Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

Q&A: ‘Divinely Ordained Law Makes Abolition More Difficult’

Abderrahim El Ouali interviews MARYAM NAMAZIE of Equal Rights Now

CASABLANCA, Dec 2 2008 (IPS) - Political Islam is the main barrier to abolishing the death penalty in most countries where it is still practised, says Maryam Namazie.

Maryam Namazie Credit: Petra Adick

Maryam Namazie Credit: Petra Adick

Weaken this, and the struggle for abolition will be won as it has been in many countries.

Maryam Namazie, of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and Equal Rights Now – Organisation against Women’s Discrimination in Iran, adds that the majority in countries under Islamic rule already oppose political Islam and only need to be supported.

IPS: Your organisation campaigns for the separation of religion and state. In Muslim countries, is it religion, more than anything else that prevents the abolition of the death penalty? Maryam Namazie: The death penalty exists in quite a large number of countries and is a form of social control still exercised by states, not all of them ruled by Islamic laws (I wouldn’t call them Muslim countries any more than I would call Britain and France Christian ones). The U.S. and China are good examples of this.

However, the majority of countries where executions are taking place are ruled by sharia law and there is a direct association between Islam and executions. Iran, for example, has the highest number of juveniles on death row. Of course, Islam is fundamentally no different from other religions in that death is prescribed for a large number of transgressions in all of them; however, because it is linked to a political movement with state power in many instances, the medievalism of religious rule becomes the law of the land.

So in Iran, for example, stoning is a legally sanctioned form of execution with the law even specifying the size of the stone to be used in killing someone. Clearly, when the law and in many instances the state is divinely ordained, abolishing the death penalty becomes all the more difficult.

Let me add though, that in many of these countries there is a huge movement against the death penalty, which is hardly visible given the repressive nature of Islamic states, but news of such resistance sometimes manages to reach us. For example, the people’s intervention in the stoning of Zoleykhah Kadkhoda in Iran in 1997 comes to mind, as does the attempt to stop a recent stoning in Somalia which resulted in the death of a child when the Islamic militia fired into the crowd.

IPS: Was this the reason you chose October 10 for your London conference, Political Islam, Sharia Law and Civil Society? MN: Yes. We chose October 10, the World Day against the Death Penalty, because the death penalty is one of the main tools in the hands of states – and Islamic states in particular – to suppress the general population. Any transgressions and criticism quickly become linked to blasphemy or apostasy, given the religious nature of the governments. Many of us are labelled apostates and blasphemers for criticising and renouncing Islam, opposing the political Islamic movement and defending people’s rights and lives and free expression.

IPS: Is the enforcement of sharia law the main problem in your eyes? MN: I think political Islam is the main problem and sharia law is a means at the hands of this reactionary political movement. A Christianity that has been reined in, for example by enlightenment, is very different to one that burned witches at the stake and held inquisitions. If we defeat and weaken political Islam, Islam and Islamic laws become very different matters. Without state and political power, inhuman and medieval punishments will be relegated to the dustbins of history.

IPS: But some Muslim scholars say that sharia law is being misinterpreted when it is used to justify the death penalty. What is your response to this? MN: I think that sharia law is so vile that some believers must distance themselves from it in order to sleep well at night and keep appearances up. In reality, though, this argument is manufactured to pacify criticism of sharia law and Islam and is generated for the consumption of the people of the west. I have never seen these scholars line up to condemn and campaign against a stoning or amputation. I haven’t seen them line up to defend the likes of sweet 16-year-old Atefeh Rajabi hung from a city square in Iran for “acts incompatible with chastity”. The job of these people is to convince us that this is not true Islam.

Scholars can interpret as they like or make excuses as they see fit. The only way, though, things can change and the death penalty can be abolished under sharia law is to get rid of it. People everywhere need and deserve to live under secular laws with universal rights. Sharia law doesn’t belong in this century – full stop.

IPS: Just recently, there was news of a woman stoned to death in southern Somalia after being sentenced to death for adultery by an Islamic court. How can you stop this happening? MN: One important way in which this can be done is to publicise these cases; after all, how can any decent person not be moved to action and opposition if they know about it? It’s important to raise the alarm before it happens, though – and that is only possible if rights activists find out about it as many times execution dates are unreported. Then there is a real possibility of putting enough pressure to stop it.

A recent case in point is the release of Nazanin Fatehi from the Islamic regime of Iran’s death row. Another way is to show solidarity with the people of those countries that are suffering under and resisting the political Islamic movement. I think, ultimately, the way to stop this is to oppose the political Islamic movement. Imagine when the Islamic Republic of Iran, as a pillar of the political Islamic movement, is overthrown by a people’s movement that is strongly secular, left and humanist; this will have important repercussions across the world. Then you would quickly see the demise of this movement.

IPS: Do you think that as the number of organisations grows, perhaps also in Muslim countries, and also your membership, you can play an important role in bringing an end to the death penalty throughout the Muslim world? MN: I think there is already a majority who opposes political Islam and the death penalty. This not-very-silent majority in many instances has to be further mobilised and strengthened. The more mobilised we are, the more pressure we can exert. There have been many examples of people saved as a result of public pressure. But for everyone saved, there are so many more killed under cover of darkness and in prisons, under torture, and buried in mass graves.

To address this, you have to end sharia law; it is a political battle, which in a sense is being primarily played out in Iran. In the end, stopping political Islamic strongholds will have a huge impact on the movement against the death penalty. As the late Marxist thinker, Mansoor Hekmat has said, getting rid of states that execute is like getting rid of hundreds of serial killers all at once. No small feat in and of itself.

He adds: “The demand to end capital punishment and prohibit murder stems from opposition to intentional, deliberate and planned murder of one by the other. That a state or ruling political force is responsible does not make the slightest difference to the fact that we are dealing with intentional murder. Capital punishment is the most deplorable and appalling form of intentional murder since a political authority, publicly, with prior notice, on behalf of society, with the utmost legitimacy and ruthlessness, decides to murder someone, and announces the date and time of the event.”

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