Sentenced to study theology

Is Iran taking a turn toward the more humane and lenient? Is it becoming more forgiving of people’s failures to grovel to The Prophet enough? Or is it just that some courts are a little less fanatically theocratic than others? One high court, at any rate, swapped a death sentence for a two year theology sentence – still grim, but less permanent.

An Iranian man who was on death row for allegedly insulting the prophet Muhammad has had his sentence commuted to reading 13 religious books and studying theology for two years.

Soheil Arabi, 31, was arrested by members of the Iranian revolutionary guards in November 2013 in connection with Facebook postings which the Iranian judiciary deemed insulting to the founder of Islam. He was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death.

I’ll help him out. Mohammed had garlic breath. Mohammed was no fun at parties. Mohammed had terrible taste in shoes. Mohammed was a terrible cook. Mohammed sprayed spit when he talked.

The commuting of Arabi’s death sentence is the first such decision to have been taken by a judiciary court in Iran. It is not clear how many people are on death row in the country for blasphemy, heresy or other religious grounds. Last year a 37-year-old man was executed after being found guilty of insulting the prophet Jonah, making “innovations in the religion” and “spreading corruption on earth”. He had interpreted Jonah’s story in the Qur’an as a symbolic tale.

And for that he was killed. He interpreted an obviously magical or mythological story in an old book as just that, so a large state solemnly executed him.

We get inured to the weirdness of the way humans carry on. We have to, if we don’t want to spend all our time knocking our heads against hard surfaces, but then we don’t do enough to fix the problem. It seems so little to ask – treat old stories as just that, old stories, not as any kind of reason to kill people or punish them or force them to pretend to consider the old stories sacred. Back off. Don’t kill or punish or coerce people except for truly compelling reasons. Your devotion to your  particular old stories is in no way a truly compelling reason. Back off.

The state-owned Jamejam newspaper said Arabi was required to prepare a five-10-page summary of each of the 13 religious books he must read. He then has to write an article about religion and reference at least five -10 of those books. He should study theology for two years and report to the authorities every three months on his progress.

You don’t like our old story? Well! We’ll show you: we’ll make you spend two whole years studying our old story, so ha.

Nassim Papayiann, Amnesty’s campaigner on Iran, said: “International law clearly protects the right to criticise political leaders and religious institutions, even if the criticisms are thought to be shocking or offensive. A sentence that requires an individual to serve time in prison, study theology and read certain books as a punishment, if handed down for peacefully exercised their freedom of expression, clearly tramples over a range of rights, including the right to freedom of belief.”

Freedom of belief has been a rare thing in human history but by god it’s an important one.

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