The Muslim conscience demands a halt to stonings and executions
The application of the Islamic penal code – known by the widely misunderstood term sharia – in Muslim societies is one of the most controversial subjects in the dialogue between the west and the Muslim world. The imposition of corporal punishment, stoning and execution in the name of religious texts on an entire society cannot be accepted. We must condemn such repressive applications, which are carried out without due legal process.
The Islamic world, for its part, sends contradictory messages: strong condemnations of such punishments are made by a minority of intellectuals, prominent figures and Muslim activists, while some governments try to legitimise their Islamic character by applying repressive interpretations of religious texts and sources. An important discussion on sharia is taking place in the Muslim world, but a fruitful debate has yet to materialise.
Muslim populations from Nigeria to Malaysia claim to strictly apply the sharia and yet the majority of ulama (Muslim scholars) insist that these penalties “are almost never applicable” because of the difficulty of establishing the necessary conditions. But they avoid expressing themselves clearly so as not to lose credibility with the masses.
The debate has become a case study in relations between civilisations and cultures. Should one call on the entire Muslim world to condemn these practices? Is it not possible to stipulate universal values where basic respect for human dignity is non-negotiable, while recognising the diversity and specificity of religious, cultural and historical references?
A proposal for a moratorium on corporal punishment, stoning and the death penalty generates opposition from all sides. Voices from the west assert: “This is unacceptable, is not enough!” While the Muslim world exclaims: “This is unacceptable, it is a betrayal of our sacred texts.”
The call for a moratorium is necessarily addressed to the Muslim world from within its own terms of reference. We are convinced that an evolution in mentality is only possible on the basis of an internal social dynamic. Today, in the name of Islamic principles, we are launching a call for an immediate moratorium in the Muslim world.
We argue that, first, the ulama are not in agreement on the interpretation or authenticity of texts referring to such injunctions, nor on the political and social contexts in which they would be applicable. Second, the application of the sharia today is used by repressive powers to abuse women, the poor and political opponents within a quasi-legal vacuum. Muslim conscience cannot accept this injustice.
Third, Muslim populations, without direct access to many of the relevant texts, tend to believe that devotion to Islam requires a strict and visible display of punishment, partly an opposition to “the west”. It is necessary to resist such a formalistic drift.
The ulama and socially engaged Muslims recognise that an internal debate is necessary and injustices carried out under a religious guise are unacceptable. The call for a moratorium has a double advantage: it would mean the immediate suspension of these practices in the name of justice in Islam and a beginning of a process of reflection on how to apply the sharia today.
Evolution of thinking cannot occur without this debate. It would allow the Muslim universe of thought to reconcile itself with the essence of its message of justice, equality and pluralism, rather than being obsessed by the formalistic application of severe punishments in the name of frustration or feelings of alienation perpetuated by the domination of the west. It is necessary to open the debate and reply with the Islamic imperative of ijtihad (critical exegesis of religious texts).
The unilateral condemnations one hears in the west will not help to move things along. On the contrary, Muslim populations are convincing themselves of the Islamic character of these practices through a rejection of the west, on the basis of a simplistic reasoning that stipulates that “the less western, the more Islamic”. It is necessary to escape this perversion.
Meanwhile, western governments and intellectuals have a responsibility to allow the Muslim world to involve itself calmly in this debate within Islam: the claim to universality in the west cannot be to the detriment of understanding the cultural and religious references of “the other”, the logic of his thought system and the path that leads to a common universal understanding.
On the political level, it is imperative that the selective denunciations stop: whether it is a poor or rich country, an ally or an enemy. The rejection of injustice must be made without concession. In the end, the paths that lead to dialogue and encounters demand a readiness to question one’s own certainty.
* This article first published in The Guardian on 30 March 2005. Tariq Ramadan is a Muslim academic. His books include Western Muslims and the Future of Islam.