New York Times Editorial
September 27, 2003
The decision this
week of an Islamic court in Nigeria to acquit a woman who faced
death by stoning for adultery is a triumph for sanity. If Nigeria,
a huge nation encompassing various faiths, had upheld the sentence,
it would have given such a punishment legitimacy in other Islamic
nations and regions. But the verdict leaves many troubling questions.
As the legal codes of more places reflect the influence of Koranic
principles, known as Shariah, they must do so in ways that do
not violate international law and the rights of their citizens.
When Amina Lawal's
daughter was born two years after she was divorced, Ms. Lawal
was arrested for adultery and sentenced to death. This week the
court overturned her conviction on technicalities and did not
address the justice of stoning, an exceptionally cruel sentence
considered to be torture. Ms. Lawal's lawyers argued that it was
discriminatory that the man she identified as her sexual partner
won acquittal by swearing that he had not committed adultery —
a defense not available to her. The court rejected this argument.
Nigeria is sharply
divided between a Muslim north and a Christian south. To defuse
religious and ethnic tensions, President Olusegun Obasanjo, a
Christian, permitted the northern states to begin using Shariah
in 1999. He had apparently not counted on the worldwide embarrassment
that cases like Ms. Lawal's have brought Nigeria. The court that
ruled this week may have been under instruction to block the stoning,
but in a way that did not anger Muslims.
When it was introduced
1,400 years ago, much of Shariah was more progressive than the
legal cultures it replaced. Parts of it — letting women
inherit property and keep their property after they marry —
still are. Yet extreme versions are spreading, especially where
literacy is low. They are often less reflective of the Koran than
of local cultures.
Inspired by a growing
group of fundamentalists, people accept Shariah as a defense against
what they see as the encroaching decadence of the west. In Nigeria
and other nations with large Muslim populations, governments resort
to Shariah to placate these extremists. But in doing so without
regard for their own constitutions and human rights, these highly
political accords mean that a nation's lowliest citizens are the
ones who suffer.