- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2003

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Months after sweeping to power amid a surge of anti-U.S. sentiment, a coalition of Islamic parties yesterday proposed laws that will make this conservative frontier region the first in Pakistan to be governed based on the mandates of the Koran, Islam’s holy book.

Islamic leaders promised that the bill would bring the North West Frontier Province’s educational and financial systems in line with Shariah, or Islamic law. Some said they hoped the package would be the beginning of an Islamic wave that would spread throughout Pakistan.

Even supporters, however, acknowledge that the bill’s scope is limited. The federal government can challenge any measures considered contrary to national laws.

The legislation, presented before a packed legislative assembly in the provincial capital, must be approved by the legislature and signed by the governor to become law. But the Islamic coalition — called the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal — dominates the legislature, and passage of the bill is considered a formality.

During the session, a small contingent of female legislators from the Islamic alliance sat in one corner of the male-dominated chamber clad in body-covering black hijabs. Opposition female legislators sat not far away, wearing brightly colored, loose-fitting salwar kameez preferred by most Pakistani women.

Since gaining power last year, the hard-line government of the province has begun to crack down on activity considered un-Islamic.

Several movie houses have been shut and the remaining were forced to cover posters depicting women in Western clothes.

This month, authorities banned male coaches from training female athletes and barred male spectators from watching sports events in which female athletes competed. In addition, they have called for compulsory reading of the Koran in schools and passed a resolution mandating that only female doctors carry out medical tests on female patients.

The renewed power of the hard-liners has caused concern in Washington, which counts Pakistan as a key ally in the war on terror. Many intelligence experts believe Osama bin Laden and other figures from terror network al Qaeda may be hiding in the mountainous region between the North West Frontier Province and Afghanistan.

The five-page Shariah legislation, which the religious coalition had promised since it swept to power in elections in October was light on details. It calls for creation of a committee to study the education system and another to devise alternatives to interest-earning bank accounts, which are considered a violation of Islam’s ban on usury.

It also declared that state-run media would be used “for the projection of Islam.”

Law Minister Malik Zafar Azam said the provincial government would present a second piece of legislation setting up a force to monitor corruption and fight “social evil.” The law would call for creation of a parallel legal system whose decisions could not be challenged by any court.

Federal Information Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmed said Islamabad was reviewing the legislation and considered parts of it problematic.

“Some measures taken by the provincial government in the [North West Frontier Province] are in conflict with Pakistani federal laws,” Mr. Ahmed said. The Cabinet would discuss the Shariah legislation today, he said.

Human rights leaders also expressed concern.

“Everybody, whether he is a Muslim or non-Muslim, should have the right to freely follow his religion,” Kamla Hayyat, of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said from the eastern city of Lahore. “But the way Islamic parties have started imposing certain laws in the [province] we feel will deprive many people of their basic rights.”

Members of the province’s religious coalition pledged that the action yesterday was just the beginning.

“This is a historic day, not only for this province, but for the whole country because we are setting an example,” said Maulana Abdul Jalil Jan, provincial information secretary from Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, the leading party in the Islamic coalition. “We pray that with God’s grace, Shariah will spread to all of Pakistan. The future is ours.”

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