actual reading of the Q’ran and teach doctrines which are more political in character than truly religious. They have specifically targeted countries like Afghanistan and Iran which have long histories of treating women with relative equality and have worked to radicalize the population in a way which does not fit with the teachings of the Q’ran on issues of personal morality or the cultural traditions of the tribal societies of the region.
If there is anything heartening about human rights abuses of this sort, it is that while they may intimidate, they are clearly not popular with the general population in Afghanistan or other parts of the Muslim world. When extremists like the Taliban impose this kind of perversion of Islamic law on the population it builds resentment and drives a wedge between them and the population. The intent is to terrorize the population into obedience, but that kind of strategy often backfires. Reports suggest that in this case it was mostly Taliban soldiers who participated in the stoning while forcing reluctant locals to observe.
It’s important to remember that in the war for the hearts and minds of the people of Muslim countries we are not the only ones sending a message by our actions, and that the fear and intimidation preferred by our opponents may not be the most effective long-term strategy.