Are there any tribes, cults, cultures, etc. within which human sacrifice is still performed as a religious practice? The depictions of human sacrifice under the Aztecs, for instance, never failed to stir my imagination as I would feel nauseated and terrified by the thought of how it must have felt to be one of the victims who would be taken to the top of a temple, laid down on a stone slab, and then have their abdomens sliced open as their beating hearts were taken out. The Aztecs performed these sacrifices to appease specific gods.
Let me not only pick on the Aztecs. Upon browsing through Wikipedia, one will find that human sacrifice was practiced within several different cultures or religious groups throughout the world. However, Wikipedia treated human sacrifice as an ancient rite which no longer finds acceptance in modern religions. While there is considerable violence around the world in the name of religion, the recognized religions of today condemn human sacrifice as a barbaric practice. Although I believed that the last vestiges of human sacrifice disappeared over a century ago, I recently discovered that it was still being practiced and legally recognized in “modern” day Iran where Sakineh Mohammedie Ashtiani was sentenced to die by an ancient ritualistic practice under the pretense of religion.
Sakineh Mohammedie Ashtiani, a forty-three year old mother of two who was convicted of adultery by an Iranian court, was sentenced to death by stoning. Stoning is a recognized form of execution under Iran’s penal code which is based on Islamic Law. Considering that the Quran, unlike the Bible, does not mention stoning as a prescribed method of execution, the practice finds its legality under Iran’s debatable interpretation of Sharia law which is considered by Muslims to be God’s law. So how is stoning carried out? After the convicted individual who is a female in the vast majority of cases is wrapped in a white shroud from head to toe and buried in a hole up to her breasts, rocks are then thrown at her head until she dies. Article 104 of Iran’s Penal Code specifically states that the appropriate stones for carrying out the killing “not be large enough to kill the person by one or two strikes; nor should they be so small that they could not be defined as stones”. While I am not aware that geologists or lawyers are employed for the purpose of selecting and defining stones that fit the proper legal standard, it is obvious that death must be inflicted by extremely painful means. Apparently, according to reports of such stoning executions, anywhere from ten to thirty minutes of pelting the victim’s head with rocks by a group of citizens usually accomplishes the goal.
Based on international pressure, Iran appears to have modified the means of execution for Ashtiani to the more internationally accepted practice of hanging. While Ashtiani may dodge the stone, only to be caught by the noose, there are still others in Iran who are condemned to die by stoning. At this point, I will not discuss my views against the death penalty or whether the means of execution are irrelevant because Ashtiani is sentenced to die one way or the other. However, I want to return to the assertion that human sacrifice is practiced in Iran. While I oppose the death penalty regardless of whether it is recognized in democracies such as the United States, Japan and India or in autocracies like China, North Korea and Zimbabwe, none of these nations bring religion into the picture to justify taking one’s life. Religion is supposed to be about higher values despite all the violence that takes place in its name. To kill someone to appease the gods or God not only flies in the face of religious idealism , but fits the basic definition of human sacrifice.
Wikipedia defines human sacrifice as “the act of killing one or more human beings as part of a religious ritual”. As Iran recognizes and carries out the act of stoning specifically under the dictates of “God’s law” and for the purpose of fulfilling or abiding by God’s will, the ritual is cloaked in religion. Human sacrifice is therefore well and alive in Iran. So what is the point of proving that such a gory relic exists in the country? For those who think that the ritual is an extinct practice which may be read about in history books or a sensational event that is covered by Hollywood action flicks, today there exist human beings who are set to be sacrificed in Iran for the purpose of fulfilling or abiding by God’s will.
The purpose of referring to Iran as a state sponsor of human sacrifice is not really to stick it with an “evil empire” or “axis of evil” label, but to demonstrate just how far the country has fallen from the norms of decency. While the country is joined by the human rights challenged nations of Saudi Arabia and Somalia in the stone casting club, Iran is in the spotlight due to all the international attention on the Ashtiani case. The level of shock around the world is such that even President Lula of Brazil took the unusual and diplomatically unnecessary step of going out of his way to offer Ashtiani asylum while he embraces and forges closer relations with Iran.
In the midst of hearing about Ashtiani’s horrific ordeal, I somehow felt a strange sense of pity for Iran. In considering the great history of the Persian Empire, it is difficult to believe that the Iran of today actually exists. While civilizations may have their highs and lows, for an act such as stoning to have official sanction in modern times is difficult to fathom. Under the country’s present circumstances, it is comical to hear Iran barking out moral protestations against the West and the rest of the world when it has no shame about how it treats and yes, sacrifices, its own citizens.
Ashtiani’s children are bravely making an international plea for help in saving their mother’s life. One can only hope that she is granted asylum in Brazil along with her children. While Iran is well recognized for its human rights abuses, stoning one to death, and that too for an offense such as adultery, is such a savage and barbaric act that it should completely soak up ones conscience. So long as the practice of stoning continues in Iran, Iran will continue to live in the Stone Age.