Thursday, April 9, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistan’s decision to turn the Swat Valley’s courts over to Baitullah Mehsud’s Taliban insurgency has emboldened mainstream religious parties to push for Islamic law throughout the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and eventually the entire country.

Mehsud also has launched terrorist attacks beyond the tribal areas, including an assault on a police academy in Lahore last week that killed 18 people, and threatened to strike the United States. The United States then reportedly targeted Mehsud in a remote region of Pakistan’s tribal areas with missiles fired from a drone.

The push for Shariah illustrates a dilemma for the Obama administration, which is seeking to shore up U.S. relations with Pakistan and bolster Pakistan’s fragile secular government: Militant fighters and mainstream Islamist political leaders share not only personal ties but a common goal of imposing Islamic law throughout the country.

So far, Shariah has been extended to the Malakand region, which includes the Swat Valley and comprises eight of the 24 districts of the NWFP. The imposition of Islamic courts there was one of the foremost demands of Mehsud and his outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which openly battled and badly defeated Pakistani forces in Swat in the year before the truce.

A video shown on Pakistani television of a Taliban fighter flogging a 17-year-old woman in Swat has inflamed the issue. The woman was said to have rebuffed a Taliban commander’s proposal of marriage and was punished for leaving her house with an unrelated male, an electrician.

Pakistan’s chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, on Monday rebuked the government of President Asif Ali Zardari for failing to investigate the incident and demanded that the woman be brought before his court to recount her ordeal.

Still, Hamid-ul-Haq Haqqani, the leader of a faction of a leading religious party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, known as JUI-S, told The Washington Times that Shariah has had a beneficial effect on security in the region.

“Therefore, we would like it to be implemented in the entire country to stem the rot. It should be done whether Americans like it or not, and in this regard, [the] federal government should show some courage. It is one of the ways that Pakistan could be salvaged. Otherwise, everyone knows about the U.S. designs to vivisect Pakistan,” Mr. Haqqani said.

Pakistan has been creeping toward Islamic law since the days of Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who seized power in 1977 and during his 11-year rule introduced prohibitions on public drinking of alcohol and enforced Islamic punishments such as whipping. However, the legal system in practice now is a hybrid that requires that laws do not conflict with Islam but also includes Western elements.

The majority of Pakistan’s 170 million people vote for secular political parties.

In 2008 elections, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of religious parties that ruled the NWFP from 2002-07,won 10 of 100 seats in the NWFP Legislature. In Sindh province, religious parties failed to get even one of 130 seats, while in Baluchistan, the alliance took seven of 51 seats, and in Punjab, one seat out of 297.

In the federal Parliament, the MMA won just six of 272 seats.

Noor Alam Khan, a member of Parliament and spokesman for the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, said Shariah is working in the Swat-Malakand region but is not appropriate for the rest of the country.

“The Shariah laws in Swat-Malakand region have always been implemented, keeping in view the peculiar conditions of the area and demands of its inhabitants,” he said. “So the replication or extension of the same model to other parts of the country is not possible per se.”

Mr. Khan added, however, that “at the same time, I must clarify that our government and party is not against the implementation of Shariah.” He noted that under Pakistan’s constitution, no laws that go against the Koran or the Sunna, the sayings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad, are allowed.

“However, if still there is any such demand or proposal, then the Parliament is very much there to decide about its fate,” he said.

Mr. Haqqani, the proponent of expanding Shariah’s writ, is the son of Sami ul Haq, who runs a sprawling madrassa in the NWFP where nearly every senior leader of the Afghan leadership before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was educated. It also is the alma mater of Jalaluddin Haqqani, one of the closest associates of fugitive Taliban chief and former leader of Afghanistan Mullah Muhammad Omar and a major target for U.S.-led forces.

Mr. Haq’s madrassa is within the NWFP on the main highway between Islamabad and Peshawar. Both Swat and the Malakand region lie in settled areas populated by ordinary Pakistanis. Located outside the tribal regions just 100 miles from Islamabad, they illustrate the depth of Taliban inroads into mainstream Pakistani society.

The NWFP government, led by the secular Awami National Party (ANP), agreed to enforce the new system in Malakand after indirect talks with the TTP local chapter led by Maulana Fazlullah.

Under Mr. Fazlullah, Swat was a battleground between TTP fighters and government forces going back to late 2007. The group sanctioned beheadings, stoned accused adulterers and blew up scores of girls schools.

Support for Shariah throughout the NWFP also comes from Mufti Kifayatullah, senior leader of another faction of Jamiat Ulema Islam known as JUI-F and a member of the NWFP legislature.

He said he wants to expand the Swat-like system of courts “so that the people could get speedy and inexpensive justice in accordance with Shariah.” JUI-F is a coalition partner in the central government of the country.

Mr. Zardari, the Pakistani president, has not formally approved the TTP’s system of Shariah in Malakand, even though the system is already up and running.

“It’s an understanding, not an agreement,” Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, told The Times.

Legal experts said the expanding model of Malakand would require large-scale constitutional and legal-political adjustments.

“There are genuine fears that in other areas that militants would demand Shariah as precondition to stop fighting [the] Pakistani state,” said Ijaz Khan, a professor of international law at University of Peshawar.

“Malakand has become a successful model for them to demand, so as it seems that it is basically through the barrel of a gun that they compelled government to accept their dictates,” he said.

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