By ROBERT F. WORTH
Published: August 21, 2010, The New York Times
It may be the oldest form of execution in the world, and it is certainly among the most barbaric. In the West, death by stoning is so remote from experience that it is best known through Monty Python skits and lurid fiction like Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.”
Yet two recent real world cases have struck a nerve: a young couple were stoned to death last week in northern Afghanistan for trying to elope, in a grim sign of the Taliban’s resurgence. And last month, an international campaign rose up in defense of an Iranian woman, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who had been sentenced to death by stoning on adultery charges. Much of the outrage those cases generated — apart from the sheer anachronism of stoning in the 21st century — seems to stem from the gulf between sexual attitudes in the West and parts of the Islamic world, where some radical movements have turned to draconian punishments, and a vision of restoring a long-lost past, in their search for religious authenticity. The stoning of adulterers was once aimed at preventing illegitimate births that might muddy the male tribal bloodlines of medieval Arabia. But it is now taking place in a world where more and more women demand reproductive freedoms, equal pay and equal status with men — in parts of the Islamic world as well as throughout the West. Those clashing perspectives became apparent last month when Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, offered to grant asylum to Ms. Ashtiani, the Iranian woman convicted of adultery. His comments made clear that he viewed her as a victim — Brazil is not exactly known for its severe attitudes toward out-of-wedlock sex — and an online petition for her release drew hundreds of thousands of signatures. The case became an embarrassment to the Iranian government, which values its warm diplomatic ties with Brazil. The Iranian authorities quickly...