Thursday, 2 April 2015

So you think Sharia is backward ...

Well, let's be clear on this. You are right. Corporal and capital punishment undermines everything that the modern state is supposed to sanction. Full stop. End of story, whatever the context.

But let's also be clear on this: if you are using the more brutal tents of sharia, and statistics about how many Muslims support it to draw some sort of conclusion about the backwards nature of all those people, if you want to paint a picture of beheading hordes baying at the gates of civil society, you are simply mapping your own fantasies.

We like to decry a strand in Islam we like to call "medievalism". But the sorts of practices that allow us to identify this "medieval strand" endured as punishments in western societies and cultures well beyond the Enlightenment.

There are 33 countries on the globe today who still practice some form of formal judicial corporal punishment. The list divides very neatly into two groups - Islamic countries who use mostly whipping as a punishment under some form of sharia, and former British colonies who have continued the judicial practices of their erstwhile overlords.

The reality is that most modern western societies are able to map their own extensive histories of corporal punishment in some cases all the way through to the twenty first century. The reality is that most modern western societies practiced some form of judicial corporal punishment all the way through to the mid-nineteenth century.

And what punishment! When you set sharia's hand-lopping ways against the catalogue of actual punishments meted out by western courts of law, it becomes increasingly difficult to draw any contrast of mindsets, in fact one is left marveling at the Prophet's relatively banal regime.



Take, for instance the punishment of "breaking on the wheel". Practiced at one time or another in France, Germany/Austria (as the Holy Roman Empire), Scotland, Sweden and a small place of little consequence to the modern world - the colonial United States.

The practice involved lashing the poor victim to a wagon wheel and bludgeoning their body at the points BETWEEN the spokes, essentially reducing the individual to a tortured mass of fractured limbs. Specifics of the practice vary by region, but it is hard to find anything more brutal by way of formalised, state-sanctioned horror than the specifics of the punishment as outlined by the Blood Court of Zurich.

The wheel in this instance is used as both bludgeon and cross. Firstly, the court prescribes that the delinquent be placed belly down, bound hands and feet outstretched to a board, and thus dragged by a horse to the place of execution. The wheel is then slammed two times on each arm, one blow above the elbow, the other below. Then, each leg gets the same treatment, both above and below the knee. The final ninth blow is given at the middle of the spine, so that it breaks. Then, the broken body is woven onto the wheel between the spokes, and the wheel is then hammered onto a pole, which is then fastened upright in its other end in the ground. The criminal is then to be left dying "afloat" on the wheel, and left to rot.

Some codes specified varied the punishment by prescribing a coup de grace be performed via a nail hammered into the victim's skull, but there are credible and extensive reports of people surviving the process for up to three surely utterly miserable days.

And where most countries that today prescribe some form of sharia usually mete out their justices in private, throughout western history these punishments have always been massed public spectacles.

So before we leap too desperately to the conclusion that the adherents of any religion which prescribes flogging as a punishment are regressive medievalists, we need to consider how recent our own enlightenment on this matter has been. We need to consider a basic human tendency to cruelty in retribution, the ability of societies to render criminals "non-people", and the instincts of the state in securing adherence through fear. Suddenly it all looks like much less of an easy headline.