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   Shariah Law in Nigeria--and in Texas and Tennessee


Shariah Law in Nigeria—and in Texas and Tennessee

by David Flores

Will the freeing of Nigeria’s Amina Lawal—ta token gesture of humanity and compassion—cause Americans to reconsider their own obsession with capital punishment?
BALTIMORE, 10/17/03—On September 26, the newspapers brought us the joyful news that Amina Lawal, the Nigerian woman who was sentenced to death for giving birth out of wedlock, has been cleared of all charges and allowed to go home. The original sentence had been imposed in March of 2002 by an Islamic court, acting in accordance with its reading of "Shariah," a very strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Lawal's legal victory was also a victory for global human rights. The young Nigerian mother had become something of a cause célèbre since the original verdict and penalty were handed down, and the Islamic court's reversal in the face of nearly universal condemnation gives fresh hope to those activists and organizations around the planet who would seek to better our world by shinning a bright spotlight upon its injustices.

Who can deny that the Shariah court's sensible reversal is a welcome and needed victory for humanity and common decency, coming as it did just six months after the depressing spectacle of our own President's steadfast refusal to back down from an illegal war against Iraq--a crime that was carried out in the face of even more widespread popular condemnation? It is true that, in the latter case, thousands of good people lost their lives, while in the former, only one was spared. Nonetheless, men and women of conscience are grateful whenever popular indignation manages to soften the hearts of the powerful and effect the correction of even one injustice.

With Lawal spirited away to the safety of her father's house, the question that remains now is whether this token gesture of humanity and compassion will cause Americans to reconsider their own obsession with capital punishment. Will we undertake a rethinking of our deeply ingrained culture of revenge, our overwhelming support for the state-sanctioned taking of another person's life, our wholehearted embrace of the primitive and simplistic justice embodied in the extracting of an eye for an eye? Or will we, instead, persist in holding to the myth that the "just" and "righteous" death sentences that are meted out in our own courtrooms bear little, if any, similarity to the barbarous judgment that nearly cost Lawal her life, and almost rendered her two-year-old son an orphan.

Unfortunately, given the pathetic state of America's fourth estate, it is unlikely that the press will take this joyful turn of events as the point of departure for a campaign to educate the people about the racial and economic injustices that are inherent in the practice of capital punishment. It remains unlikely that our nation’s editors, producers, reporters and anchors will begin a national dialogue and reconsideration of the morality of the death penalty. Most people in America will almost certainly continue to labor under the false pretense that the killing of a man or woman in a Texas prison is just and fair in the way that the near killing of Amina Lawal in a Nigerian prison was not.

America is not Nigeria, after all, and is it not self-evident that only a barbarous people would think it just to sentence a nursing mother to death? Is it not plain to see that only a people wholly lacking in compassion would choose to carry out a young mother’s execution the minute her child no longer required suckling?

Given the pathetic state of America's fourth estate, it is unlikely that the press will take this joyful turn of events in Nigeria as the point of departure for a campaign to educate the people about the racial and economic injustices that are inherent in the practice of capital punishment in the US.

Yes, it is self-evident, and it is plain to see. But unfortunately, it is also precisely what George W. Bush and Albert Gore (to take two representative American legislators) would have done had they found themselves in the same position as the Nigerian jurists. I realize this claim may seem far-fetched, but one need only review Bush and Gore’s statements to the press to find this conclusion borne out quite explicitly. One need only examine the death penalty debate (the death penalty monologue, actually, there was no debate) as it played itself out in the 2000 presidential campaign to confirm this ugly fact. At that time, both men were routinely questioned about their position vis à vis the death penalty and both candidates unfailingly proclaimed themselves staunch promoters of the practice.

But a willingness, even eagerness, to send human beings off to the death chamber was apparently not, in itself, good enough, and so the press turned the heat up a notch. Each man was then asked whether he would carry out the execution of a pregnant woman who had been sentenced to die. In both cases the men produced answers that betrayed no compromise of their unwavering support for capital punishment.

In answering the question of whether he would order the execution of a pregnant woman, George W. Bush merely preempted the logic of the Nigerian Shariah court. Our current President explained, as reported on July 17, 2000, that he would stay the execution until after her baby had been born, "because there's a second life involved." . [He did not, to my knowledge, say whether he would have her whisked off to the gas chamber the very next day, or allow her some time to recover.]

Yet, as distasteful and un-compassionate as the compassionate conservative's answer was, its hideousness paled in comparison with candidate Gore's incredible remarks. Initially the Democratic presidential hopeful responded to interviewer Tim Russert's hypothetical by proclaiming himself perplexed: "Well, I don't know what the circumstances would be in that situation. I would, you know, it's an interesting fact situation. I'd want to think about it..." (“Meet the Press,” 07/16/00) And one would have hoped that Gore would leave it at that, go home, and rethink his commitment to capital punishment. But instead, the very next day, having enjoyed the benefit of an entire evening to meditate on the question, to discuss it with his advisers, and to concoct an answer that might best satisfy the concerns of both pro-death penalty and pro-choice voters, Gore amended his original remarks by issuing a statement of truly Kafkaesque absurdity and unbelievably macabre logic: "the principle of a woman's right to choose governs in that case."

In other words, in contrast to Bush, who responded to the aforementioned query by proclaiming that he would show Republican pro-life compassion and wait for the child to be born before shuttling his mother off to the gas chamber, Albert Gore reassured the public of his Democratic commitment to abortion rights by proclaiming that he would allow the prisoner herself to choose whether to put off the execution until after the birth of her baby, or, if she so preferred, to march right on in to the death chamber and get it over with forthwith.

Incredibly, and inexplicably, the mere notion that this distasteful and extreme hypothetical might tend to undermine the case for the death penalty itself was never broached by the candidates or by the mainstream press. As far as America and her Republican and Democratic candidate for President were concerned, it was not a question even worth considering. It simply didn't fit in to the equation at all. And that, dear reader, is justice, sanity, and compassion in contemporary America.

It’s hard to say at what point the death penalty joined the Cuban embargo, corporate farm subsidies, and unfettered economic and military aid to Israel as "third rail," untouchable issues in American politics—and in American media. It is even more difficult to understand why it did. But what is certain is that, just as with those other three abominations, our unquestioning reverence for the death penalty weakens this nation, it corrupts us, and it robs us of our moral standing and authority in the world.

David Flores works in the language department at Loyola College. He maintains a blog of his work.

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This story was published on October 20, 2003.
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