Imam Mohamed El Sadi, the Muslim leader in Malta, believes chopping off the hands of thieves is a "deserving punishment".
Mr El Sadi made the statement during Monday's television programme Bondiplus, where he defended Sharia law, a judicial system used in some Islamic states and which can involve severe corporal punishments.
Contacted yesterday, Mr El Sadi stood by his comments and added the world was incurring the "wrath of God" through its permissiveness and destruction of spiritual and moral values, namely through the acceptance of "same-sex marriages, homosexuality, adultery and abortion".
Under Sharia law, such things are considered crimes that may even be punishable by death. When asked if the he agreed with such punishments he said: "Yes, of course. I agree with everything Islamic."
The TV show discussed whether crucifixes should be banned from classrooms. When presenter Lou Bondì asked Mr El Sadi if Muslims could be more tolerant and "light-hearted" in their reactions to parody and criticism, Mr El Sadi said Europe's permissive values were not necessarily ideal.
"Are same-sex marriages a value? What is this value? If in the future the majority of people want the right for men to marry cats, dogs or horses, will we make a law to fulfil these wishes," Mr El Sadi asked.
Mr Bondì then asked whether religion should dictate the laws of the country, through, say, Sharia law.
"What is wrong with Sharia law? If someone steals, he is taking from the country or the poor, so why is it wrong to cut off his hand?" the Imam replied.
Mr El Sadi said the punishment should terrify thieves and criminals, "not the good people".
When speaking to The Times about his remarks, the Imam said: "Why don't you concentrate on what is common rather than pick on what is controversial?"
He said he was not proposing this system for Europe because it would be undemocratic. But it was also undemocratic for Muslim countries not to use it because most Muslims wanted it.
The system was practised in Saudi Arabia for centuries and yielded results but many Muslim-majority countries believed in secularism and did not employ such practice, he said.
He conceded there were different kinds of Muslims who thought of Sharia differently. "But whoever denies this is not a Muslim," he said, adding the law of God was perfect.
He said there were many safeguards to ensure Sharia law was applied justly, through a court system that depended on having several witnesses. "This does not apply to thieves who are poor or hungry. This is for people who have everything and want more; people who are greedy... The point is to frighten criminals."
Fr Renè Camilleri, who was also a guest on the programme, said he was "shocked" by the Imam's comments.
"I tried to insist violence is unacceptable. The concept is horrific to me. It is equivalent to the death penalty. I know it is what Sharia law dictates but, coming from him, such a moderate and tolerant person, I was shocked," he said, adding he never considered the Imam to be a fundamentalist.
Reacting to the television debate, anthropologist Ranier Fsadni warned against "misunderstanding" the comments and said such views were probably not shared by all Muslims in Europe.
He said many migrated because they did not like the society they lived in, while a large number of others came from countries that did not believe Sharia was prescribed by the Quran or meant to be taken literally without taking the culture of the time into context.
"Just as a priest does not necessarily represent all his community, the Imam does not necessarily represent all Muslims in Malta. Then, again, he is respected and appreciated as a pastoral leader."
Mr Fsadni said the Imam was simply being "intellectually honest" and defending his belief and was not proposing the system for Malta. He was also honest about his views of democracy and the rule of the majority.
A video clip with the Imam's comment can be viewed on: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2e2gtOO029U .
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