Friday, November 30, 2007

Sharia Sleight of Hand

We see masses in Sudan screaming for the execution of the British teacher whose charges named a teddy bear “Muhammad.” We hear that the Saudis sentenced “the girl from Qatif,” who was gang-raped by 7 men, to 6 months in jail and 90 lashes, and then upped the lashings to 200 on appeal. We’re informed that two youths in Iran were imprisoned, lashed 218 times, and then hanged for being gay. We learn that a woman in Iraq and another in Afghanistan were stoned to death in so-called “honor” killings, and that these are not isolated incidents.

Since the Occupation, cable TV periodically spotlights a case involving an incomprehensible punishment for women, and, less often, the gay media report a similar event involving gay men. In both cases, reporters’ contextual analysis is pretty much limited to allegations about the victim’s character or behavior, and to justifiably shocked indictment of Sharia, the Islamic code of law.

To this combustible mix, add our fury at the 9-11 attacks and the tons of toxic waste pumped out about Islam by Far Right talk radio and prominent but ignorant televangelists and White House denizens. The probable result is that most average Americans equate Islam with exactly this kind of thing.

Not. The reality is that Sharia is not a monolithic code of law in the Western sense. It's a complex legal/theological/cultural tradition influenced by the Koran among other things, but by no means synonymous with it.

Furthermore, there are five official varieties of Sharia, and how each is interpreted and applied depends on historical, tribal, political, secular legal, and circumstantial variables, among other things--including who's doing the judging.

Five crimes, known as the Hadd offenses, are mentioned in the Koran as “affronts to God.” They and the crime of apostacy receive the harshest punishments and thus also the western spotlight. These are:

*Wine-drinking and, by extension, alcohol drinking, punishable by flogging
*Unlawful sexual intercourse, punishable by flogging for unmarried offenders and stoning to death for adulterers
*False accusation of unlawful sexual intercourse, punishable by flogging
*Theft, punishable by the amputation of a hand
* Highway robbery, punishable by amputation, or execution if the crime results in a homicide
Experts insist that extreme Hadd punishments are rare and that they are applied under the strictest evidentiary and regulatory conditions. This is fine as far as it goes. However, as in Christian lands, sometimes these punishments are meted out by vigilantees who, by definition, operate beyond official control. That’s what makes them vigilantees.

OK, now factor in international political agendas, village illiteracy and extreme cultural isolation, and the ease with which all people, including us, can be whipped into frenzies of outrage by manipulative religious and secular leaders. (Duh!) Now, possibly, one begins to comprehend some of what we're dealing with confronted with these events and in their reporting, and can approach an estimate what we're not comprehending.

Come to that, I don’t recall ever being informed by cable news of even one of the hundreds of thousands of judgments made daily under even one version of Sharia in even one Islamic country in, say, business or finance, or even one temperate judgment or exoneration made under Sharia in personal law. As a matter of fact, all I know of Sharia is pretty much encapsulated in a misogynistic stoning-amputation-hanging frame. How about you? (Here's another take.)

To wrap it up, I don’t subscribe to the notion that people outside a culture can’t fairly or ought not comment on it. But when they do, in my view, they’re obligated to be as informed as possible about the whole context—religious, traditional, cultural, legal, circumstantial, and political—and to be as critical of their own cultural barbarities and aberrations.

Certainly these hideous practices should be condemned and eliminated immediately. But I'm not holding my breath, and I'm not waiting for us to set the example by cleaning our own act.

Eliminating these practices would be like extracting the keystone from an elaborate arch venerated for eons and relied on for culture-wide social control. That is, whether imposed by illiterate vigilantees or the courts, these “honor” killings and barbaric punishments are all of a piece. They are about male supremacy, an institution there, as here, that is profoundly threatened by liberated women and by liberated homosexuals. That is because the patriarchy depends on rigid sex role assignments for its ideological coherence, and liberated women and Queers who won't oblige them reveal its arbitrariness and motivations.

But critics ought not equate these brutal practices with Islam, as CNN's Jack Cafferty did just this evening. It's demagoguery. It's inadequately informed, inaccurate, and unfair. Doing so should make us feel roughly as we would if most Arabs equated reports of the rail-fence execution of Matthew Shepard with Christianity and American justice. Remember, those American village boys grew up thinking the Bible condemns gay people. It is like Arabs equating lynching with Christianity and American justice. Remember: The Ku Klux Klan was and remains driven by exactly the same priorities now, and is populated by similar kinds of ignorant extremists who, similarly, justified their agenda by reference to their own holy book, and in some villages, is sanctioned implicitly by offician and ecclesiastical silence.

We also ought not overlook the political context, our own and theirs, in which these news reports occur. To its credit, CNN this morning pointed that out with respect to today’s events in Sudan. What we’re seeing there actually is not about the Koran or Sharia, neither of which says anything about naming a teddy bear “Muhammad.” It’s about providing a bunch of illiterate villagers a vulnerable westerner to stand in for Tony Blair and George Bush and be made to pay for real, perceived, and manipulated political humiliations. It’s not about Islam. Ultimately, what's happening in Sudan is about Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, bases in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and George Bush. It's about rage.

It's also about how the White House would like us to think of Islam.

Shoot when you must. But don’t be like Cheney. Aim first.