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Monday, December 11, 2023
Interview with Mustapha Bouhandi, professor of comparative religion
CASABLANCA, Sep 29 2007 (IPS) - Many in the Arab world find support for the death penalty in the Quran. But this is a false reading of the texts, says Mustapha Bouhandi, professor of comparative religion at Hassan II university in Casablanca.
IPS: The world is moving towards total abolition of the death penalty. But still the death penalty is in place throughout the Arab world. Is this because of religion or politics?
MUSTAPHA BOUHANDI: In Arab countries the death penalty is retained by regimes which do not want to loose their most important instrument of repression. Most do not derive legitimacy from the ballot box. They believe that any kind of opposition which enjoys popular support is a threat. The death penalty is for them an effective means to eliminate opposition leaders, or at least to intimidate and curb them.
Often these opponents are liquidated without trial, even without that their families ever hearing of their execution or being able to arrange a funeral for them.
Where there are trials, justice in the Arab world does not enjoy a good reputation. It depends on the wishes of the ruling powers. Every death sentence, even in non-political cases, is politically influenced.
So, I would say religion has nothing to do with the application of the death penalty in the Arab world.
IPS: But isn't it a widely held view that to oppose the death penalty is to go against Islam and the Quran?
MUSTAPHA BOUHANDI: Many still believe that the death penalty is closely linked to religion because of the political abuse of religion to justify killings in the past history of Islam.
Today many scholars often use the same arguments and the same religious texts as they did in the past to defend the behaviour of a king, minister or judge who orders killings that are forbidden by God.
There are also those at Friday prayers or lessons, in books and in the markets of the Islamic communities who incite ignorant people and rulers to execute opponents.
I think that a large part of what is attributed to religion regarding the application of the death penalty is not true.
IPS: What religious arguments would you give to those who say 'to abolish the death penalty would be to go against God's law'?
MUSTAPHA BOUHANDI: God's law, Shariah, is expressed in the basic commandments found in all monotheistic religions. The main commandment is not to kill. The death penalty is a punishment hindering killings by the fear of being killed. But if a killing is prevented without recourse to a killing, then God's law not to kill is, indeed, being followed.
IPS: But don't most Muslim religious scholars agree that there are four cases where the death penalty applies, even though in some countries the number rises to 865?
MUSTAPHA BOUHANDI: Let me disagree with you that in Islam there are four cases for the death penalty. This is wrongly attributed to Islam and I could give you very detailed proof.
As I have said, in most cases we have states seeking legitimacy in their interpretation of our Islamic religious heritage. These are states that lack popular, democratic support. I think that it is time to denounce this exploitation of religion by the usurpers of power in the Muslim world. The death penalty could be easily abolished by a re-reading the very texts used by the death penalty advocates.
IPS: We've seen in Morocco the beginning of a debate on the death penalty. Is this what is essential for there ever to be the abolition of the death penalty in Arab countries?
MUSTAPHA BOUHANDI: Yes, we need real debate on this subject. We need to distinguish between the death penalty, which has no basis in religion or reason and is largely a pretext for oppression in Arab and Islamic countries, and the death penalty as a deterrent. We need a debate about the deterrence alternatives.
IPS: There is a currently a death penalty moratorium in Morocco. Should activists first set their sights on extending this regionally?
MUSTAPHA BOUHANDI: I really do not think that this penalty can be abolished at this time in light of the current organised international crime now being conducted against the Arab and Muslim community. We are witnessing the barbaric behaviour of many powers employing the latest in sophisticated arms, aircraft and missiles to implement the ultimate punishment against entire populations of villages, towns and tents. Those who wish to abolish the death penalty from their criminal codes should first address the international powers causing most of this existing violence on earth.
I also believe that we cannot talk about the abolition of the death penalty in light of a global culture that is invading homes all over the world with films of violence, war and murder. This is a culture holding as supreme the reaching of solutions by destructive military force. This criminal culture is devastating our values of compassion, nobility and humanity. Without a restoration of these values, we cannot hope to convince people to support death penalty abolition.
IPS: But did we not see a revulsion throughout the Muslim world over the recent execution, particularly the manner of the execution, of Saddam Hussain. Would this not suggest that many people in the Arab world would support a regional moratorium?
MUSTAPHA BOUHANDI: I think there was this expression of anger because the execution was seen as an insult to the Arab and Islamic world. Still, in the Arab and Islamic world, just as in the western world, we do not respect the value of human life, quite separately from religious, sectarian, and political considerations which are dividing the world into groups fighting against each other. When human life becomes a real value in itself regardless of ethnicity, then we can talk about the suspending or abolishing the death penalty.
IPS: But still recently there has been much talk that Morocco might be the first Arab country to abolish the death penalty. If this happened, might this not have a snowball effect throughout the Arab world?
MUSTAPHA BOUHANDI: Arab countries have always influenced each other in keeping in step with international trends. Whether Morocco will be the first to abolish the death penalty or some other Arab country, I really do believe that eventually there will be global abolition of this punishment. But, as I have said, there are some global cultures moving in an opposite direction to this, slowing down the realisation of this goal. People should understand the extent of these international influences on the domestic scene and work to bring about a reforming influence.
IPS: What alternative punishments does Islam envisage for the gravest of all crimes?
MUSTAPHA BOUHANDI: The alternative punishments are imprisonment, repentance to the relatives of the victim and reform acceptable to the community.
The Qur'an says: "The penalty for those fighting against God and His Messenger is that they would be killed or crucified, or their hands and legs cut off, or exiled."
Scholars have talked too much about this verse. Some have interpreted it as meaning that those who have killed should be killed, those who have amputated should be amputated, and those who have just helped criminals should be exiled. Other scholars have stated that all the best-suited punishment options are open to an authority.
I believe the punishment options are linked to cultural, social norms and legal rules. The verse does not sanction the death penalty, or amputation. There are other punishments that are best suited, especially if these provide deterrence on one hand and mitigation and mercy on the other.
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