Two Cases Shed Light on Floggings in Muslim World

He recently recounted his punishment in the Daily Mail, saying, "The blows were raining down on my body, from the shoulder blades to the calves, then back up again. But with each blow, the skin softened and the pain grew and grew to the point that my whole back felt like it was on fire. Soon it was unbearable, but they kept coming, mostly on my left shoulder and calf. I had to summon up all my control not to move. I didn't realize the human body could generate and tolerate such pain. I had never felt anything like it before, and I hope I will never feel anything like it again."

Lashing is a common penalty under Wahabi interpretations of sharia law, the Islamic religious laws that underpin the legal systems in Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

For some crimes, the Koran specifies the number of lashes required. But for most crimes, the sentence is at the discretion of the judge hearing the case.

Not everyone agrees that the Koran condones the flogging of women, however.

"There is nothing in the Koran -- that is there is no Koranic justification -- for sentencing the Qatif woman to flogging," said Yvonne Haddad, an Islamic history professor at Georgetown University.

"Flogging has not been used in all places at all times throughout the Islamic world. In the places where it continues to exist it is steeped more in local tradition than Islam. The practice varies from place to place. Pakistan has a flogging law, as does Iran. Most of the Gulf countries, especially those influenced by Wahabiism have flogging," she said.

Human rights advocates question the arbitrary nature of the sentences and the administration of the punishments in public.

On Nov. 5 Saudi Arabia amputated the hand of a convicted thief, Amr Nasr, the first such punishment reported in the kingdom in years.

"Judges have a lot of discretion. One judge may give five lashings, another might give 500," said Curt Goering, the senior deputy director of Amnesty International. "The public nature of the flogging adds to the humiliation and torture," Goering said. "When the woman is accused, the sentence is still often carried out by men. Women sometimes are forced to publicly bear their skin in these very conservative societies."

Polls, however, find that strict interpretations of sharia law and corporal punishment are popular in the Muslim world.

"Sharia law is generally viewed positively by people living in Muslim countries," said Dalia Mogahed of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. "In forming legislation in predominantly Muslim countries, the majority of people want to see sharia as a source of law, and in some countries they want it as the only source."

In Egypt, which is secular, 96 percent of men and women associate justice for women with sharia compliance, Mogahed said.

"The reaction to corporal punishment is mixed," she said, "but when international pressure takes the form of an attack on sacred law rather than specific interpretations, people tend to dig their heels in and take the pressure as an attack on the faith itself. … International pressure is not necessarily bad but has to take on the right tone so it doesn't ignite defenses."

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