From medieval torture to modern rights

From medieval torture to modern rights

This little Italian town overlooking the beautiful plains of Toscana is breathtaking for even the most experienced tourist, with its marvelous intricate architecture and splendid food. But what really got me here was the Torture Museum, which was full of instruments that inquisitors or other interrogators used on their victims. One of them is a “skull breaker,” a rusty device that literally was used to press a man’s (or a woman’s) head until it broke into pieces. Another cutting-edge piece of technology is the “rectal pair,” used to open people’s rectum, in order to thrust inside hot iron or other mean objects. 

All in all, the Torture Museum in Montepulciano, as similar exhibits elsewhere, is a painful yet helpful reminder of how people can be cruel to each other, and how most shocking examples of cruelty were an accepted norm in what we now call the Middle Ages. It makes you thankful to be living in an age where human rights are widely accepted and torture is marginalized - though still present, unfortunately, from the dungeons of China to the “black sites” of CIA. 

A curious detail in medieval torture is the role of Christianity in its making. Today, Christianity often acts in the world as a humanist force, by advocating love, feeding the poor or vaccinating babies. (The new pope is also offering an increasingly tolerant interpretation of the faith, an opening that I am carefully observing.) But medieval Christianity, particularly Catholicism, was quite different, as it justified or even perpetrated some of the most horrific cruelties against “heretics” or other unfortunate groups. 

Meanwhile, Islam, a religion which is today often associated with violence, was in fact perceived as a much more humane religion in medieval times. As I wrote before in these pages, (“Why shariah was once great,” June 16, 2012), Islamic was then not seen as oppressive, but fair and even liberating:
“The shariah’s ‘due process’ ruled out torture, which was the standard method of interrogation in Europe until modern times. Jurists from the Hanafi school, the most liberal-leaning of the four main Sunni branches, even proposed that ‘a judge who extorted confession in a capital case was himself liable to execution.’

“The punishments of the shariah, too, were softer when compared to those in Europe, until as late as the 18th century. That was why the officials of the British East India Company, which colonized parts of the subcontinent in 1750s, would find Islamic law ‘unduly lenient’ and devoid of enough provisions for capital punishment.” 

The tragedy is that while human rights advanced in modern Europe, Islamic law stagnated in the hands of conservatives, or, for worse, even became more rigid at the hand of fundamentalists. That is why today scenes of “Islamic” executions in Syria, for example, shock the world as horrific, while European standards represent human dignity. 

The question is, then, whether the contemporary Western concern for human rights (which is sometimes compromised by the West as well) can develop in other parts of the world, including the Muslim world. I am an optimist and my answer is “yes.” Those skeptics who insist on “no” should perhaps recall medieval Christianity, and its fondness of torture, as a reality check.