Evil, In the Name of God

Deal W. Hudson
May 31, 2009

On June 26, a powerful film about the stoning of an Iranian woman accused by her husband of adultery will open in ten cities around the country. When a friend called to invite me to see a preview of The Stoning of Soraya M., I was initially hesitant.

“Is the film trying to demonize Muslims?” I asked her.

“Absolutely not,” she answered. She explained that the movie is based upon a book relating to the true story of Soraya Manutchehri, who was stoned to death in 1986. As she described to me the different characters in the small Muslim village, I realized that this was the kind of human tale that, sadly, can happen in any community where the power of life and death is held in the hands of an unaccountable few.

Arthur Miller told the Christian version of the same story in “The Crucible,” which was set in the midst of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.

The film, as it turns out, was overwhelming. The Stoning of Soraya M. reduced everyone in the room to stunned silence. I was so affected, my own voice could hardly rise above a whisper after I left the screening. This is a film that needs to be seen by every earnest person of faith who wishes that “something could be done” about the degradation of our society. There are indeed temptations, lurking just below the surface, for those who act to enforce “community standards.”

The character pushing the plot is the husband of Soraya – Ali – played with villainous gusto by Iranian actor Navin Negahban. When we first meet him, Ali has fallen for another woman – the 14-year old daughter of a wealthy man – and is looking for a way to be rid of his wife. He enlists the village leaders to force her to work for the recently widowed Hashem. But Soraya’s presence in the house of another man provides Ali with the opportunity to accuse her of adultery.

Ali enlists the local mullah and mayor to support his claims, which everyone knows could lead to Soyara’s death by ritual stoning. The mullah played well by Ali Pourtash, is corrupt but abuses the community’s reverence for Islam to maintain his power. The mayor, Ebrahim (David Diaan), a man of good will and conscience, initially doubts Ali’s claim and distrusts the mullah. Watching him gradually pulled into Ali’s conspiracy gives the film its universal scope. The village of Kupayeh, you realize, is no different from any city where ideology or religion strictly guides the daily life of its citizens.

The tide turns against Soraya when Hashem gives false evidence against her. He initially refused but caves in after the mullah threaten to use the power of Sharia law to kill him and send his son to a mental hospital or prison. “God forgive me,” Hashem utters as he lies to protect himself and his son.

The heroine of The Stoning is Soraya’s aunt, Zahra, played with unforgettable poignancy by Shohreh Aghdashloo. (All the actors are Iranian, with the exception of Jim Caviezel, who plays the journalist Freidoune – an accidental visitor to the town.) Zahra sees Ali’s schemes, warns Soraya, and fights the husband, the mullah, and the mayor, risking her own life to save her niece. When she can’t save Soraya, she seizes the opportunity presented by Freidoune’s arrival.

The final scenes of the movie show the stoning. Soraya is buried up to her waist in the sandy soil, with her arms bound behind her back. Her father, who has joined the angry mob, is given the first stones. “She is no longer my daughter,” he yells as he throws them. When they fall nowhere near his daughter, Zahra tries to intervene, saying this is a sign the stoning should stop. Some of the women shriek their agreement as Zahra is dragged away. Ali, seeing the mood about to change, grabs some stones himself, and makes sure he finds his target.

When Soraya’s two boys take stones in their hands, I realized I was watching a kind of abortion in reverse.

“I will tell the world,” Zahra tells Soraya as she prepares for her death. She kept her promise, and both the book and this film are her witness. Most movies we watch are enjoyed and forgotten overnight – The Stoning of Soraya M. will leave you changed and forever on guard against the abuse of divine law.

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