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Spain: 'Wife-beating' Imam Gets Sentence And Sparks Debate

A Muslim cleric in Spain has been convicted of inciting violence for a book in which he advises how husbands might beat their wives. RFE/RL reports that women's groups in Spain have hailed the verdict, but free-speech advocates say it could be counterproductive.

Prague, 16 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It's not the kind of tip normally found in advice books these days. In his book, "Women in Islam," Muhammad Kamal Mustafa advised husbands how to punish their wayward wives.

Wives must be beaten, he wrote, "on specific parts of the body, such as the hands and feet," Husbands should use "a stick that is not too big so that it does not leave scars or bruises."

Authorities were not impressed, and now the Saudi-born cleric, the imam of the Spanish town of Feungirola, has been convicted of inciting violence on the basis of gender and given a 15-month suspended sentence. Spanish women's groups are delighted and see the sentence as a victory in their campaign against domestic violence.

Jadicha Candela is a lawyer for the Federation of Muslim Entities and the Islamic Commission, and head of the Al-Nisa Muslim women's association. She said the sentence "confirms our opinion, the opinion of all Muslim women who live in Spain gathered in a congress. We have the same opinion, which is that it is forbidden completely to use is [not consistent with] Islam."

At his trial, Mustafa said he was merely referring to a verse from the Koran, which says husbands can use limited physical punishment as a last resort against errant wives. It says men should first admonish their wives, then refuse to have sexual relations with them. If all that fails, they can use some sort of physical chastisement -- often now translated as a "light tap."

Mustafa is not the first person to get into trouble for interpreting this tricky verse. Four years ago a retired Turkish cleric sparked outrage with his "Muslim's Handbook," which contained similar "wife-beating" advice to husbands.

But Mustafa's case is unusual -- at least in Western democracies with freedom of religion -- in that it has resulted in a conviction. Free-speech advocates say it could backfire.

Ursula Owen is the editor in chief of the London-based Index on Censorship. She says the verdict could send the debate about Islam and women's rights "underground" and make Mustafa a hero to people who feel they now cannot voice their opinions. "It's a deeply unpleasant thing that he's written about," she said. "But there is a particular free-speech issue in a country which is a democracy and where there is space for debate. Censoring and imprisoning people, for what they believe and what they write, doesn't solve problems.... [He's] not the only man in the Muslim world that believes this, so the more these things can be aired and debated and argued against, the more likely it is that attitudes can change."

Observers say there could be an element of prejudice at work, too. It's hard to imagine a Christian cleric being prosecuted for interpreting one of the many violent verses in the Bible. How about the one from the book of Deuteronomy, which says if a man rapes a virgin who is not pledged to be married he must pay the girl's father and marry her. That, too, sounds absurd to modern ears, but is now usually translated as having a "softer" meaning -- a voluntary relationship instead of rape.

But many in Spain's Muslim community supported Mustafa's sentencing. And Candela says it will help dispel any notion non-Muslims might have that Islam condones violence against women. She also rejects the free-speech argument. She said that while Mustafa's lawyer argued that the case is a question of free speech, the judges ruled "[that] free speech has a limit, the limit is the crime as described in the Penal Code. The sentence is very clear: the interpretation of Koran or any sacred text is free but is [within] the limit that the Penal Code establishes. So I don't think the sentence will be a danger for Islam."

Mustafa's lawyer says he will appeal.