Syrian Cinema; American Soldiers and Torture

Qifa Nabki has published an interview with me that is generating some discussion: Syrian-Israeli Peace: A Conversation With Joshua Landis

Here are two cultural stories of interest:

Syrian Cinema: Thumbing Its Nose at the Censor
Susanne Schanda, editing by Lewis Gropp/

Politically explosive films and television series from Syria are storming the Arab market. Now the film “The Long Night” – the first Syrian feature film to highlight the fate of political prisoners – has become ensnared in the censorship process. It is nevertheless reaching its audience via satellite television – even in Syria. Susanne Schanda reports that although the censors were full of praise for “The Long Night”, they passed it on to a higher authority for consideration.

"Then suddenly he's out on the street": "The Long Night" deals with members of the released prisoner's family, who have come to an arrangement with the regime and made their compromises. The film by Haitham Hakki, one of Syria's best-known filmmakers, does not focus on prison conditions or the arbitrary nature of detentions. It deals instead with members of the released prisoner's family. The unexpected release of Karim throws their lives into confusion, and triggers recriminations and feelings of remorse. ...Companies run by Saudis are the most liberal in the Arab world. "Those who invest large amounts of money want to see profit, and ideological questions are of secondary importance," he says soberly.


"The censors can't shut down the universe": Syrian scriptwriter and filmmaker Haitham Hakki

Four men in blue prison gear with unkempt grey hair and stubble sit in their cell drinking tea. The light is crepuscular, the plaster is peeling off the walls. They have been behind bars for 20 years for criticising the regime. Karim is the oldest, he stays lying down on his metal bed and has his tea brought to him. He is resigned to his fate. Then the heavy iron door swings open, and out of all the men it is Karim who is ordered to pack his things and go with the guards. He is being released.

The opening scenes of “The Long Night” are almost wordless, and there is no music to break the silence. We watch as Karim washes himself, as the guards shave him and cut his hair. Then suddenly he’s out on the street, in a shirt and suit, a leather bag in his hand – he sniffs the air, and takes in his surroundings with amazement.

The film by Haitham Hakki, one of Syria’s best-known filmmakers, does not focus on prison conditions or the arbitrary nature of detentions. It deals instead with members of the released prisoner’s family, who have come to an arrangement with the regime and made their compromises. The unexpected release of Karim throws their lives into confusion, and triggers recriminations and feelings of remorse.

“I am concerned with the human drama, the film does not operate with political slogans,” says Haitham Hakki in an interview with in Damascus. He wrote the screenplay himself. Once this was approved by the censors, the film could be made in Syria with Syrian actors, under the supervision of star director Hatem Ali.

But the film required further authorisation before it could go on general release in Syrian cinemas. “The censors were full of praise for the film, but because of the sensitive political subject they passed it on to a higher authority for consideration. That was about six months ago. I’ve heard nothing since,” says the author…..( Read the rest)

Interview with Hakki:

The quality of the Syrian productions is by far superior to those of other Arab countries. How did Syria, of all places, reach that level?

Hakki: Right from the start, our aim was to make TV series with the quality of films. So we began to shoot with one mobile instead of three fixed cameras and went outside of the studios to real locations. Also, we let the actors speak the Syrian dialect. Before that everything had been spoken in modern standard Arabic, but using dialect sounds much more natural and makes the series more realistic. Today, the television industry in Egypt hires Syrian directors and actors to help improve the quality there.

How would you evaluate the economic importance of TV series in Syria?

Hakki: Today, TV series are the second biggest industry in Syria right after the oil industry. In the whole Middle East, only Egypt produces more than us, 3000 hours of series a year. Syria produces 1500 hours – that is equivalent to 50 TV dramas. Each one of them has 30 episodes so that they can be shown during Ramadan. There must be one episode for every day of the month of fasting…..

None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture
Joshua E. S. Phillips (Phillips book is excellent and has several scenes in Syria, where Phillips interviewed Iraq refugees and played hide and seek with the mukhabarat, who thought he was up to no good and eventually chased him out of the country.) Here is the Amazon blurb about the book.

The legacy of torture in the “War on Terror,” told through the story of one tank battalion. “A lot of people look at Adam Gray’s story and say people who commit suicide are cowards or they don’t have, in the army lingo, ‘intestinal fortitude,’ ‘the hoorah’ or whatever. It’s exactly the opposite. Adam was the most gung-ho soldier I ever met in my entire life—the first guy to kick down a door. [But] I think he hated who he was when he was there. And I think he couldn’t deal with what he had done. And I still have trouble with that. It haunts me every day, and it’s something I’ll never get away from.”—Jonathan Millantz, served with Adam Gray in Battalion 1-68 in Iraq. On April 3, 2009, Jonathan Millantz took his own life.

Sergeant Adam Gray made it home from a year’s tour in Iraq only to die in his barracks. For more than three years, reporter Joshua Phillips—with the support of Adam’s mother and the cooperation of his Army buddies—investigated Adam’s death. What Phillips uncovered was a story of American veterans psychologically scarred by the abuse they had meted out to Iraqi prisoners. How did US forces turn to torture? Phillips’s narrative recounts the journey of a tank battalion— trained for conventional combat—as its focus switches to guerrilla war and prisoner detention. It tells of how a group of ordinary soldiers, ill trained for the responsibilities foisted upon them, descended into the degradations of abuse. The location is far from CIA prisons and Guantánamo, but the story captures the widespread use and nature of torture in the US armed forces. Based on firsthand reporting from Jordan, Syria and Afghanistan, as well as interviews with soldiers, their families and friends, military officials, and the victims of torture, None of Us Were Like This Before reveals how soldiers, senior officials, and the US public came to believe that torture was both effective and necessary. The book illustrates that the damaging legacy of torture is not only borne by the detainees, but also by American soldiers and the country to which they’ve returned.

A Reader Review: “This book is engaging and affecting from the first to last page. The book is not dry policy discussion, overly graphic, or accusatory in tone. Phillips focuses instead on the personal stories of U.S. soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. His empathy for those he profiles shines through the pages. Phillips does not offer simple answers to why torture happens, but instead explores the many influences — personal, governmental, and cultural — that lead to it and to the tragedies it produces both for the tortured and the torturer. “

Also of note considering the ongoing debate over the legacy of Fadlallah is this excellent article.

The Sheikh Who Got Away Foreign Policy

How the United States got Lebanon’s leading Shiite cleric dead wrong — and missed a chance to change the Middle East forever. ….


Following the end of the Lebanese civil war, Fadlallah became more circumspect about justifying attacks on Western targets. Along with Hezbollah and Iran, Fadlallah condemned the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as incompatible with Islamic law. The attackers, he said, were not martyrs but “merely suicides.” He attributed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s motivations for carrying out the attacks to “personal psychological needs” stemming from a “tribal urge for revenge.” He also denounced the July 7, 2005, attacks in London as “a kind of barbarism that Islam unequivocally rejects.”

As Fadlallah grew in stature throughout the Arab world and also seized the attention of many in Washington, the competing portrayals of him quickly failed to bear even a passing resemblance to each other. For the U.S. government, he was an unrepentant terrorist who played an integral role in Hezbollah’s most vicious operations. To the mourners in Beirut, he was a fierce critic of colonialism and an important pioneer in efforts to reconcile traditional religious teaching with modernity and gender equality.

There was an element of truth to the U.S. stance: Fadlallah was certainly no liberal, nor an ally to be recruited to advance U.S. security goals. However, even a quarter-century after that misguided assassination attempt, U.S. officials failed to appreciate the areas where their interests and Fadlallah’s overlapped, both in isolating Iran and reducing the appeal of fundamentalism within Lebanon. The United States always preferred blunt instruments and simple epithets — crude tools indeed for a complex man.

Here is a good article by Tony Badran on Fadlallah. Not too often that I like Tony’s work.

The death of a marja
Lebanon Now, by Tony Badran
The passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah marks the end of an era for Lebanese Shiism. Who will attempt to fill his shoes as the leading marja remains to be seen, though it is safe to assume Iran, which never recognized his status, will try to fill the vacuum….

Michael Young explains why Fadlallah was not a liberal in Lebanon Now.

Comments (5)

Jad said:

Thank you Dr. Landis for the Syrian Cinema link.

Unrelated but excelent and smart article by Oubai Hasan, long but worth reading:

ياسين الحاج صالح: نقطة نظام! 1من2

أبيّ حسن- كلنا شركاء
09/ 07/ 2010
((توفرت شبكة الإنترنت على ما لا يحصى من نسخ شعبية لهذه الأطروحة. لكن من أكثرها إثارة كتاب أُبي حسن: هويتي.. من أكون؟ في الطائفية والاثنية السوريتين. الطبعة الأولى, دار بيسان, بيروت 2008(الصواب 2009, التصويب مني: أُبي). والكتاب وثيقة سوسيولوجية ثمينة جداً لكاتب شاب, يصرح بأنه “علوي” ينحدر من “طائفة” قدمت له منجزات ومكاسب اجتماعية وحضارية على طبق من ذهب” فبات يخشى من فقدان “تلك المكاسب في ظل التمدد الوهابي ضمن سوريا”. ص 156. وكذلك 226.)) هذا بعض ما أتى في هامش الصفحة 25 من مجلة “كلمن”, العدد صفر, الصادر منذ قرابة الشهرين في بيروت.
ويضيف الكاتب –ياسين الحاج صالح- هامشاً آخر في الصفحة ذاتها, يذكر فيه ما نصّه حرفاً: ((يقول أ. حسن في المصدر السابق إن “سوريا ليست أسيرة نظام نشكو منه ولا حتى عائلة نحملها وزر ما يجري(كما يحلو للبعض التشدق), قدر ما هي أسيرة تلك الثقافة الكسيحة المريضة. وان النظام الذي طالما قارعناه بأقلامنا ليس سوى نتاج طبيعي لتلك الثقافة”. ويضيف: “ولأنه كذلك –أي النظام- فإنه لا يستطيع فعل شيء إزاءها سوى المناورة تارة, والحوار تارة أخرى, والمهادنة قدر الإمكان, وعندما يضيق ذرعاً, تكون المجابهة التي عادة ما تفضي بأحدنا إلى السجن بتهم هي في الأساس نتاج ثقافتنا, وليس النظام هنا سوى معبر أمين عن تلك الثقافة الكائنة في أعماقنا ووجداننا” ص225. (التشديد مني, ياسين). على أن الكاتب اجتهد في كل صفحات كتابه تقريباً في نسبة “الثقافة الكسيحة المريضة” تلك إلى الإسلام السني.)).
بداية أشكر الكاتب المتميز ياسين الحاج صالح لاهتمامه بكتابي آنف الذكر, في مقالته المهمة والمعنونة بـ«مذاهب المفكرين السوريين في “الدولة العربية”: تفحص نقدي», وشكري له, واعتزازي به ككاتب سوري مرموق, لا يمنعاني من الدخول في سجال معه حول ما اقتبسه من كتابي “هويتي.. من أكون؟”, متسائلاً عن السبب الذي دفع بياسين على الاقتباس وفق الطريقة الشهيرة “لا تقربوا الصلاة”؟ ترى هل كان ينقصه حسن النيّة؟ طبعاً, لا مجال هنا لمناقشة حسن النوايا من عدمها, وإن كنتُ على الصعيد الشخصي قد تعلمتُ –من جملة ما تعلمتُ- في “مدرسة المُعارضة والمُعارضين” عندما كنتُ أسير في ركابها, سوء النيّة في الآخرين, ابتداء من رفاقي في المُعارضة (1), وانتهاء بالنظام الذي (كان) من المهم جداً أن تجده “شريراً بالمطلق” حتى ولو رأيت ايجابيات له, كي تحظى برضا المعارضة!.
لا أدري لماذا لم يميّز ياسين بين معنى الفعل “أنحدر” الذي استخدمته إبّان حديثي عن الطائفة التي أنحدر منها, وبين الفعل “أنتمي” الذي لم أستخدمه قصداً, وإن استخدمته(أو أحد اشتقاقاته اللغوية) ففي معرض الحديث عن انتمائي إلى سوريّا ص229(وهذا ما لم يره ياسين), وشتان ما بين الفعلين من معنى! وأياً يكن الأمر, نعم أنا أنحدر من الطائفة العلويّة(لا أدري إن كان هذا ذنباً لا يغتفر؟!), فماذا أفعل يا عزيزي ياسين إذا كنتُ أنحدر من تلك الطائفة لا من إحدى الطوائف الكريمة الأخرى التي تشكّل بمجموعها الشعب السوري؟ ولا أعتقد أنه سيكون عيباً يحيق بي إذا لم أكن أنحدر من السيخ أو كوكب المريخ. وقولي هذا لا يمنعني من التأكيد هنا, مجدداً, إن انحداري من الطائفة العلوية, كان من شأنه أن قدّم لي مكاسب اجتماعية عدة أتتني على طبق من الماس (لا من ذهب فحسب), «فمذ وعيتُ الدنيا(وهذا ما غصّ ياسين بذكره, ماذا بوسعي أن أفعل إذا كانت النزاهة من ألد أعداء عتاة المُعارضة السوريّة؟!) لا أتذكر أنه كان لرجل الدين ضمن تلك الطائفة (على الرغم من كثرة العيوب التي قد تكون تشكو منها) أية سلطة على المجتمع. ولم ينشغل رجل اللاهوت العلوي بإصدار الفتاوى التي تتدخل في خصوصيات حياتي أنا وزوجتي وأولادي وسوانا من البشر. وليس له أية سلطة سياسية (2) أو مجتمعية (3) في ما يتعلّق بقضايا الناس, حتى الإيمانية منها!»… الخ, وأين هذا المكسب الاجتماعي البالغ الأهمية من نهر الفتاوى المخيف الذي تصفعنا به, مطلع كل صبح, بعض دول الجوار العربي؟ هل يحتاج ياسين أن أذكر له في هذا السياق عينة من الفتاوى التي صدرت مؤخراً, بُعيد صدور كتابي؟! وهل تراه لم يقرأ عن بعض الإنجازات “الحضارية” التي تم معظمها بأموال وهابيّة في سوريا خلال النصف الأول من هذا العام, من قبيل مول خاص للنساء في حلب, وتكسي خاصة بالنساء في دمشق, وآخر ما قرأناه هو شاطئ خاص للمحجبات(رضوان الله عليهن) في اللاذقية, وما كان ليأتينا هذا الخزي والعار والانحطاط لولا الفتاوى التي تنطلق بسرعة الصاروخ العابر للقارات وبكثافة منقطعة النظير, وإحدى هذه الفتاوى تحريم الاختلاط بين الجنسين, صفعنا بها مؤخراً أحد شيوخ ظلام شبه جزيرة العرب, والهلاك قادم لا محالة.
اعتقد ياسين –واهماً, ربما- أنه أخذ عليّ ممسكاً مُشيناً عندما “صرحتُ” بأني علوي! لكنه تجاهل (إني أخاف الله, عن سوء نية, على الأرجح) أن أحد قياديي حزبه المُعارض طلب توقيعي على إعلان دمشق ليلة 15/10/2005 بصفتي مثقفاً علوياً, وليس بصفتي مواطناً سورياً! والشهادة لله كانت غالبية المعارضة السوريّة تنظر إليّ بتلك الصفة التي لم أكن أرغبها ولا أريدها, والتي يعتبرها الآن ياسين مأخذاً عليّ؟! لنقل أنها سياسة الكيل بمكيالين, وهي سياسة الأمريكان في المنطقة.. كنتُ أعتقد –عن سوء نية- أنها سياسة يتبعها النظام السوري الذي بدا ويبدو أقل سوءاً من معارضيه بما لايُقاس (5).
من جانب آخر, بالتأكيد لم أجتهد في نسب الثقافة الكسيحة المريضة إلى الإسلام السُنّي, كما تفضّل ياسين بالقول. وأزعم أني كنتُ حريصاً على التمييز, بين إسلام وآخر, بمعنى ميّزتُ بين الإسلام السوري والتركي, والسوري ومدى تمايزه عن الإسلامين المصري والسعودي. ومن المفارقات أني استشهدت أثناء تمييزي هذا بمقال لياسين ذاته(ص162), كان قد طالب فيه بضرورة إبعاد الإسلام السوري عن تأثيرات الإسلامين المصري والسعودي!. لكن إذا كان السيد ياسين يعتقد أن الإسلام الوهابي الذي لم أقم سوى بعرض بسيط لعينة من كوارثه ومهالكه مُبيناً مدى خطورته على العالم أجمع لا سوريا فحسب, أقول إذا كان يعتقد ياسين أن الإسلام هو الوهابيّة فقط, فهذه مشكلته هو(مع معرفتنا بمدى محاباة المُعارضة السوريّة للوهابيّة لأسباب لاتُخفى لذي بصيرة) وليست مشكلتي أنا. فشخصياً, لا نعتقد أن المهلكة الوهابيّة يمكن بأي حال من الأحوال أن تختزل الإسلام بشكل عام والسُنّة بشكل خاص. وأظن أني كنتُ واضحاً في هذه المسألة في أكثر من جانب في الكتاب.
وفي الحالات كافة, ليس خافياً على أحد, أن الإسلام, بشقيه السني والشيعي, هو الأكثر حضوراً في راهننا, لاسيّما السُنّي منه لاعتبارات موضوعية عدة, وبحكم الأمر الواقع, لكن ليطمئن ياسين أننا جميعاً –بحسب رأيي المتواضع- أبناء ثقافة كسيحة مريضة وبحاجة إلى تغيير, ولا استثناء لأحد في هذا, وإن كانت حدة المرض والكساح تتباين وتتفاوت بين قوم وآخر, أكانوا من اليمين أم اليسار.

1- تمنعنا الأخلاق الشخصية عن الحديث بإسهاب في هذا الجانب, علناً, وإن كنتُ قد سردتُ لبعض أصدقائي في المُعارضة السورية فصولاً عدة عن سوء النوايا والتشكيك, والتشكيك المتبادل, في المعارضين بعضهم ببعض(قادة وأفرادا). وهذا التشكيك كان من سمات العمل المُعارض في سوريا في الحقبة المنصرمة, غير أن لا أحد من المُعارضة ورموزها يتطرق إلى هذا الجانب, كونه يُدينها(المُعارضة) ويُدينهم(المُعارضين).
2- توجد حاشية في كتابي تتحدث عن أحد أبرز رجال اللاهوت العلويين الذي سبق أن نظم قصيدة في هجاء السلطة والإخوان المسلمين سنة 1978, فذهب ضحية قصيدته تلك, وسرت شائعة سنتذاك أن بعض السلطة كان وراء تصفيته! وهذا لا يناسب –كما يبدو- ياسين, والمُعارضة السورية بشكل عام أن تذكره ولا حتى أن تعرفه. عدا ذلك, من الصعوبة بمكان أن تجد رجل لاهوت علوي اهتمّ بالسياسة منذ منتصف خمسينات القرن الماضي حتى راهننا.
3- من نافلة القول إنه كان للمشايخ (والإقطاع) تلك السلطة حتى مطلع خمسينات القرن الماضي بشكل عام, ونعتقد أن سلطتهم انقرضت بشكل شبه كلي بعد عام 1963. فقد انخرط معظم الشباب العلوي, ومنذ أواسط القرن الماضي, في الأحزاب العلمانية التي عرفتها سوريا, كحزب البعث والشيوعي والسوري القومي الاجتماعي.. وباتت مرجعياتهم حزبية لا طائفية أو عشائرية, وعقلانيّة جرّاء دخولهم المدارس والجامعات.. الخ, هذا ما كان عليه الواقع, قبل العودة إلى الأصولية التي تخيّم على المنطقة بشكل عام.
4- خذ مثالاً, الناشط هيثم المالح, ومع أننا أدنا وندين اعتقاله وطريقة اعتقاله, والحكم الذي صدر بحقه مؤخراً, ونطالب بعفو خاص عنه, غير أننا إذا أردنا أن نكون منصفين في حكمنا للرجل, لن تكون النتيجة في صالحه أبداً, إذ هو شخص لا يصلح للعمل في حقوق الإنسان بالرغم من البربوغندا التي يحيط نفسه بها وبالتالي يسبلها الآخرون عليه, ولا يحق له ذلك, بسبب من طائفيته الفاضحة والظاهرة للعيان والتي عبّر عنها في أكثر من موقف! وما سبق أن ذكره عنه نزار نيّوف وما جرى بينهما في باريس بحضور الناشط هيثم مناع لا يشرّف السيد المالح. عدا أننا نعرف أنه سبق للسيد المالح أن صدم بسيارته سيدة عراقية وابنتها, ما استدعى دخولهما إلى المستشفى جرّاء أضرار جسدية لحقت بهما, وبقي المالح يزورهما في المستشفى حتى أسقطتا حقهما الشخصي, من بعدها لم يعترف عليهما نهائياً! هذه الفضيحة الأخلاقية(ومثلها الكثير) التي لا تليق بأستاذنا المالح, هيهات أن تذكرها المنظمة الوطنية لحقوق الإنسان وبقية الدكاكين الملحقة بها, وهذه الدكاكين قصة تحتاج إلى مقال مستقل.

أبيّ حسن- كلنا شركاء

July 9th, 2010, 9:31 pm


Jihad said:

Tony Badran, who works with a collection of rabid US-Zionists for the spread of Zionism mascarading as democracy, did not add anything new to what was known and already published. But there is one important detail on why Sistani’s representative did not visit the late Sayyed Fadallah when he went to Beirut to open a center affiliated with Sistani. The primarily reason is political and it is in relation with the position that the late Sayyed Fadallah took against the US-led occupation of Iraq and especially those who collaborated with it in a famous fatwa.

As for the Bush’s orphan Michael Young, he seems to understand liberalism, the way other empty writers in the region do from Hazem Saghiyeh onward, as kneeling before the Zionist occupier coming from the West and cheering his crimes and terrorism in the name of civilization.

July 9th, 2010, 9:39 pm


Jihad said:

Even though Elias Mouhanna (a.k.a. Qifa nabki) feigns objectivity, he does not see any good coming out of Syria (and its true allies in Lebanon on top of them Hezbollah) although Phalangists and LForces are thankfull for Syrian intervention on their behalf in the Lebaese war in 1976.

Also, he does not want to admit that for all its failings, Syria did and continue to help its neighbors by providing food, electricty, shelter and opportunities to study and work. And since this site deals with Syria, I will post some facts that Elias Mouhanna decided to ignore:

1. Syrian help to Jordan is not new:
Detailing the agreements, Hadidi said Jordan has requested its northern neighbour to continue supplying it with 50,000 tonnes of wheat a year in implementation of an existing protocol.

2.Syria to Provide Yemen, Jordan and Egypt with Wheat

3.Syria to supply 3 million cubic meters of water to Jordan

4. And to the Northern Lebanese neglected by the racist wannabe white class in Beirut:
وليس غريبا عندما تسمع من أهالي الطفيل‏(‏ نحن لا نستطيع أن نعيش من دون سوريا‏)‏ فسوريا تؤمن لقرية الطفيل اللبنانية الدواء والسلع الغذائية وحاجات أخري بأسعار رخيصة وجميع الخدمات الطبية وإسعاف المرضي يتم من الطفيل إلي سوريا والكهرباء‏,‏ حيث تصل الشبكة الكهربائية السورية إلي داخل الطفيل والهواتف تصل إلي داخل الطفيل عبر تغطية خليوية وأخري سلكية وطلاب الجامعات يدرسون في دمشق ويتم تقديم المواد المدعومة للقرية من خبز و مازوت ومواد وأيام الشتاء وعند قطع الطرقات ووصول سماكة الثلج إلي حد عزل القرية تقوم الجرافات التابعة لبلدية عسال الورد بفتح الطريق مباشرة وعلي عدة مرات وقبل أن تفتح طرق القرية السورية‏.‏

July 10th, 2010, 9:36 am


Ghat Al Bird said:

Unrelated but a definite must read.

Below are some examples of shirts that were printed, along with some of the images. These images only appeared on Ha’aretz’s Hebrew-language website:

* Sdfsd
A T-shirt for infantry snipers bears the inscription “Better use Durex,” next to a picture of a dead Palestinian baby, with his weeping mother and a teddy bear beside him.
* A sharpshooter’s T-shirt from the Givati Brigade’s Shaked battalion shows a pregnant Palestinian woman with a bull’s-eye superimposed on her belly, with the slogan, in English, “1 shot, 2 kills.”
* After Operation Cast Lead, soldiers from that
battalion printed a T-shirt depicting a vulture sexually penetrating a young Palestenian woman.

July 10th, 2010, 12:53 pm


Shami said:

Adultery, stoning and myths about Islam

Friday, July 9, 2010

My column neighbor Burak Bekdil had an interesting piece yesterday titled, “Would Mr. Erdoğan kindly care for this Muslim woman?” While Mr. Erdoğan probably needs no introduction, “this woman” was Sakineh Mohammedie Ashtiani, an Iranian citizen who reportedly faced a threat of being executed by stoning. Mr. Bekdil was wondering — rhetorically, I guess — if the Turkish prime minister could use his prestige in Tehran to save the poor lady from such an unfortunate end. Besides that, he was also making tongue-in-cheek references to the Quran to imply how upholding that book can lead Muslims to “barbaric” acts such as stoning.

And, well, I have a few things to say about all that.

No stoning in the Quran

First things first. Although Mr. Bekdil defined stoning as an “explicit Quranic commandment,” it actually isn’t. There is simply no reference to stoning in the whole Quran. The only scripture that orders this painful execution is in fact the Torah. In Islam, stoning appeared as a post-Quranic injunction, established by “hadiths,” or sayings attributed to the prophet, whose authenticity has always been contested. My honest belief is that it came from an outside source (Judaism, obviously) and, like many other elements of Islamic law, became incorporated into Islam over time.

So, Mr. Bekdil is simply wrong to think “the devout mind with perpetual citings from the Quran” has to choose “muteness” in the face of questions regarding stoning. One can obviously oppose stoning – as I do – in total compliance with the Muslim scripture.

Yet there are other corporal punishments in the Quran — such as lashes for adultery or the false accusation of it and the amputations of hands for theft. One way to understand these is the literalist way, which not only the fundamentalist Muslims, but also many critics of Islam see as the only way. (Mr. Bekdil, for example, thinks “Quranic commandments come in one flavor only… about do’s and don’t’s.”)

But, in fact, there has always been a more figurative method of interpretation as well, which focuses not just on the wording, but also on the intent of the scripture. This tradition realized that the Quranic commandments on social and legal matters were bound by their context, and a change in the latter could change the whole picture. Caliph Umar created the first precedent by declining to implement some Quranic commandments about the governance of land for the simple fact that the conditions that made them necessary in the first place had changed. In the 14th century Imam Shatibi of Spain built a whole theory about this in his book on the “Maqasid al-Shariah,” or the Purposes of the Shariah.

Based on such ideas, some corporal punishments were rendered obsolete in the more flexible schools of Islamic law, such as the Hanafi one, which the Ottoman Empire subscribed to. Under Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Istanbul, the amputations of hands for theft was replaced by beatings or monetary fines graded according to the economic status of the culprit. Stoning was also made very hard to implement and is known to have happened only twice during the six centuries of Ottoman rule.

In the modern era, Islamic scholars such as the late Fazlurrahman have been arguing that Islamic law should be totally reinterpreted within this perspective. At the time the Quran was revealed, these scholars remind, corporal punishments were the standard norm in the whole world. Moreover, it was impossible to give any other form of penalty in 7th century Arabia, where you simply had neither any prison nor any bureaucracy to establish and run one. Yet the new world we live in, these scholars say, needs new rulings, which will uphold the “purposes” of the Shariah by changing its wording.

Adultery in the US

To make a long story short, one can simply say Islamic law is actually a bit more complicated than what is seen through the “one flavor” detecting lens of Mr. Bekdil.

Even the West is more complicated. Mr. Bekdil was referring to a “shock” that the “Westerners” had in 2006 when there was an attempt by the AKP to outlaw adultery — as it was in the Turkish legal code until the ’90s. I criticized the AKP on that mistaken step. But it might be worthwhile to note that in the countries of some of those “Westerners,” too, adultery is still a crime. In the United States, the state of Michigan still penalizes adultery with a consequence as serious as a life sentence. Maryland imposes a fine on it. Wisconsin considers it as a “class I felony.”

You can say these punishments in the American legal texts are hardly implemented, and you would be right. But I am saying the same thing is possible with the adultery laws in Islam as well, which would probably be the case had the Ottoman society, and its evolution, survived.

The trouble we have in the post-Ottoman Muslim world is a resurgence of fundamentalism and literalism — a mindset internalized by not only the Islamists, but, as you can see, also the secularists.

© 2009 Hurriyet Daily News

July 10th, 2010, 1:57 pm


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