NWFP Shari’ah Bill causes consternation in Pakistan

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That the unanimous approval of the Shari’ah Bill by the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) assembly on June 2 should send the secular elites into a frenzy is a telling sign of the true state of affairs in the “Islamic Republic” of Pakistan. The military-dominated political set-up, in conjunction with feudal politicians, is clamoring for its reversal because it would expose their errant ways. Unable and unwilling to change themselves, they demand that Islamic laws be put in abeyance to suit their convenience. Not only spokesmen for the president, general Pervez Musharraf, but even Zafarullah Khan Jamali, the civilian prime minister, have warned of dire consequences for the provincial government if it does not reverse its decision.

Why should adoption of Shari’ah Law in the provinceéalbeit in a diluted formé lead to such anger? Is it anything to do with fear that the thieves and robbers who rule the roost in Pakistan might lose their hands or be stoned for their crooked ways? The answer is both yes and no. While they would be embarrassed by exposure, their real fear is that the implementation of Islamic law in the “Islamic” Republic would be regarded by the West, especially the US, as “regressive”, while they are trying to present themselves as “modern” and “progressive.”

The timing is also awkward; on June 24 general Musharraf will be in the US to pay homage to George Bush, the new emperor of the world. He does not want to be seen as coming from a country where Islam is taken seriously. Musharraf has made no secret of his admiration for Mustafa Kemal, the man responsible for abolishing the khilafah and banishing Islam from Turkey’s political life. How could Shari’ah be implemented in a Pakistani province under Musharraf’s watch? The other problem is that civilians inducted into power under military supervision are beginning to take their jobs too seriously. This is a dangerous development that, if allowed to go unchecked, could have grave consequences for military rule in the rest of the country.

Other factors also come into play: the NWFP government is dominated by the Muttaheda Majlis-e Amal (MMA), a group of six religious parties that also enjoys considerable support in the National Assembly. The MMA has resisted the Legal Framework Order (LFO) that Musharraf wants the assembly to endorse. Under the LFO, Musharraf’s usurpation of power would be given legal cover, he would assume enormous powers to dismiss the assemblies as well as parliament, and he would continue to be army chief while being Pakistan’s president. To the uninitiated, this seems to be a minor detail, but in Pakistan’s murky politics it means a great deal. Being the president means little without the coercive power of the military; in fact, it is the military that wields real power and authority in the land. Musharraf is not about to discard his uniform to become a ceremonial president. It is also revealing that he cannot trust even his fellow military officers and hand over the post of chief of army staff to a colleague. He knows too well that he who commands the army calls the shots. Musharraf himself dismissed those égeneral Mahmood Ahmed, general Muzaffar Usmani et. al. éwho had helped him to seize power in October 1999.

Musharraf and his military colleagues want to have it both ways: on the one hand, they claim that he has ushered in democracy, but on the other they insist that civilians must do the bidding of the military. The 15-point bill, drafted by the Nifaz-e Shari’at Council, comprising ulama of all schools of thought, was tabled in the Provincial Assembly on May 27 and won the unanimous approval of all 125 members, including those from the non-Muslim minority communities. It promises Allah’s rule on earth through His pious servants.

The bill, based on the resolution and recommendations of the Islamic Ideology Council, promises protection of personal law and religious freedom of all minorities in the province. It also aims to curb corruption and eliminate obscenity from advertisements and bill boards. These last two are difficult territory; while officially frowned upon, corruption at least is an essential part of Pakistani life; with neither corruption nor obscenity no one can be considered modern or progressive by the secular western standards of modernity.

When the provincial government went after the district nazims to check corruption, they protested and sent in their resignations to Musharraf, instead of to the chief minister of the province, as required by the Local Government Ordinance. It is important to understand the import of this move; the district administration system is the brainchild of the military regime, whose aim is to undermine the influence of political parties. In principle this is not a bad idea, but district administrators (called nazims) have virtually become apologists for the military regime. Those political parties that do the military’s bidding are accepted and the nazims are kept in check; those who take their job seriously are harassed.

To curb the excessive zeal of civilian politicians in the province, Musharraf has given vast new powers to Iftikhar Hussain Shah, the NWFP governor, a retired general, to check what he calls the “Talibanization” of the province. The governor would appoint officers to key posts; as a first step, both the chief secretary and the inspector general of police in the province were relieved of their responsibilities because they were carrying out the orders of the elected government rather than of the unelected military governor.

Further, prime minister Jamali has threatened “administrative action” against the provincial government. Some observers have interpreted this to mean that the provincial government will be dismissed; Jamali belongs to a coalition that rules in the centre as well as in three of the four provinces. Additional pressure is being piled up; a meeting to discuss the situation in the NWFP was attended by the prime minister, four governors, three chief ministers and some federal ministers, including those of finance, interior and information, but the chief minister of NWFP was pointedly not invited.

It is ironic that a political crisis has erupted that may bring the humpty-dumpty of democracy in Pakistan crashing down from its wall because one of the provincial governments wants to implement Islamic law.

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