Secularist slide in Pakistan as local Sharia courts proposed

May 16, 2008

Pakistani voters in Karachi, 18 Feb. 2008/Athar HussainOne of the most interesting results in Pakistan’s general election last February was the victory of the secularist Awami National Party in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) after six years of Islamist government in Peshawar. In a province where the Taliban and other Islamists had made heavy inroads, the vote for the ANP and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) seems to herald a turn toward some form of secularist democracy. “The greatest achievement of this transition to democracy is the rout of religious extremists who wanted to plunge Pakistan into anarchy,” Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times, wrote in his post-ballot analysis. “It is the rise of liberal democracy … that will help solve the problem of religious extremism in Pakistan.”

It’s only been three months, but the secularists seem to be backsliding already. According to Pakistani media, the ANP and PPP have agreed to allow qazi courts (known as qadi courts in Arabic ) to operate in Malakand, a rugged mountainous region in northern NWFP near Afghanistan. Qazi courts have a judge (qazi) who hears cases and quickly hands down decisions based on his interpretation of Sharia law. Although Malakand is officially a “settled area” where state and province laws apply, it also has tribes that often prefer their rough-and-ready Pashtun jirga system of justice run by tribal elders. By introducing qazi courts, critics say, the NWFP government will effectively cave to local Islamists, put an Islamic veneer over tribal justice and roll back the role of civilian justice. This does not sound like a turn towards some form of secularist democracy.

Since first reading about this on Ali Eteraz’s blog, I’ve seen that the secularists haven’t totally caved. The original proposal only allowed appeals to the Federal Sharia Court, but the latest version allows appeals in the Peshawar High Court and the Supreme Court in Islamabad. That’s an improvement, but it still gives the qazis considerable power.

Pakistani tribesmen at a jirga in Wana, 20 April 2004/stringerThe Daily Times called the qazi court proposal “a sop to the terrorism of the Taliban and TNSM” or Tehrik-e-Nafaz-e- Shariat-e-Mohammadi, an Islamist group trying to impost Sharia law in Swat. “The new qazi law is also not going to be accepted by the Taliban-TNSM combine. And once you get rid of terrorism, you don’t need qazis but a reform of the court system that the country makes use of outside the Malakand Division.”

One of the complaints about the way Pervez Musharraf dealt with Islamists was that he gave in to them too much. The return to democratic government was supposed to mean a return to the rule of civil law. Is the proposal for qazi courts, carefully packed in phrases about respect for local Islamic traditions, the sign the secularists are set to continue the Musharraf approach?

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