Imagine a country in which Sharia law prevailed, thieves had their hands cut off, government critics were jailed for life, women could not leave their homes, and Facebook was outlawed. Such a place conjures images of Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, and al-Shabaab-controlled areas of Somalia. This land would be an Islamic police state with no emphasis on personal freedom or human rights. But is it possible that this fictitious nation could be someone’s idea of utopia?
Last week for my 9th grade history class, we discussed the Code of Hammurabi. Hammurabi was an ancient king who conquered most of Mesopotamia, establishing and ruling the mighty Babylonian Empire. Hammurabi is best remembered for his innovative creation of 282 laws that governed almost every aspect of daily life, including marriage, murder, theft, business, and wages. The Code of Hammurabi clearly laid out each law and explained the punishment mandated for violating a law. Many of the punishments adhered to the idea of “an eye for an eye” – if you broke someone’s arm, for example, you would have your arm broken. Committing a murder had a penalty of death. Hammurabi’s code also established the concept of equal justice within one’s social class and people were treated fairly under the law.
For their homework assignment, I told my students to pretend that they were the leader of their own country. What 10 laws would they enact as ruler of their own personal state? I asked them to consider all the rules that they thought were important and to pick out the top ten laws that would be necessary.
Their answers were quite surprising. If you were told to design a legal system from scratch for a new country that you governed, most likely you would focus on ways to help your country achieve economic growth, education, health, and overall happiness and wellbeing. Perhaps you would consider the ideals of Nelson Mandela, George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr. when deciding how to construct a fair and prosperous legal code.
Many of my students’ laws more closely resembled those of Robert Mugabe, Sayyid Qutb, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-il, and Osama bin Laden.
Without further ado, I present 18 of the most draconian laws written by my students. I have reworded some of them to make them more comprehensible. I included a few photos of the laws themselves:
1) If non-believers came to my country, they would be slaves.
2) I would make Islamic rule in my country, like al-Shabaab, because I like Islamic rule.
3) I would kill the men who insulted Allah.
4) No one would ever be allowed to emigrate or leave my country.
5) The Muslims and Christians could not marry, because they have different religions and different culture.
6) If a man is married, and he fornicates with another woman, he will be stoned to death, because fornication is an evil thing.
7) If someone insults the government, they will go to jail for life.
8) If a person steals something, they would have their hand chopped off because Allah says this is fair.
9) Facebook would be illegal, because it is a waste of time. If anyone used Facebook, they would go to jail.
10) If someone opposed my royal family, they would go to jail for 16 years.
11) If a man rapes a woman, the man would be hung.
12) If a man killed another man accidentally, his tribe would have to pay the man’s family 100 camels. If the victim was a woman, his tribe would only have to pay 50 camels, because men are more valuable than women.
13) If a woman refuses to accept a marriage, she would be killed.
14) If a wife disobeys her husband, she will be beaten severely.
15) Men and women would not be equal, because the religion of Islam says so.
16) I would not allow women to leave their home.
17) I would not allow white people to enter my country.
18) Anyone who abused God, I would kill, because they abuse God who created all the world.
Before you judge, let me provide some context. The 9th grade students who wrote these laws are new to the school. Almost all of them have never left Somaliland, and many of them have probably never traveled more than 20 miles from home. Few had ever met a foreigner, a white person, or a non-Muslim before they came to Abaarso Tech. They have been raised in a very conservative Islamic culture and most of their values and beliefs have been almost entirely shaped by their parents, their community, and their local sheikh or imam (Islamic religious leaders). Many people in Somaliland look up to Saudi Arabia and Iran and have a suspicious, negative attitude towards America*.
*Unfortunately, it is easy to see why many Somalis dislike the US. Siad Barre, Somalia’s brutal dictator who largely contributed to the Somali civil war, was supported by America and his regime was given about $100 million a year in aid by the US. After that, the American intervention in Mogadishu and the Black Hawk Down fiasco further alienated the people of Somalia. Add in America’s repeated failures to bring peace to the country, the food aid kleptocracy perpetuated by the West, and Bush’s unpopular wars in Muslim countries, and you get a simmering pot of resentment towards the US.
A lot of what my students wrote down was taken directly from Islamic, or Sharia, law. The idea that a thief should have his hand cut off comes from what the Prophet Muhammad says in the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. As devout Muslims, the notion that many of the students’ utopian laws are derived from the Qur’an is to be expected.
As a teacher, I want to help my students critically think about, analyze, and discuss why events happen and why things are the way they are. I am not here to criticize their views or project my own beliefs onto them – they know far more about Islam and Somali culture than I ever will. At the same time, I pointed out to my students that their own country, Somaliland, is a democracy whose laws are not completely based on the Qur’an. If one gets convicted of theft in Somaliland, they go to prison, they do not get their hand chopped off. Women are allowed to drive, vote, receive an education, and freely do as they please, regardless of what their husbands tell them to do. Certain aspects of the legal system are in accordance with Islamic law, however. Men can legally have up to four wives here and women are barred from holding most positions in politics.
But overall, the legal system that most of my students created was far harsher than any that they themselves have ever experienced. As part of the discussion, I asked my classes why they think Sharia law is not more prevalent in Muslim countries’ legal systems around the world. After all, there are roughly 50 Muslim-majority countries on earth, ranging from Algeria to Azerbaijan, Burkina Faso to Brunei. But only one country that I know of actually uses Sharia law fully in their legal system – Saudi Arabia. Implementation of Sharia law is one of the goals of fundamentalist Islamic movements such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Shabaab in Somalia. My students had a range of answers as to why 98% of Muslim-majority countries (including Somaliland) do not fully adhere to Sharia in a legal sense, with the most common response being that these countries have strayed from their religion.
We moved on to talking about the compatibility of Islam and Western-style democracy, a topic that is widely discussed by preeminent scholars and thinkers around the world. In fact, I see Somaliland as a good example supporting the idea that Islam and democracy can go together. Somaliland is essentially 100% Muslim and some aspects of Islamic law are reflected in the legal system. However, many Western democratic values have also been incorporated and a balance between religion and the state does exist.
Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the verbatim word of Allah. The divine words of God were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, and because of this, the Qur’an acts as a guide for Muslims to follow. There are, however, different interpretations of Islam and different schools of thought regarding Sharia law. I believe it would be greatly beneficial for my students to discuss their religion with a wide variety of Muslims to perhaps recognize that the strict interpretation of the Qur’an that Somali sheikhs and imams have taught them is just one of many different interpretations of Islam out there. I would love to have a panel discussion with Somali religious leaders, Somali Muslim diaspora who have practiced Islam in the West or the Gulf, Muslims from more moderate countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, or Indonesia, and other Muslims who believe that Islam may indeed be compatible with democracy and who have lived peacefully amongst people from other religions.
As I said earlier, I am not interested in interfering with my students’ religion or trying to change their views. What I do want to work on is combating the closed-mindedness that I find far too prevalent amongst my students. For example, as you might expect, almost all Somalis are vehemently against Israel. To be anti-Israel and pro-Palestine in the current day is common, but I have found that this anti-Zionist sentiment means that many of my students refuse to even learn about the ancient Israelites, a people who lived thousands of years ago. For many of them, once they hear that we are studying the history of Judaism, they instantly close up and stop paying attention. To me, this is exactly the mindset that impedes learning. Even if one totally disagrees with a certain people or belief, I think it is still very important to learn about these people to try and understand why they believe the things that they do. Every story has two sides and people do things for a reason. Understanding both viewpoints is a skill that our students really struggle with, primarily because they often refuse to even acknowledge the other side in the argument. No doubt any ardent pro-Palestinian supporter would recognize that in order to build a solid argument as to why a Palestinian state should exist, they would need to possess a deep background of knowledge about Israel and Judaism to strengthen their thesis and act as a solid foundation for their argument. As my parents used to say to me while I was growing up, “closed minds close doors”.
One other important detail to mention is that many of the students’ laws that I found xenophobic or dictatorial have absolutely no connection to Islam. For example, one student wrote that no white people would be allowed to enter his country. I asked him afterwards whether that meant he didn’t want me to be his teacher (I am white and I am in ‘his’ country). He decided to revise his law so that white people would be allowed in his country if they were well-educated teachers. Ha. Other laws controlling freedom of speech or one’s right to travel and migrate elsewhere also have no relation to Islam – they are more reminiscent of heavily-controlled police states like North Korea or Eritrea.
What can I learn from this homework assignment that turned out to be quite revealing? For one thing, I need to remember the cultural context of my students. As a non-religious person myself who was raised in the overwhelmingly secular environment of Northern California, I need to remember that although religion does not play a major role in my life, it is very important to most people around the world and particularly to Somalis. I do have to be careful when approaching certain topics and make sure that I tread carefully and do not offend any of my students. At the same time, I think that in addition to core topics like mathematics, English, history, and biology, some of the most important skills that students should develop in their education are what I will call ‘intangibles’. For example, learning how to critically think, understanding cause and effect relationships, and perhaps most importantly, keeping an open mind when being exposed to new ideas and maintaining a constant curiosity and quest for knowledge.
I do believe that our students can remain firmly rooted in their Somali culture and Islamic religion while still gaining a broad, comprehensive education that exposes them to new ideas and beliefs. The challenge for me as their teacher is to make sure that such an environment exists and is successful.