Posted by: Christian | January 27, 2011

Retribution, Reconciliation and the Stoning of Siddiqa and Khayyam

Today ABC News reports (complete with gruesome video) on the Taliban’s stoning of two young lovers – Siddiqa and Khayyam – in Kunduz Province last Autumn:

About 200 people listen to a Taliban mullah describe why a man and woman deserve to be killed. A few dozen spectators – people from the local community — start throwing rocks at the woman, who had already been placed in a 4-foot-deep hole. They throw with relish and yell, “Allah akbar.” [God is Great]

At one point a large rock strikes her head and she falls down, her burqa red with blood. After the rock throwing ends, a few people debate whether she should be shot. Eventually one of the spectators shoots her with an AK-47.

The article is quite detailed and provides much background information. Basically, some rich guy paid $9000 for 19-year-old Siddiqa’s hand in marriage and she responded by eloping to Kunar with 25-year-old Khayyam. Now, you may say “Why blame the Taliban? This is a traditional practice, just look at the TIME magazine face-mutilation controversy.” And that’s fair. Horrible things happen in Kangaroo and government courts across Afghanistan without the Taliban’s participation. However, this story provides a clear outline of Taliban involvement. And not only that, the story relates how a local restorative justice (or reconciliation) process was vetoed by the Taliban:

…the elders of the Mullah Quli village in the Archi district responded moderately. They held a meeting in which they decided if Khayyam’s family paid the same $9,000, both Khayyam and Siddiqa would be allowed to return, without retribution. They were invited back.

But the night they returned, the Taliban entered the families’ homes at 2:00 am and forcibly took the couple. The stoning took place that morning. […]

The families did not want this punishment, nor did their respective tribes. But local officials say cousins of the victims were forced to attend the stoning, and nobody in the local police or government attempted to prosecute the stone throwers.

So the Taliban overrules a tradition and non-violent local Pashtun process. (Note: the ABC story does not say that they are Pashtun. However, the location in Kunduz is in an area that was settled by Pashtuns and the two lovers eloped to Kunar province, so they probably had roots there. I can’t watch videos on my work computer so I can’t watch the video to determine whether or not they are speaking Pashto). ABC states quite fairly that “The brutality of the event is one of the most outrageous examples of the Taliban imposing their own version of justice in Afghanistan nearly nine years after the war began.” The man in the video identified as a Taliban mullah declares:

“When a married woman commits adultery, she will be struck by stones — this is called sangsar in Arabic,” […] “The woman you see here today committed adultery with this man. She has admitted this herself not once, but many times… Islamic law will be enforced here in Kunduz, by the grace of God. They will both be punished, these two people.”

The BBC quotes Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, who commented on the stoning:

In a telephone interview he said: “Anyone who knows about Islam knows that stoning is in the Koran, and that it is Islamic law.

“There are people who call it inhuman – but in doing so they insult the Prophet. They want to bring foreign thinking to this country.”

Of course, back to the cynical rhetorical question above: “Don’t locals do this sort of stuff anyways? You know, like honor killings and the such?” Well, stonings are rare in Afghanistan (and my spell-check keeps wishfully telling me ‘stonings’ is not a real word). But other forms of the death penalty for ‘honor crimes’? Yes, it happens without the participation of the Taliban. And are the Taliban to blame? In many cases no. But in this case, quite clearly yes. But what of the men who participated in the stoning? They should not be absolved of blame. And yes, I’m aware of the Stanford Prison Experiment effect and I’ve been subjected to an entire lecture on why moral relativism is just dandy. However, some of the guys who threw stones at Siddiqa were her cousins. That’s just a little disturbing. So any attempt to separate the Taliban from the community in this case is, in my mind, like trying to separating a KKK lynching from the whites in the local community where the killing occurred.

So, philosophical/moral musings aside… let’s get to the question of traditional local legal practices versus Taliban-approved Islamic legal codes. It’s actually quite convoluted. And in my opinion you can’t create a clear dichotomy between the two. And then you have to factor in the state legal system. This equals three overlapping legal “systems” that Afghans seek out or have imposed on them.

However, what is clear is that the various local legal codes/systems (almost never written down) that are traditionally used focus heavily on reconciliation and restorative justice. The main purpose is to keep a local conflict from spiraling into worse or continuous violence – which is why at times daughters are exchanged (in an attempt to tie together two groups in conflict). In times of peace, stability and satisfactory levels of natural resources, an agricultural or nomadic  society can do quite well with this type of system. Of course, Afghanistan is suffering under an infinite numbers of stresses at the moment. In addition, the processes of modernization (expansion of the state into society) and Islamicization in Afghanistan is creating a three-way tussle between the three systems in Afghanistan (very similar outline of Edwards, I know). This is all given with some final caveats: (1) the lines between these codes are not always clear (2) an Afghan local might not always be clear in regards to law on what is ‘Afghan,’ what is ‘Islamic,’ and where the state fits into this, and (3) locals may strategically pick a system based on which one they figure may provide them with the best possible outcome. What will be the final outcome: a hybrid, the triumph of one code, or a never-ending process of change and transformation? I’m guessing the third option.

The BBC is also reporting on this story, and besides noting a Taliban claim of responsibility, they have news on the third pole of the legal system in Afghanistan. It seems the government has now suddenly taken a strong interest in the case:

After viewing the footage, regional police chief Gen Daoud Daoud said those responsible could be recognised.

“Special police investigators will be sent there, we will find them and they will be brought to justice,” he told the BBC.

The Afghan state usually only gets involved when money and power is involved. That is to say, the government graciously dispenses ‘law and justice’ most enthusiastically when there is the opportunity for the state to gain a decent chunk of power and/or for its representatives to enrich themselves. Some farm girl being stoned does not fit within these motivations, and it’s safe to assume that this is a public relations move by a government that is being pressured by two news reports by a couple of high-profile foreign broadcasters.

Complicated? Yes. Do I fully understand this process? Not quite. So if you really want to bolster your knowledge of these various legal codes, download a copy of the Afghanistan Law Bibliography (PDF) that Tim Mathews compiled. You can probably even find something in there regarding how to go about compensating someone for destroying their home.


Side note: the name of guy who was stoned to death is Khayyam. This made me think immediately of the Persian scientist and poet Omar Khayyam, who wrote many lines dedicated to love and who had rather moderate views on religion and on the consumption of wine. This in turn made me think about a personal anecdote from a couple of years back (minus the wine and love). Personally, I really don’t like personal anecdotes, but this one seems to fit: I was living just to the north of Kunduz in a region of Tajikistan that borders Afghanistan. I was in a small city (pop. 80,000) doing research for my dissertation, and I became friends with the teenage students at a local English school. I would show up for a couple of hours every day and practice my Tajiki while they practiced their English. They were a great bunch of kids… in a co-ed school. It was quite normal that I played table tennis with the girls and talked to them alone in rooms of the school. It was even normal that a girl walked me 15 minutes to her mother’s home for dinner (granted, this doesn’t apply to all girls in Tajikistan). And, amazing to the Taliban (if they were to be told of such a story), the girls’ Islamic morals were never compromised. When it was time for me to leave one of the girls gave me a present: an illustrated Tajiki and Russian copy of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. Here’s a pic from another version of the book:

Maybe this is what Khayyam and Siddiqa imagined in their dreams as they were eloping. Instead they had their heads slowly smashed in by young men hurling rocks.


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