Is Hollywood Getting It Right on Islam and Stoning?

A powerful new film, The Stoning of Soraya M., is calling public attention to the Islamic practice of stoning adulterers in a way that only Hollywood can; while at least eight women await death by stoning in Iran today, none of their cases have drawn any significant protests from human rights organizations, and Western governments have remained largely indifferent. With a genocidally inclined nuclear Iran looming on the international stage, the victimization of women by Islamic laws prescribing stoning for adultery and other sexual crimes may seem to be the least of our worries. The Stoning of Soraya M., however, graphically depicts the terrible human cost of the outside world’s indifference to the stoning that are still practiced in Iran and elsewhere in the Islamic world. Yet despite this superb film’s immense power to challenge this barbaric human rights abuse, reviewers and even people connected with the film are rushing to divert attention away from or downplay the root causes of the crime the film indelibly depicts — and by doing so, are condemning more women to suffer Soraya’s fate.

For example, actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays a pivotal role as the victim’s friend, recently said that stoning has “been happening since the Stone Age, in Judaism, Christianity, Islam.” She added that “stoning isn’t mentioned in the Koran,” and that “it has nothing to do with Islam. It’s under the category of superstitions and traditions, but obviously those who have hijacked Islam are manipulating people and using this as an Islamic law. It is not, really.”

In reality, stoning has everything to do with Islam and Islamic law. The caliph Umar, one of Muhammad’s closest companions and his second successor as leader of the Islamic community, maintained that it was originally in Islam’s holy book, the Koran, and lamented: “I am afraid that after a long time has passed, people may say, ‘We do not find the Verses of the Rajam (stoning to death) in the Holy Book,’ and consequently they may go astray by leaving an obligation that Allah has revealed.” He emphasized that Muhammad stoned adulterers, and that therefore Muslims should do so as well.

More obfuscation appeared in a review of the film written by Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times. Thomas points out correctly that stoning remains prevalent “not just in Iran, the film’s setting, but in countries throughout the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa that follow Islamic Sharia law.” But then he adds: “Islam happens to be the religion here, but what happens in the course of this important and uncompromising film recalls evils perpetrated in the name of Christianity and other organized religions as well.”

Actually, the horrors depicted in The Stoning of Soraya M. could not have happened in any non-Islamic cultural context, for only Islam sanctions stoning: while the Hebrew Scriptures prescribe stoning for adulterers, Judaism has interpreted those passages quite differently for two millennia or more, and Christianity holds them to be superseded by Jesus’ words, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Thomas’s point seems to be that Westerners shouldn’t criticize Islam because of stoning, since Christianity has inspired people to do evil. But even if Christianity were just as likely as Islam to lead people to commit acts of violence and inhumanity, this point is irrelevant in the context of Islamic stoning. Muslims are stoning people in the name of Islamic texts and teachings. There is no chance to end that practice unless those texts and teachings are discussed critically and protested against, whatever Christians may or may not be doing or have done.

People like Aghdashloo and Thomas apparently think that it is somehow an act of generosity or fairness to downplay the Islamic connection to whatever wrongdoing they are discussing, and to play up the evils of Christianity. What they fail to realize is that by deflecting attention away from the real causes of the phenomena they oppose, they are only helping ensure that those phenomena will continue. The Stoning of Soraya M. is a great film; it is a pity that the film’s actors and producers feel compelled to deny and downplay the real cause of this crime against humanity. By doing so, they only ensure that it will keep happening.