December 9, 2001 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 80

Iranian Conservatives and Reformists Debate Public Flogging

December 9, 2001 | By A. Savyon*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 80

The United Nations General Assembly recently adopted a resolution by the Human Rights Committee named "The situation of human rights in Iran."[1] Condemning Iran for floggings and stoning people, especially under the age of eighteen, the United Nations General Assembly called upon Iran to enact laws to ensure that people are not punished for exercising their political freedoms.

This resolution came two months after a scathing public debate took place among senior Iranian clerics, politicians, and academics following the implementation of Judiciary sentences of whippings in public of some 200 young Iranian boys and girls convicted of drinking alcohol, "harassing women," attending parties, and listening to Western music,[2] which was also broadcast on prime time television programs. Some young people were also flogged after they celebrated President Khatami's second electoral victory.[3] The public debate on this issue should be viewed as part of the current power struggle in Iran.

Conservative Views on Flogging
According to conservatives, senior clerics, and particularly the Judiciary, which calls for the strict enforcement of Islamic law, flogging is the appropriate Islamic punishment for combating moral crimes, particularly among the youth. They insist on carrying out the punishment in town squares, as "a lesson for all to see." Iran's former Attorney General Ayatollah Morteza Moqtadai insisted that "nobody can stop the practice of the divine rulings according to traditions from early Islam, those who oppose their public execution are seen as standing up against Allah… these objectives, especially as for their deterrent purpose, will not be achieved unless they are executed publicly."[4]

Judiciary Head Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, who instituted a hard-line policy against young people as well as against MPs, many of whom have been indicted and arrested in recent months for criticizing the Judiciary, maintains that criminals such as "murderers, thieves, and depraved individuals" are not entitled to be considered as "having human rights." "It is strange," he said, "that we demanded Allah treat harmful people in the same way we treat [pious] Allah-fearing people."[5]

Chief Justice Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi-Gilani stated that, "in a Muslim country run according to Islamic Shi'a law,[6] the Islamic structure cannot be hidden." Moreover, "even if the convicted dies under flogging, nobody is responsible and the public flogging should be carried out in accordance with the divine laws… Civil law [alone] cannot heal the social wounds and… cannot run the society. Pressure is needed for keeping order in a society… The divine and religious laws do not belong [personally] to me, the Judiciary Chief [Ayatollah Sharhroudi] or the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei]. All people are equal before the divine laws."[7]

Reformist Views on Flogging
Senior clerics, reform MPs, – among them Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Moussavi-Lari, Intelligence Minister Ali Younesi – and even President Mohammad Khatami - opposed the use of flogging, due to, among other things, the serious damage it does to the country's image as it seeks to be viewed as a progressive, democratic society that guarantees human rights.[8] Leading reformist cleric Ayatollah Muhammad Tabatabai-Qoumi disagreed with Shahroudi on the issue of convicts' rights claiming that "every person has basic rights." He dismissed the custom of flogging as "anachronistic" and criticized the attempt "to turn back the clock, like the Taliban in Afghanistan."[9] Another cleric, Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, rejected the position of the Judiciary, which ruled on the issue of flogging without first consulting with the clerics. The head of the Iran Police Ideology Department, Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Ali Rahmani, also opposed public floggings, quoting the late Imam Khomeini as saying, "in instances where carrying out Islamic rules would present a rough picture of religion, the practice should be halted."[10]

President Khatami criticized what he called "severe measures of oppression against youth": "In a society where discrimination, poverty, and graft abound, you cannot expect young people not to break the law and stay on the right course… You cannot remove social corruption with tough punishment.'"[11] Khatami also sharply condemned statements by a number of conservative clerics who called for implementing the methods of the Taliban in Afghanistan as an effective means of maintaining security and public order.[12] Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi claimed that the floggings "are likely to present a violent image of Islam."[13] Deputy Foreign Minister Mohsen Aminzadeh complained of the damage done to Iran by the adherence to public Islamic punishment: "The Foreign Ministry cannot promote the policy of detente without the Judiciary's support…" He said that under the Khatami administration, Iran had shed its image as a "violent terrorist state" but that some would "make the world disillusioned with our model of 'Islamic democracy.' The behavior of the Judiciary and the security forces… creates problems for us."[14]

Chief Justice Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi-Gilani condemned Aminzadeh's claims, stressing that "no foreign entity can interfere in [Iran's] internal affairs."[15] Leading cleric Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi also defied Aminzadeh's position, asking, "Should we feel ashamed of executing Islamic injunctions…? If the Westerners do not like it, it is their problem, but the death penalty and floggings are fundamental principles of our religion."[16] Moreover, during Friday worship he spoke out against reformist intellectuals, charging that, "99% of them, mostly those who studied in foreign countries, are opposed to the enforcement of Islamic law." The intellectuals, he continued, "because of their weak faith… are satisfied in the bottom of their hearts when the laws of Islam are not observed."[17]

His words sparked enraged responses from reformist politicians and academics, and were condemned by Parliament Speaker Mahdi Karrubi, who apologized to intellectuals and students in Iran in his capacity as a cleric.[18] Leading academic Najafqoli Habibi responded mockingly, "It seems that some people in Iran have the ability to read others' thoughts… The gentleman [Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi] must be capable of telling... how he managed to read such a large group's hearts and minds…" Habibi stated that, even if some have objected to the Judiciary's method of punishing (i.e. flogging) young people, it does not mean that they are also opposed to punishing criminals and one cannot conclude that they are, therefore, pagans. In a reverse attack on the conservatives, Habibi reminded them that "accusing others, and sowing the seeds of pessimism in society" are, ethically speaking, punishable crimes in Iran.[19]

Prominent reformist cleric and intellectual Hojjatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar expressed "profound sadness" that "there are those who identify themselves as religion itself and mark their rivals and critics as the enemies of Islam, Allah, and the Prophet Muhammad, or present them as pagans or heretics." He invited conservative Mesbah Yazdi to a public debate on interpretations of Islam aimed at clarifying whether flogging, imprisonment, violence, and force were compatible with the commandments of the Prophet.[20]

Meanwhile, in high-level meetings, the ramifications of public punishment of youth were discussed. The participants agreed that public floggings could be justified if they had a "constructive" result, [but] it "was not advisable, in case it had a destructive effect on the image of Iran."[21] Nevertheless, it was decided that the Supreme National Security Council would decide on the matter, because "Islamic punishment should not be considered only from a legal point of view."[22]

*Ayelet Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project

[1]Document A/C.3/56/L.50, GA/SHC/3677, November 30, 2001, 56th General Assembly, Third Committee, 53rd meeting (AM).

[2] IRNA, August 1, 2001.

[3] IRNA, August 7, 2001; Al-Sharaq Al-Awsat, August 30, 2001. It should be noted that the penalty of whipping is included in the new directives issued by the Judiciary; the directives include a ban on shaven Muslim men entering public facilities and closures of shops selling Western goods such as tee-shirts, videotapes, and cosmetics.

[4] IRNA, August 23, 2001; October 5, 2001.

[5] Al-Sharaq Al-Awsat, August 30, 2001.

[6] Shi'a is the second largest Muslim denomination next to Sunnah, but the largest in Iran.

[7] IRNA, August 30, 2001.

[8] IRNA, August 7, 2001; Iran Daily, July 29, 2001.

[9] Iran Daily, August 27, 2001; Al-Sharaq Al-Awsat, August 30, 2001.

[10] Iran Daily, September 10, 2001.

[11] IRNA, August 28, 2001.

[12] IRNA, September 1, 2001.

[13] IRNA, August 23, 2001; August 27, 2001.

[14] Hambastegi, August 28, 2001; Iran News, August 29, 2001.

[15] IRNA, August 30, 2001.

[16] Norouz, July 28, 2001; Iran Daily, August 26, 2001.

[17] Tehran Times, August 27, 2001.

[18] Tehran Times, August 27, 2001; Norouz, August 27, 2001.

[19] IRNA, August 26, 2001.

[20] Nourouz, August 27, 2001; Iran News, August 27, 2001.

[21] Hayat-e No, August 27, 2001; IRNA, August 27, 2001.

[22] Iran Daily, August 29, 2001.

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