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Pakistan: Provincial Parliament Votes For Sharia Law, Critics Fear 'Talibanization'

  • Ron Synovitz

A provincial parliament in Pakistan has passed legislation that, once approved by the regional governor, will bring an area along the border with Afghanistan under Islamic Sharia law.

Prague, 3 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The provincial parliament in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) has unanimously approved legislation designed to bring the area along the border with Afghanistan under Islamic Sharia law.

The legislation was proposed by the United Action Council (MMA), an alliance of six religious parties in Pakistan that previously had sympathized with Afghanistan's Taliban regime and which won an absolute majority of seats in the NWFP Assembly through elections last October.

To become law, the so-called Sharia Act still must be signed by the retired military general who serves as the governor of the North West Frontier Province, Sayed Istikhar Hussain Shah. Political observers say he is widely expected to sign the legislation.

One controversial aspect of the legislation is the creation of a department of vice and virtue in the province. Critics compare that plan to the Taliban's notorious Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Discouragement of Vice in Afghanistan.

Aqil Shah, an independent political analyst based in Islamabad, described these concerns to RFE/RL in an interview today: "The fear that somehow the MMA is leading the province to Talibanization is a legitimate concern because [of] the creation of this force for prevention of vice and promotion of virtue. And while MMA leaders have been keen to dispel the impression that [the province is] going the Taliban way, there are fears that once such a force is established that the police may impose public standards of morality that smack of Taliban policies."

The province's chief minister, Akram Durrani, says Sharia law will be implemented immediately in the province and that there will be no place in the province for people who refuse to follow it.

Under Sharia law, judgments are reached with reference to Islamic teaching. In the most severe cases, punishments could include amputations of hands for theft and stoning to death for adultery.

In an interview with Reuters, the provincial law minister, Malik Zafar Azam, declined to clarify what the move to Sharia law might entail. When asked about the Sharia Act, Azam said there is nothing new in it. "They are the same laws; the same old things. For example, the Sharia will be the supreme law of the province. All the laws in the province will be interpreted according to Sharia. In the same way, we have done everything to keep the system of the courts clean," he said.

In addition to the department of virtue and vice, the new legislation also calls for the creation of committees to bring the province's judicial, educational, and financial systems in line with Sharia law. It requires that Islamic law be taught in schools, and it prohibits the display of firearms.

Qazi Asad, an opposition member of the NWFP Assembly, said concerns about the Talibanization of the NWFP are unfounded. "Internationally, maybe we might slightly be misunderstood. [Pakistan] is an Islamic country, but when you see specifically in context with Afghanistan and what we had with Afghanistan and what we had with the Taliban, maybe the world is going to perceive this as another Talibanization of the Frontier Province. But personally, I don't believe that it is going to make any difference economically or socially," he said.

Others are not so sure. Saeed Khan, another opposition member of the NWFP parliament, said the Sharia Act is a way for the MMA to appease populist demands from religious conservative voters while ignoring the real issues facing the area -- such as poverty and the critical need for development. "The issue is not about Islam. It is all for public consumption. I say that these are more cosmetic changes but of no substance. There is no substance in the issue. There is hardly any material in it," Khan said.

A woman at Peshawar University, who asked not to be identified by name, said she thinks many of the provincial officials now imposing Islamic law on the residents of the NWFP are corrupt themselves. "Most of these people [in the MMA] roam around in illegal cars and impose laws on us. Many of our ministers have factories, and they do not pay taxes on them. And these people are sitting in our parliament, making laws for us. I did not vote for them, and I do not favor them," she said.

In recent weeks, Islamist youths have been tearing down billboards in the province that feature photographs of women and Western products. Musicians and dancers have been driven from the province as police enforce unofficial bans on music and performances. Mobs also have torn cassette players out of buses and ransacked music shops.

One recently passed law in the province requires all civil servants to pray five times a day. Other recent legislation makes the salwar kameez -- the traditional long smock and trousers -- the uniform for colleges and schools, and bans men from training or watching female athletes.

Aqil Shah told RFE/RL that the lack of opposition to the bill from the federal government of President Pervez Musharraf belies a deeper political crisis in Pakistan. He said it appears Musharraf may be attempting to gain backing from religious conservatives in the MMA for a series of controversial amendments to Pakistan's constitution.

"While technically, federal legislation can overrule provincial laws, [it appears] that the federal government has decided to look the other way and ignore what the MMA is doing in the provincial assembly in return for the support from the religious alliance -- both as a coalition partner in Baluchistan Province, as well as a possible deal on the legal framework order through which General Musharraf has institutionalized the military's role in politics and which is now at the center of the political conflict that is unfolding in Pakistan," Aqil Shah said.

After seizing power in a bloodless military coup more than three years ago, then confirming his self-declared presidency a year ago through a controversial referendum, Musharraf issued a series of decrees that have changed Pakistan's constitution -- empowering himself to disband parliament and sack the cabinet at will.

Aqil Shah concluded that Musharraf likely would not let the NWFP's legislature establish Sharia law if the federal government had stronger backing from voters for his presidency and the constitutional amendments he has imposed.

"My fear is that the federal government might turn a blind eye [and], in a sense, reward the MMA for showing flexibility on General Musharraf's status as president and all the other controversial amendments that he has introduced to the constitution. I think it will all depend on how that conflict plays out at the center," Aqil Shah said.

Members of the Shi'ite Muslim minority in the NWFP also are concerned about their welfare under Sharia law in the Sunni-dominated province. Shi'ite community leader Allama Fakhrul Hassan Kararvi notes that while non-Muslims are exempt from the legislation, the present language of the Sharia Act is silent about the religious rights of Shi'ites.

Kararvi says that in order to respect the basic rights of Shi'ite Muslims, the Sharia Act also must categorically state that the Shi'ites can have their own religious code.