Friday, February 20, 2009




On the face of it, the furore within Pakistan and without over the imposition of Shariah law in Swat and six other districts of Malakand division in NWFP is nothing more than a storm in a teacup. After all, Pakistan's legal system had been Shariah-ised long ago, and the constitution expressly forbids any law that is repugnant to Islamic law or Shariah. Civil, criminal, evidence, inheritance and personal laws are all Shariah compliant, although punishments prescribed by Islamic laws have been replaced by penalties under English law. In the specific case of Swat, once the Islamic packaging of the Nizam-e-Adl regulations (commonly interpreted as Shariah laws) is stripped away, everything is supposed to remain as it was before, except for certain procedural and structural changes in the judicial system to ensure speedy and inexpensive justice to the people.

The issue in Swat, as indeed in rest of Pakistan, is not about Shariah. It is about who decides what is Shariah. Will this be decided by the State, or will it be decided by radical and obscurantist mullahs like Sufi Muhammad, the head of the extremist movement Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Mohamaddi (TNSM) and father-in-law of the leader of the Swat Taliban, Mullah Fazlullah. Equally important is the question of whether Shariah law will be administered by judicial officers appointed by the state or by the Mullah militias, better known as Taliban. Finally there are the cultural issues that are at the root of any interpretation of Islamic law and which draw the maximum attention and reaction. These include education of girls, employment of women, the issue of keeping beards or the sort of clothes permissible under Islam, the debate over music, dance, painting and photography, allowing women to step out of their homes unescorted by male relatives etc.

All these issues have more to do with exercise of temporal power rather than any spiritual cleansing of society. And this is precisely the reason why the agreement that has been stuck between the Pakistani state and the Islamists is so contentious and dangerous. There are two unmistakable signals that the 'announcement' of the Shariah deal has sent out. Firstly, it shows the desperation and helplessness of the Pakistani state in the face of the unrelenting onslaught of the Taliban, not to mention the utter failure to restore the writ and authority of the state. Second, it signals the start of the process of imposing a hard line and radical version of Islamic law on the people of Pakistan.

Caught in the middle are the hapless people of Pakistan, who have no choice but to accept this medieval and obscurantist version of Shariah because the state is either complicit or too weak to resist the Islamists. The only other option before the people is that they form their own militias to resist the Islamists. But it is highly unlikely that the ordinary people will ever be able to match the firepower, training, resources, commitment, conviction and most of all wanton brutality and cruelty of the Islamists.

For the moment, however, the people are supporting the Shariah deal partly because they are too scared to oppose it and partly because they hope that it will bring some kind of peace in the area, even though this may be peace of the type that reigned in Afghanistan under the Taliban. But the ambiguities that underscore the Shariah agreement, including all the riders on implementing the agreement, don't inspire too much confidence in the prospects for peace being restored in the Malakand division.

The first major problem is that the government has tried to win on the negotiating table all that it has lost on the battlefield. Bizarrely enough, after having failed to restore the writ of the state in spite of military operations against the Islamist insurgents, the government now wants the insurgents to re-establish the authority of the state before it implements the Shariah agreement on the ground! Equally strange is the fact that the authorities have made Sufi Mohammad the lynchpin of the deal. On the one hand, Sufi Mohammad now holds a virtual veto on certifying that Shariah has been imposed. On the other hand, he will be responsible for restoring peace, partly by using his influence on the combatants and partly by forging a counter force to deal with the recalcitrant militants.

The assumption is that Sufi Mohammad will be able to divide the Taliban ranks and will rob the insurgents of any justification for their militancy. But since the deal has been done with the non-combatants belonging to TNSM, it is an open question as to how much influence they will wield on the gun-toting militias. Some analysts suggest that even if Fazlullah is amenable to the deal, he might not be able to deliver because he doesn't call all the shots and there are many hardliners who could object and obstruct any acquiescence to the deal by Fazlullah.

Complicating matters is the differing interpretations about what exactly the deal entails. The government is giving the spin that the Shariah regulation will only tinker with the judicial procedures and processes. But this is not how the combatants interpret the regulations. There are reports that in the initial contacts between Sufi Mohammad and Fazlullah, the latter accepted the agreement but made it contingent on creation of the department of prevention of vice and promotion of virtue (amr bil maroof, anil bin munkar). Effectively this means no female education, women can't be treated by male doctors, beards are compulsory, music and dance is forbidden and so on and so forth.

The reported insistence of the insurgents on a complete withdrawal of the army is also likely to play a spoiler in the deal. The government insists that the army will withdraw after peace is restored while the insurgents demand that peace will not be possible until the army quits the area. For now, a middle path of sorts has been found with the NWFP chief minister saying that the security forces will henceforth not be pro-active but reactive. This is, to say the least, disingenuous because the military operations have been a total failure. Before the army started operations, the insurgents controlled 20 percent of the area. After the army moved in, the insurgents control almost 90 percent of the area!

Part of the problem is that the army has not been given clear terms of engagement, leading to delayed response, which in turn opens the army to accusations of playing a double-game. Add to this the massive collateral damage caused by the troops, the lack of public support for the military operation and the growing suspicions about the motives and objectives of the army, all of which have resulted in extreme demoralisation in the military rank and file. The people fear the Taliban more than they fear the army simply because they don't trust the army's ability in protecting them against the Taliban.

Clearly then, the Shariah regulations smack of trying to be too clever by half by entering into tactical peace deals to buy temporary peace and get over the immediate crisis, without giving any thought to the long term consequences of this move. If this gambit succeeds, there will be a clamour by mullahs all over Pakistan to extend the Shariah regulations all over Pakistan, thereby transforming the country into a medieval emirate. On the other hand, if the move fails to satisfy the insurgents, then the fighting will start all over again and engulf all of Pakistan.


    <1250 Words>                    20th February, 2009




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