Saudi Arabia: 'It's time to abolish the lashing penalty'

المصدر: 
Arab News

I realize that this is another very sensitive subject, but I would like to make an important point in order to dispel any confusion or misunderstanding. When I discuss a matter having religious implications, I do not mean to criticize the divine Islamic religion itself nor the positive achievements realized by Saudi Arabia, of which I can only express admiration, respect and my sincere devotion. However, I will criticize the wrongful practice of the religion when it betrays Islam's fundamental principle of human rights. My role as a writer is to speak out, no matter how sensitive the subject and try and stimulate my readers' thinking. I am not trying to impose my ideas on anyone, since it is up to the reader to decide what to believe. I do believe, however, that my articles serve a public purpose in promoting discussion among concerned citizens who can accept or reject my arguments as they see fit.

Having said this, I am fully aware that the penalty of lashing (like any other Islamic punishment) is a very sensitive issue for most people. Nevertheless, and in addition to the serious moral implications of such punishment, I must speak out because unless lashing is abolished, the image of Saudi Arabia will be profoundly and negatively impacted.

There are many men and women lashed daily in our country, and their cases are unknown to the public so punishment by lashing requires due consideration and deep thought and this should offend our sensibilities. Certainly, there must be an appropriate penalty for those guilty of violating our laws to prevent others from committing similar offenses; otherwise, anarchy and disorder would prevail in society. In this day and age, however, lashing is too harsh a penalty, especially when used on a woman; it not only destroys humanity and pride but also a person's dignity. This is not the purpose of lawful punishments for violations in any society. Demeaning the character of the offender produces negative effects far greater than any societal benefits.

One who is lashed loses his self-esteem and no longer cares for the consequences of his or her present or future criminal actions, no matter what punishment he or she may face. What other punishment could be harsher than lashing? It fully destroys personal dignity and creates lifelong shame among one's neighbors, coworkers and acquaintances. What other punishment is more repugnant, particularly if the punishment is imposed on a woman who might be a mother, a sister or a daughter of any of us?

We live in a great nation that has a strategic role in the international community due to religious, historic and geographic factors, in addition to its prominent place in the Middle East and its natural resources. Saudi Arabia is not Iran or any repressive regime; instead, it is a civilized country that is a member of the G20, an important member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and more importantly, one of the most stable economic and political countries in this ever-changing and unstable world. This makes Saudi Arabia the focus of the entire world in the age of open satellite channels and globalization.

The issue of the lashing penalty as imposed in the Kingdom is troublesome, considering all of its civil, human and moral dimensions, especially now when we live in a time that emphasizes the importance of human rights issues like never before. We all know that the Kingdom imposes the lashing penalty in accordance with the provisions of the Islamic Shariah, but consider the following:

1. If the lashing penalty is imposed on the basis of texts in the Holy Qur'an, we must consider the text in the context when it was written and what the circumstances were at that time. For example, some Qur'anic verses are associated with a certain event that occurred in the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). So the text was associated with a certain period, context and event. How can some people insist on reciting texts without thinking about the reasons and circumstances then existing or considering their context?

2. Let us ponder that there is no place for jurisprudence in the presence of a relevant text in the Holy Qur'an. Why did Caliph Al-Farooq stop granting people who converted to Islam their share from alms-giving (zakah), although mentioned in the Holy Qur'an, and declared that there was no need for them? Moreover, he suspended one of the Islamic penalties of theft in the year of Cinders (Aam Al-Ramada). Didn't these texts exist at that time as well? Didn't Caliph Al-Rashid issue a jurisprudence in spite of the existence of the texts very clearly in the Holy Qur'an and sought to achieve the interests of the Muslims without abiding by a specific text?

3. Furthermore, Shariah law includes many other penalties that are no longer imposed or indeed never have been imposed as punishments (an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear and a tooth for a tooth). The Kingdom stopped - or even did not practice at all - the gouging out of eyes, the cutting off of noses and ears, the breaking of teeth, and the cutting off hands of thieves. Yet, these penalties are included in clear and explicit Qur'anic texts as stated above. How can this be when religion is followed as a whole and not in parts, that is, it cannot be divided or classified?

The truth is that the Kingdom has been misunderstood and is suffering from a rigid interpretation of Islam by so-called religious scholars who are not only experts in memorizing and reminiscing instead of contemplating and studying, but who are resistant to change. All they want is to maintain the status quo and suppress intellectual curiosity and discussion.

Yet the question remains: Why are people in the Kingdom lashed? Is this the result of the Qur'anic texts or for other reasons? If the texts are the reason, it is clear that clinging to the text without taking into account the factors, circumstances and times of these verses is worrying and dangerous.

Saudi Arabia, for the sake of its image and human rights, should seek a religious way (fatwa) to abolish the lashing penalty in its entirety, especially when other Shariah punishments are not enforced. We live at a time when human rights should never be infringed, regardless of the circumstances. In fact, the Kingdom has always sought to defend human rights before every international convention.

The recent extraordinary resolutions allowing Saudi women to stand and vote in municipal elections and become members of the Shoura Council are not only wonderful and welcome, but are just another example of the truly progressive attitude shown by the Saudi government even at these challenging times where political turmoil is prevalent throughout the Arab world. We must now hope that these positive initiatives evolve into legislation furthering human rights and abolishing the lashing penalty once and for all. The question is: Do we have the collective will to do so?

- Dr. Khalid Alnowaiser is a columnist and a Saudi attorney with offices in Riyadh and Jeddah. He can be reached at: Khalid@Lfkan.com and/or Twitter (kalnowaise)