Monday, July 13, 2009

Time to take Sharia in Pakistan more seriously?

Ella Rolfe

Swat residents have my sympathy if they are skeptical at the Pakistan Army’s announcement of imminent victory there. No post-conflict plan has been outlined; Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid recently said people are afraid the government will strike another deal with the Taliban.March’s ceasefire deal, giving effective judicial power to sharia courts in line with Taliban demands, excited much chatter. Was the Pakistani government so weak that it would risk international opprobrium? Or trying to move away from the American-sponsored Musharraf era? Some detected the nudging hand of the ISI, the secret service notorious for undermining the government to empower its client militias.

What many missed, though, is that sharia law was only a small part of the story. Partial sharia already operated over parts of northern Pakistan, including Swat - brought in by the dictator Ziaul Haq in the 1980s and never lifted. The recent deal therefore represented an expansion of powers – certainly not an ideological or systemic shift.

Sharia itself is not behind people’s fears. Popular relief at the deal did not necessarily express a pro-sharia groundswell – only 3% of votes in the 2008 elections went to parties advocating it – but people welcomed an end to fighting, and many found the new sharia courts quicker and cheaper than state courts.

But relief quickly evaporated as the army left Swat and the Taliban’s grip on judicial systems returned. The resulting lack of rule of law explains the fear now - not of sharia but of chaos. Emboldened not by an ideological underpinning to their dominance but by the withdrawal of the only effective opposition, the Taliban seek not true sharia but pure power - and they got it with the last deal.

With the renewed army operation, the government can’t claim that the deal was likely to bring reconciliation. Soon after the ceasefire there were several skirmishes involving insurgents loyal to Mullah Fazlullah, a Taliban commander whose father-in-law, Pakistani Taliban leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad, had signed the deal. Although the government may have had little choice of broker, their mistake was to trust too much in Sufi Muhammad’s authority over Fazlullah.

As another ceasefire looms, crucial questions remain unanswered. Where are the results of the army operation? Who has been killed or battered into submission, and who brought into agreement; what is different this time? There is widespread suspicion that after the army’s withdrawal the area will revert to de facto Taliban control, proving the military operation worthless. Is this really all 60% of Pakistan’s budget can achieve?

The collapse of the previous deal may or may not exemplify the government’s incompetence (let’s not forget the scale of the problems), but it does show the emphasis on high-level political deal making which consumes so much of its time. Pakistan, a society so status-ridden it makes Victorian Britain look like Big Brother, suffers particularly acutely from this. As in Numeri’s Sudan in 1983, sharia law has been used by the top to squeeze support from an opposing faction. Ideology has never mattered less: had the Taliban demanded that their role in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan be justified by compulsory pink ra-ra skirts, the government would most likely have complied.

The cynical use of sharia shows deep confusion in Pakistan’s identity, starting with the use of Islam by a supposedly secular state as the primary reason for its existence. As such, Islamic law has been sporadically and arbitrarily thrown into a mish-mash of hangovers in Pakistani law, including the still-used Frontier Crimes Regulation introduced by the British in 1901. The largely secular elite seems to think that the people need occasional tidbits of Islamic rule to prevent them revolting while it carries on its game of high-level musical chairs. While a small minority with AK47s is talking to a small minority with an electoral mandate, everyone else has been sold short.

The preponderance of power politics means that rulers of Pakistan seem to exist to posture rather than to govern. After the Mumbai bombings, in the context of various border skits, warlike press statements by both governments and an infuriatingly pointless press debate over whether or not the surviving bomber was Pakistani, the Swat deal was struck just as most of the army was redeployed to the Indian border. The ceasefire was not brokered with the local situation foremost in mind.

The Swat deal may also have been an attempt to distract attention from the anti-government lawyers’ movement - one that grew ever more ridiculous as the removal from office of the movement’s champions the Sharif brothers in late March enflamed it further. Amid threats of revolution and the deployment of container blockades on all roads into Islamabad, the government announced that the national kite-flying festival, Basant, would be held the same day as the lawyers’ march into the capital. Basant should have happened in February, when it was fairly successfully banned by the government because of the lethal habit of covering kite strings with broken glass to cut down rivals’ kites.

So anything the government does now in Swat will be deeply distrusted, and probably too myopic to make any difference. As Ahmed Rashid said, the army is not fulfilling its duty to protect civilians in Swat by simply telling them to leave before it bombs their houses. Civilians are being treated as inconvenient dust on the agenda of defeating whichever ‘enemy’ best serves the maintenance of power today. This means not only that the army has the wrong mentality and the wrong type of warfare to defuse the Taliban, but also that it doesn’t seem to care.Because of this, sharia law - or indeed any real reform - is inconsistently implemented and barely integrated, and the government is not taking responsibility for oversight. This hands-off, high-political rather than legal approach is the root of the government’s troubles. If it took sharia more seriously, as law rather than bargaining chip, and integrated sharia into an accountable and functioning legal system, it might manage to dent the Taliban’s power.

1 comment:

Madhurjya Kotoky said...

Hi Ella:

I think you have a very interesting point here. There is no dearth of cynicism towards the Sharia law in many parts of the world. However, the answer to militant Islam (or strucutural defects, if any, within the religion) lies within Islam (or Sharia)and not in extrapolation of ideas from somewhere else.

From a historical perspective, if you look at the origin of Pakistan, it was created as a separate state for Muslims and partitioned out of India. So, the Muslim identity & Islam was always central to the creation of Pakistan. Along with Israel, it remains the only modern nation state created for a religious minority on the basis of religion. So, politically, culturally & ethnically it remains an artifical state (again like Israel). What that also means is that the politiccs of Pakistan cannot do away with Islam as it is the basis of it's origin and it's identity. (and the "core differentiator" vis-a-vis India... at least that was the case in 1947!)So, the state indeed should look at ways to integrate Sharia within the framework of progressive governance in certain regions if there is a need and try to do away with the menace of militant Islam once and for all.

It's interesting that the NWFP in Pakistan that bears the brunt of Islamic terrorism currently, wanted to be a part of India and not Pakistan when the idea of paritioning the subcontinent was put forward. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, or 'Frontier Gandhi' as he is called, remains a much admired man in India even today.

Best regards,