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1998 In Review: Pakistanis Continue Debate Over Shari'a Law

Prague, 14 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif began at the end of this summer a drive to institute Shari'a -- Islamic law -- in his country. But defining just what that means is difficult.

Shari's is the set of rules that the prophet Mohammed, articulator of the faith, imposed over a great area. But it has been refined continually as Arab conquests, and other events, spread the religion. in each place, Shari'a took on specific features related to the culture. Describing Shari'a now is like describing the color blue -- cerulean, cobalt, sky, or some other shade or tone.

Leaders of Islamic countries have employed Shari'a to legitimize their rule. Emirs, sultans, shahs and others ruled by the principle of divine right, and clerics often interpreted Shari'a to conform to a ruler's style of authority. That way, defiance of the law wasn't just disobedience to a head of state; it was a sin before Allah.

As H.A.R. Gibb wrote in his book "Mohammedanism," Shari'a is "not a product of human intelligence (but) of divine inspiration and hence immutable."

The Pakistani prime minister's campaign has aroused concern in his country, a multi-ethnic state whose majority is Muslim but whose population includes many others.

In November, Sharif fueled still greater concern when he referred admiringly to the style of Shari'a practiced by the Taliban religious movement in neighboring Afghanistan. Sharif said that "in Afghanistan crimes have virtually come to naught. I have heard that one can safely drive a vehicle full of gold at midnight without fear. I want this kind of system in Pakistan. Justice will end oppression and bring prosperity."

But many, especially human rights organizations, argue that the Taliban version of Shari'a has neither ended oppression nor brought prosperity to the 90 percent of Afghanistan under the movement's control. The form of Shari'a imposed by the Taliban is surely one of the strictest in the history of Islam.

Many elements of Taliban Islamic law are familiar: amputation of limbs for some criminals and executions for others, enforcement of daily prayer, and the requirement that a woman wear all-concealing clothing and be accompanied by a male relative when she ventures out into public. Some prohibitions confuse even other Muslims, such as prohibitions against television, movies, music (except Taliban songs), kite flying and paper bags.

Beyond the edict of total concealment for women, there are also laws they may not wear white socks or make any sound with their feet when walking in public. Taliban leaders explain such restrictions by saying that such things distract one's attention from thoughts of Allah or religious duty.

However, there is truth to Taliban claims that order has returned to areas under their control. For most of the 20 years that local warlords and invaders have waged war in the country, hundreds of armed groups have victimized the weak and innocent, who had no one to appeal to for justice. By comparison, there is a severe kind of stability under the Taliban.

Stability is what the Pakistani prime minister claims is spurring support for Shari'a in his country. There are arguments which support him. Widespread corruption is reported in the Pakistani government (and Sharif is among those accused).

Ethnic and religious disputes -- along with criminal behavior --

have turned the southern port city of Karachi at times into a free-fire zone. And, while Pakistan's nuclear tests in May afforded the population a brief opportunity for national pride, the international embargoes imposed on Pakistan following the tests have compounded a grave economic situation.

Some Islamic groups in Pakistan, but not all, have joined Sharif's calls for the introduction of Shari'a. The National Assembly, lower house, adopted a proposed amendment to the constitution. But the Senate is unlikely to go along..

Many suspect that Sharif backs Shari'a as a device for consolidating power into his own hands.

Even if Pakistan were to adopt Shari'a as the basis for its law, it is unlikely the form would follow the Taliban version. Taliban Shari'a reflects the rural character of the movement's leadership, mixed with a generation of war experience. Pakistan's leadership is more cosmopolitan and better educated and is surely aware that the introduction of Shari'a, as the Taliban interpret it, would create more problems than it would solve in Pakistan.