Stoned to death for being gay? Americans immune to cruelty must wake up and speak out
Like many Americans, my first exposure to death by stoning came from reading Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” in high school. First published in 1948 in The New Yorker, the story is the tale of a fictional New England town where one very unlucky resident is chosen by chance — to be killed. The magazine responded to outraged readers by explaining that Jackson had chosen “a nameless little village to show, in microcosm, how the forces of belligerence, persecution, and vindictiveness are, in mankind, endless and traditional and that their targets are chosen without reason.”
I’ve been thinking about “The Lottery” since I read that Brunei — a tiny monarchy in Southeast Asia ruled by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, one of the world’s wealthiest people — had enacted a new penal code that includes death by stoning. Crimes that warrant this penalty include adultery, and consensual sex between men. (The punishment for theft is amputation of limbs, for abortion it is flogging.) Sadly, the sultan’s decision to enact such horrific penalties echoes Jackson’s point about the persistence of persecution and vindictiveness.
Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. (Photo: Vincent Thian/AP)
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Brunei joins a handful of other countries that call for death by stoning based on a draconian interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law. But as Melody Moezzi, a Muslim-American attorney and author, told me, “There is no one such thing as Sharia. Islamic law is all about interpretation, and there are as many interpretations as there are individual Muslims.” “Death by stoning,” she adds, “is antithetical to the highest tenets of Islam, chiefly that of a most compassionate and most merciful Creator.”
Why should Americans care about a brutal law in a tiny nation on the other side of the globe? After all, human rights abuses and hate crimes are taking place much closer to home, including here in the U.S.
Why should Americans care about Brunei?
I can think of two reasons, starting with a personal example. On a flight to Southeast Asia earlier this year I had a brief layover in Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates, half a world closer to Brunei. The UAE also calls for death by stoning for “crimes” that include sex between men. Waiting at the airport I looked at my Facebook feed, and then out of curiosity and boredom, opened a gay dating app. I found dozens of guys, with profile photos, seeking everything from “right now” sex to a partner or husband.
After being cleared through two security checkpoints, a guard pulled me out of line for “a random search.” “No problem,” I thought, until the officer demanded my iPhone, which still displayed profiles and photos of the gay Dubai locals. I froze. I imagined these men hunted down and charged with breaking Sharia law, and feared the same for myself.
Fortunately, the officer merely confiscated my cup of coffee, and then told me to put the phone away. My relief was immense, palpable. Still, I understood in a flash how these laws “create a culture of fear,” which is what a group of 115 civil society organizations in South East Asia asserted in an open letter to Brunei’s sultan. Even for those who don’t travel frequently, or who aren’t LGBT, any spread of this climate of fear should be cause for concern.
The second reason is more fundamental. “People anywhere should care when others’ human rights are being abused,” Neela Ghoshal, senior researcher in the LGBT Rights program at Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental organization, told me. Is that harder these days when acts of incivility and hate crimes are front-page news stories? Are we becoming immune to cruelty?
I fear the answer is, “yes.”
We have to speak out for human rights
I did some research on death by stoning and discovered “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” a film based on the true story of the execution of an Iranian woman in the 1980s. Soraya Manutchehri had been falsely accused and convicted of adultery by a Sharia court; death by stoning was her punishment. The film’s narrator explains how Manutchehri is buried to her waist as villagers, including her sons, throw rocks at her “until there is nothing left but a bloody stump.” You would need to see it for yourself to fully appreciate the horror. (I had to turn the sound off, even cover my eyes.)
Some nations and organizations have spoken out strongly against the sultan’s decision. The Canadian government raised its “concerns directly with Brunei,” urging the sultan “to suspend the implementation of its new penal code.” Human rights groups called the laws “barbaric to the core” and “cruel and inhuman.” The U.S. State Department was tepid in a statement that said it “opposes violence, criminalization, and discrimination targeting vulnerable groups,” including LGBTQ people.
We can do more. Ghoshal, from Human Rights Watch, seeks a travel ban on Brunei’s leaders and a freeze on the government’s financial assets. Celebrities like George Clooney have called for a boycott of the luxury hotels owned by the sultan. President Trump, a seeming friend of dictators and despots around the globe, should have taken a much stronger response. After all, this is a horror that requires our outrage — and action.
We have other tools at our disposal as well. “This is an appeal to the basic humanity of people in the United States,” Ghoshal added. We have to speak out. We must acknowledge that “the forces of belligerence, persecution, and vindictiveness” may indeed be traditional, but they need not be endless.
Steven Petrow, a writer on civility and manners and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is the author of five etiquette books and host of The Civilist Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @StevenPetrow
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