Standing up for Amina Lawal

An Islamic court in Nigeria's northern city of Katsina is expected to hand down its decision on the appeal of Amina Lawal Thursday. Ms. Lawal was sentenced in March 2002 under Islamic law - or sharia - to be buried up to her neck in sand and stoned to death for committing adultery. The carrying out of her sentence was postponed until next January so she could nurse her baby (sharia gets some things right) and Lawal's lawyer used the time to appeal.

Sharia exists in varying degrees across the Muslim world. There are fairly open, nuanced versions, where a stoning or a beheading would be rare, and there is the rigidity of Saudi Arabia or northern Nigeria, where the majority of the population is Muslim. In countries with secular governments, sharia codes can be adopted by Muslims as a matter of personal choice, much like biblical teachings here in the West.

Nigeria's southern states are predominantly Christian, and President Olusegun Obasanjo is a Christian. He has said that his government would not dispute the rights of the north to do as it sees fit. He has received, in previous elections, support from northern Nigeria. Still, he cannot be indifferent to international outrage over Lawal's case.

But where is that outrage - particularly on our side of the planet? Almost three years ago, a teenage single mother in Nigeria was sentenced to - and received - 100 lashes for adultery. The publicity surrounding her case was extensive. While Amnesty International and women of the African National Congress have petitioned Mr. Obasanjo and marched for Lawal, what have women's groups, such as NOW been doing? The latter issued a press release, and - in its characteristically misplaced sense of equality - expressed concern that "clearly, a man participated in this and yet only Amina Lawal faces death." The Feminist Majority Foundation have been more vocal about Lawal, but other groups, as well as news shows and op-ed pages, have focused on Arnold Schwarze negger's "misogyny" and 24-hour coverage of the absurd Ten Commandments spectacle in Alabama.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, we in the West have, I believe, been emasculated when it comes to touching Islam. It is good, of course, that efforts have been made not to demonize an entire faith. No one wants a repeat of the internment of Japanese-Americans, for example. But these past two years have seen something different. A much-reprinted article - particularly on political websites - concerning Lawal, written by two leaders of the Nigerian group Baobab for Women's Human Rights, states that "dominant colonialist discourse and the mainstream international media have presented Islam (and Africa) as the barbaric and savage Other. Please do not buy into this."

One must agree it is wrong to suggest that Muslims are all primitive. But to say that what might happen to Lawal has nothing to do with Islam is like suggesting the Crusades had nothing to do with Christianity, or the Holocaust nothing to do with Germans.

This multicultural nonjudgmentalism almost amounts to Western self-loathing - a refusal or reluctance on our part to call out anything negative beyond our shores. It was evident in the "peace" movement earlier this year which suggested we have no "right" to bother with anything outside our borders because we are not perfect ourselves, and that imperfection, it is asserted, brought about Sept. 11.

A painful display of this was the reaction to the riots over last December's Miss World contest in Nigeria. Not only was attention diverted from Lawal's case, but renowned Jurassic-feminists such as Germaine Greer and Glenda Jackson blamed the uproar on the horrors of pageants - rather than on the intolerance of Islamic fundamentalism.

It goes without saying that a culture responsible for "Sex and the City" and McDonalds is flawed. But does that make us blind or impotent? One hopes not.

Sharia is only one aspect of Islam, but it is very real. Ask Amina Lawal. She is being tried under the intolerant influence of what the West faces - hers is one part of a war we all face between free thought and fundamentalism.

In the 1990s I had the great fortune to teach high school in Istanbul. Some of my Turkish students stay in touch with me. Earlier this year I received an e-mail from one telling me of a stoning in southeastern Turkey. An unmarried pregnant woman, Semse Allak, had been killed to restore the "honor" of her family. In some ways, Turkey is more secular than Canada or the US - but regional influences there allow premedieval realities to rear their ugly heads. Shortly before Ms. Allak's funeral in June, Turkey's parliament approved a bill that, among other things, forced judges to impose full sentences for honor killings.This legal change was made as part of Turkey's effort to secure acceptance into the EU - which indicates that external pressure does make a difference.

Think what that external pressure could do for Amina Lawal if her stoning sentence is upheld Thursday.

Rondi Adamson's conservative social commentary appears frequently in the Canadian press.

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