Horrifying pictures of a couple being executed in Afghanistan shocked millions of viewers this week. Here Muslims in this country explain why they too are sickened by these scenes
THE image is more than 30 years old but its shock value has not diminished one jot. A woman, her face distorted in terror, is being buried up to her chest in preparation for her execution by stoning. It was taken in 1979 in the wake of the Iranian revolution which brought the Ayatollah to power.
This week footage was broadcast on the BBC showing the stoning of a girl of 19 named Siddqa. She was sentenced, along with her 25-year-old lover, after two mullahs declared her guilty of adultery.
The images are grainy and indistinct but no less horrific for that.
They were taken on a mobile phone as Siddqa was executed either last August or last October in the Dashte Archi district of Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan.
Stoning is illegal in Afghanistan but in that part of the country the Taliban hold sway and as their spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said: “Stoning is in the Koran. It is Islamic law.”
The people living in rural Kunduz are neither learned nor sophisticated – many are probably illiterate – but to say that such a repulsive act as the stoning of a young woman and man for the sin of having an illicit relationship could only happen in such a backward place is too simplistic.
The Taliban, the extreme fundamentalist branch of Islam which adheres to the strictest possible interpretation of the Muslim faith, recognises only Sharia or Islamic law, not secular law. However the extremists have their following in Britain too among the 1.6 million Muslims who live here (many of whom were born and brought up in this country) and it is their avowed wish to see Britain subjected to Sharia law.
But if that were to happen are the Muslims of Britain prepared to accept scenes such as the stoning of Siddqa in this country?
The question is not a fanciful one. If Sharia law were to become accepted in Britain it follows that the Sharia definition of crimes and misdemeanours would have to be accepted as would the Sharia prescription for the punishment of those crimes.
The ultimate conclusion of such a situation is that killing people by pelting them with rocks would have to be regarded an acceptable penalty for adultery.
Is this really what British Muslims want? Are they prepared to go that far? As one would expect of any person of his generation brought up in a liberal society Usama Hasan, 39, finds the images of the stoning horrifying and deeply disturbing. He also understands better than most about the poison that is spread by intolerance.
Born and brought up in North London, he has a physics degree from Cambridge and is a senior lecturer at Middlesex University. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and before entering academia he spent six years in industry, working in the field of artificial intelligence. He is a father of four and an avid Arsenal fan. He is also imam at the al-Tawhid mosque in Leyton, East London.
In a talk last weekend he tried to explain why acceptance of evolution is not incompatible with being a Muslim. It was a struggle. A video clip of the proceedings posted on YouTube shows him being shouted down during his address. At one point, someone is clearly heard calling for his execution. Since then he has received death threats and leaflets calling for his execution have been distributed among his congregation.
The question of what 21st century Muslims believe hinges on the interpretation of Sharia law. But there are some indisputable specifics. Imam Hasan says: “The Koran does speak of chopping off the hands of thieves as a punishment. Flogging is mentioned as a punishment for fornication – that is sex between unmarried people.
“The death penalty is both the punishment for murder and a deterrent; it stops the murderer killing more people and discourages others from killing. ‘There is life in this retribution’ is how the Koran phrases it. The method of execution is left open. What is not mentioned in the Koran at all is that stoning is the punishment for adultery.”
Sharia law has existed for 14 centuries but unlike Western law, it is not – and never has been – codified.
G haffar Hussain, the head of outreach and training at the Quilliam Foundation, the counter-terrorism think tank, says: “It is a mistake to think of Sharia law as something written down like a statute or penal code. It is a set of principles which can be modified according to the context of an evolving society.
“The Ottoman empire actually repealed a whole set of laws relating to punishment in the mid-19th century on the grounds that they were neither applicable nor appropriate.
“The most extreme interpretation of Sharia law is actually only practised by very few countries – Somalia, Afghanistan, possibly Saudi Arabia, and it’s very often fuelled by vindictiveness and petty tribal politics. You won’t find such thinking in Egypt or Morocco.”
Nonetheless such thinking is to be found in Britain according to Hasan. “A lot of people will say Sharia law should only apply in Muslim countries and Britain isn’t one. But press them further and they will admit that they actually agree with the principle of Sharia law in its most fundamentalist form. They just defer their answer. And if you try and put another view they call you a heretic.”
H ussain believes that there are fewer than 200 true “fanatics” in Britain and says even their extremism can often come down to pure posturing.
“It’s cool to be radical and the most extreme have the loudest voices,” he says. “Most are self- publicists, indulging their frustration and self-victimisation. If it came down to it they could not handle the reality of a country that was hardline Muslim. It is one thing to have Sharia courts deciding issues of divorce or inheritance, it’s quite another to pass a sentence of stoning or chopping a hand off. The fact is Muslims in Britain enjoy the liberties of this country. If they hate it that much, why would they continue to live here?”
Barbarity is not a Muslim monopoly of course and nor is stoning, which was used during the time of the early Christians. Time and again Muslims also make the comparison between Islam today and Christianity during the Middle Ages when hangings and beheadings drew crowds every bit as malevolent as the stone throwers at Siddqa’s execution. And before we preen ourselves too much, the last public hanging in Britain took place in 1868 – less than 150 years ago.
“Islam is at the stage Christianity was at 600 or 700 years ago,” explains Ghaffar Hussain. “The West went through the Enlightenment but it didn’t take so well in the Islamic world.”
Usama Hasan agrees that “the nutters are out there” and in greater numbers than a tiny minority of 200. But are their numbers growing?
“I hope not. I believe not,” he says. “I think reformers such as myself are reaching out to a young generation who understand about putting Islamic law into context, who agree there is a need to have a proper debate throughout the Islamic world.
“I might be getting death threats but I and others like me have a lot of support too.”