Let he that is without sin cast the first stone

Muslim Nigerians had many other options open to them, even under Sharia law, than stoning divorced women to death

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Here we go again. All these la-de-da, soi-disant Abuja lefties resisting the people's call for capital punishment, when poll after poll clearly shows that – were we a genuine democracy – then this appalling adulteress from Katsina state, Amina Lawal Kurami, would right now be getting the stoning she so richly deserves. Instead her case is going up to the High Court in Lagos, and we all know what that load of disastrous do-gooders will decide, don't we?

Thus I imagine the Richard Littlejohn of northern Nigeria, writing in the non-existent Sokoto Sun, and reflecting on the fact that Ms Kurami, found guilty of adultery last March, has still not finally been sentenced to death. Two courts have condemned her (the second one, earlier this week), but a final appeal is still pending and it is likely that Nigeria's highest court will strain every sinew to try to get the sentence commuted.

In any case, Ms Kurami will not be put in a pit, or tied to a tree or a pillar (they haven't quite decided which yet), and then have her head and face stoved in with rocks the size of a man's fist, until her eight-month-old baby is fully weaned. Which is an incentive for breast-feeding well beyond anything that even the Scottish Parliament can devise.

The version of Islamic Sharia law that has been adopted in Amina's part of Nigeria is both more stringent and less demanding than some others. It is more stringent in the sense that the only evidence required of adultery is that a woman has become pregnant outside wedlock (even if she is divorced). It is less demanding in that no eye-witnesses to the actual adultery or – failing that – no confession, are needed. Nor, it seems, is a man necessary; Amina's co-respondent has already been acquitted for lack of evidence. An apologist for Sharia, appearing on BBC Radio 4 this week, pointed out that stoning could – in general – only be carried out where there were indeed four witnesses (a pretty unlikely circumstance) – and that men as well as women could be stoned; a fact which suddenly conjured up Bob Dylan's classic, Everybody's Gotta Get Stoned. Stoning was civilised, he said, because it was God's law, and how could God be less civilised than man? In any case, he pointed out, in the Bible (John, Chapter 8, verses 3-5) Jesus seemed to condone stoning as a policy.

These verses have the Pharisees confronting Jesus with a woman "taken in adultery", pointing out that stoning was the law of Moses and then demanding "what sayest thou?"

Of course, what Jesus sayeth (verse 7) is: "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." This is not a strong Biblical support for capital punishment of any kind.

But actually Muslims are bitterly divided about what is prescribed for adultery. The stoning bit doesn't actually appear in the Koran at all. While we're in the business of quotation we should note that the Koran actually says:

"If any of your women are guilty of lewdness,
take the evidence of four (reliable) witnesses from amongst you against them;
and if they testify, confine them to houses until death do claim
or Allah ordain for them some (other) way."

The problem is that the Prophet himself was a bit of a stoner. But the first adulterer that he treated in this way (a Ma'iz ibn Malik who had illegal sexual intercourse with a slave-girl) had to insist upon being stoned, and then – when he discovered that being stoned was painful – was allowed to run away. He only died because a passer-by threw the bone of a camel's foreleg at him and killed him. At which the Prophet apparently said: "Why did you not leave him alone? Perhaps he might have repented and been forgiven by Allah." Wise words.

The invocation of Judaism was misplaced too. Though it's true that some Jewish law prescribes death for just about everything from murder to eating yams before elevenses, in practice the Jews have argued their way out of almost any judicial killing. There had to be eyewitnesses, each eyewitness would have to be so certain of their testimony that they themselves would have to be willing to carry out the execution, and each would have had to have warned the perpetrator before he committed the act for which he was condemned. In 30AD capital punishment was abolished in Jerusalem. The execution of the Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann, in the Sixties was a considerable departure from Jewish practice.

The Muslim Nigerians had many other options open to them, even under Sharia law, than stoning divorced women to death. They could remain excellent Muslims and not kill Amina at all. So they probably chose this interpretation because they liked it, and rather enjoyed the idea of a good stoning. It's also likely that there is a significant amount of misogyny caught up in all this. As one Muslim scholar has asked, why do homosexual men not get the hard rock treatment, answering, "maybe because in a homosexual act no other man's right over a woman is violated". You betcha.

So what should we enlightened Westerners make of the Amina situation? I mean, we're horrified, of course, but should we intervene? Who is, after all, to say that we are right, and that they are wrong?

Back in 1829, of course, if we encountered a nasty local habit, and we were the colonial masters, we could just stop it. The case last week of ritual suicide by burning (suttee) by a widow in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, recalled that it was Lord Bentinck, Governor General of the East India Company at the time, who criminalised the practice, albeit at the request of Indian reformers. Yet, for many Hindus, a woman who commits suttee becomes a deity. Ironically, the Indian government has brought in the death penalty for anyone abetting suttee. At around the same time as Lord Bentinck was decreeing how Indian widows might not die, having abolished slavery ourselves, we then abolished it for everyone else, and sailed about the world disrupting the much-loved cultural practices of other societies.

Good. Let's do it again, although maybe not in quite the same way. I will certainly put up the first £200 for any campaign or effort to rescue Amina and any other man or woman faced with the death penalty for adultery. And if that means helicopters at dawn, then so be it. History, I am fairly sure, will vindicate our efforts.

But not so fast. What about those other civilised countries that execute their citizens, from China to most states of the US of A, including Arkansas (the state of the last president) and Texas (the state of the current one)? What indeed, about those who call for a return of capital punishment here, even if only – à la Ann Widdecombe – as "an available option"? What about our own majority who (in poll after poll) show that they want the return of judicial murder?

Actually, I don't think they do. It's just nicer for them to be able simultaneously to call for capital punishment and then to criticise liberal élitists for not giving it to them – while having no more Timothy Evanses on their own consciences.

As for the Americans and the Chinese, let's support those campaigning to persuade them to stop murdering their own folks. For Amina's sake.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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