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Pakistan: Sharia Islamic Law Meets With Slight Opposition

Prague, 3 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's intention to introduce Sharia Islamic law into Pakistan is meeting strong political opposition, but the chances of blocking it appear slim.

A constitutional amendment which would establish the new Islamic order was introduced into parliament last week (Aug. 28). As Sharif has the support of two-thirds of the National Assembly, the lower house, the amendment should pass there. Opposition hopes are pinned on blocking it in the Senate, but prospects for that are uncertain.

The Awami National Party's Senator Ajmal Khattack says opposition parties will form a grand alliance against the imposition of Sharia, and that they will seek popular support. Pakistan People's Party leader Benazir Bhutto claims Sharif wants to impose the same sort of repressive Islamic rule the Taliban have imposed on Afghanistan.

Sharif denies that, as well as accusations that he is using Sharia as a cloak to give himself and his government sweeping powers. But the exact social and political geography of Pakistan under a Sharia order is unclear. The fear that haunts Pakistani liberals is that their society could come to resemble that of neighboring Afghanistan. There the Taliban have imposed, for instance, almost total restrictions on women, who are now deprived of education, must wear all-encompassing attire in public, and can only be seen in the street in the company of a male relative.

RFE/RL regional analyst Bruce Pannier says he believes that Pakistan's generally more liberal traditions will preserve it from adopting such an extreme form of Islamic law.

"The Koran itself, just like the Bible or probably any holy book or any constitution, can be interpreted differently by different people. They can see grains of something in certain parts that they interpret as being liberal or conservative. In Pakistan's case I would say that if such a system is introduced, it would not be anything like what the Taliban has created. However, part of Sharia does necessitate a male-dominated society."

The aspect of male domination does imply that under the new order women would suffer some increased level of discrimination, for instance in higher education and upper levels of employment. But no-one knows for sure the full extent of the proposed new order. Who would enforce observance of Islamic law? If it would be the existing police, that implies considerably increased power for the police forces. Or would a new "religious" police be established, whose zeal might exceed the norms expected by the government?

There are clearly ways the new order could be used by those with political power to their own advantage. There is a long tradition throughout the region that leaders justify their actions by saying they are guided by Islamic principles. And opposition parties can be easily punished. For instance a panel of clerics close to the government could simply declare any specific activities of Pakistani opposition parties to be un-Islamic.

"It would definitely curtail the activities of the political opposition, there is no doubt about it. In this move to introduce Sharia we can clearly see political motivations on the part of Mr Sharif. He has already many opponents within the government and among the population. But by saying that we are going to be guided by just Islamic teachings he appeals to a great segment of society who consider themselves devout Muslims. These people think that a system of justice can be devised from the Koran which will provide a fair and just system for everyone, from the poorest to the most wealthy".

If the government in Islamabad succeeds in its plans, that would mean that three major states in the region --Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan-- would follow variations of Islamic law. In addition Tajikistan has some Islamist elements in its ruling coalition. Analysts however see those countries as having so little in common that they would be unlikely to form any sort of unified front potentially threatening other states. Indeed, for widely differing reasons, Pakistan is already seen as a regionally disruptive factor by rival India, and also by Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.