Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani may well face death by stoning for the crime of adultery, as soon as Ramadaan is over. However, while the sentence is reportedly under review, the Islamic Republic of Iran sentenced her to an additional punishment of 99 lashes, because it believes a picture in a British newspaper shows her without her prescribed headgear.
I could hold up photos of the bloodied and bruised victims of such extreme forms of punishment. I could quote harrowing descriptions of the pain and suffering flogging entails. I could show videos of screaming girls, beaten by bearded men who claim to be religious leaders and moral guardians of society. You really don’t want to see them, and I really don’t want to. They make me sick.
If such laws and punishments are what these degenerates consider moral, the civilised world should want no part of what they preach.
All of today’s civilised nations once imposed vicious corporal punishment, often with enough severity to kill a grown man. Some autocrats, ironically, applied the harsh norms of the day in order to modernise their societies. Many more tyrants, however, used cruel means to impose their will, loot the treasury, exploit political fears, put down rebellions, promote racial divisions, extort taxes and labour, or impose religious puritanism on their people.
It is a hallmark of civilisation when states give up rule by terror. It is progress when rulers realise their claim to justice is controverted when they act with barbarity. Free, moral societies act firmly but humanely even against those who violate the rights of others or compromise the interests of the state.
It is also a mark of civilisation to have the moral clarity not to accept barbarity in the affairs of other nations.
Of course, violence, motivated by prejudice, religious zeal, greed or anger, is common. Most governments, however, condemn this kind of violence. Mob justice, vigilantism, religious extremism, terrorism and extra-judicial punishment are crimes in most civilised countries.
Faced with a video of a young girl being flogged for suspected adultery, Pakistan’s chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, called it “a cruel violation of fundamental rights”. President Asif Ali Zardari ordered an inquiry. Jamila Gilani, a political leader in the legislature, added: “We are adamant that peace will not come at the cost of sacrificing the [rights] of women and girls. We will not allow it.”
No state is perfect, but many strive for civilised standards of behaviour and law. Pakistan does. This makes Pakistan civilised in a way that the Taliban, for example, is not.
Like with the Taliban when it was still in power, the difference in Iran is that the barbaric punishments are imposed by the recognised government of the country.
When a government imposes such brutal, medieval laws, instead of fighting against the extremists or vigilantes who might advocate them, that government should become odious to all civilised people. Its overthrow should become a common goal of its own citizens and all civilised nations.
The problem with Iran is not that it claims to be an Islamic Republic. As Khaled Abou El Fadl of the UCLA School of Law notes in an excellent essay, many Islamic jurists have over the centuries preached against inhumanity in war, terrorism against civilians, and extremism in theology. They denounce transgressors of Qu’ranic human rights as muharib: “those who fight society”. The Iranian regime fits that description perfectly.
El Fadl makes the case that Islam and a free, civilised society are not contradictory notions. Many barbaric crimes have been committed in the name of Christianity. That does not make Christianity barbarous, or mutually exclusive with civilised society. The same is true for Islam.
It should also be noted that the use of violent force is not always indefensible or uncivilised. There are certainly cases in which it is justified. It is never civilised, however, to use beatings or torture to obtain revenge, impose religious strictures, extract confessions, or punish minor infractions. Such motives are what makes violence barbaric.
The moral response of the civilised world should be to fight back. When a nation cannot defend itself against its own government, it deserves the help of those who believe all people are entitled to peace, liberty and human rights.
Unfortunately, rights are not natural and inalienable, as the felicitious phrasing of the US Declaration of Independence would have us believe. Human rights are constructed on a foundation of moral convictions, and can easily be infringed and revoked by regimes that do not share civilised values. They need to be fought for, and once won, they need to be vigilantly defended.
But instead of defending the rights of the victims of Iran’s barbaric regime, what does the world do? Elect the misogynist misanthropes to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. I kid you not.
The UN was supposed to promote peace and defend human rights. Instead, it celebrates and rewards the worst offenders. It is a stain on the conscience of humanity.
One never wishes for something as awful as war. If other means are available and likely to be effective, war should always be a last resort. But servitude and suffering are more awful still. If lesser means fail, we should have the moral clarity to support armed force in the fight for civilised human rights, and against barbaric regimes such as that of Iran. We should rally behind efforts to set people free to strive for the peaceful civilisation they would wish for.
The civilised world has had moral clarity on such matters before, when it opposed the fascist barbarism of Nazi Germany, the communist barbarism of the Soviet Union, or the racist barbarism of Apartheid South Africa. Those victories, each won by different means, have made the world a better place, despite the deep wounds inflicted in the struggles.
These days, it seems we prefer to abdicate the moral high ground that we should be defending by all necessary means.
We hide behind weak defences. Government is merely the institutionalised will of society, we argue. Innocents will die, we chide. People are evil, we say with impotent anger. There’s no guarantee of success, we caution. It’s really their own problem, we shrug. There will be reprisals, we warn fearfully. We’ll just replace one bad lot with another, we fret. We have no right to question their culture, we admonish. Our freedom of expression does not extend to advocating war, we write in our Constitutions.
Those are cop-outs. They allow us to luxuriate in moral relativism, and to disclaim responsibility for the barbarism of regimes such as that of Iran. In Edmund Burke’s words, we are good men, doing nothing, and so, evil triumphs.
Of course, we cannot expect to address all the world’s odious regimes at once, nor does each barbaric regime require the same course of action. Some may respond to condemnation or sanctions. Some to internal dissent. Some to the credible threat of force, bolstered by witnessing the overthrow of other uncivilised regimes.
These realities do not give us justification to equivocate, however. Each barbaric regime that is tolerated, and suffered to survive, is a black mark against our own claim to civilisation.
As for Iran, bomb the barbaric lot already. Overthrow the tyrants who impose such perverse notions of justice, faith and morality on their citizens. Support the brave Iranians who fight for the liberation of the civilised people of Iran.
If (or rather, when) an opportunity arrives to help other peoples who suffer and bleed under regimes of medieval barbarity, support those actions too.
And while we’re at it, let’s deal with the UN. It has been reduced to a festering sore on the body of civilisation. It hasn’t merely been impotent, or too cautious to act. It has acted. By those actions, it condoned Iran’s violent abuse of its citizens, and particularly its women. By its actions, therefore, the UN shares moral responsibility with the regime itself for the flogging and stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani. Overthrow it too.
I will never accept that this is just the way the world is. I will never close my eyes to the blood, or block my ears to the screams. I believe that most people are better than this, and that those who are not should expect no quarter from the civilised world.