Religion and politics behind sharia drive in Swat
Pakistan has agreed to restore Islamic law in the turbulent Swat valley and neighbouring areas of the North-West Frontier Province. What does that mean? Sharia is understood and applied in such varied ways across the Muslim world that it is difficult to say exactly what it is. Will we soon see Saudi or Taliban-style hand-chopping for thieves and stonings for adulterers? Would it be open to appeal and overturn harsh verdicts, as the Federal Sharia Court in Islamabad has sometimes done? Or could it be that these details are secondary because sharia is more a political than a religious strategy here?
(Photo: Swat Islamic leaders in Peshawar to negotiate sharia accord/16 Feb 2009/Ali Imam)
As is often the case in Pakistan, this issue has two sides — theory and practice. In theory, this looks like it should be a strict but not Taliban-style legal regime. As Zeeshan Haider in our Islamabad bureau put in in a Question&Answer list on sharia in Swat:
WHAT KIND OF ISLAMIC JUDICIAL SYSTEM IS SWAT GETTING?
Under Nizam-e-Adl or Islamic system of justice, all judicial laws contrary to Islamic teachings stand cancelled and the courts will decide the cases in line with Islamic injunctions.
These laws were largely in use before Swat was absorbed into Pakistan in 1969, and governments in the 1990s had promised to implement them to placate militants, but never fully did.
Unlike the Taliban courts, which have been summarily handing out severe punishments like chopping off hands of thieves and stoning to death adulterers and rapists, there will be a system of appeal on the decisions handed out by courts in Swat and neighbouring districts.
Ordinary judges, with a knowledge of Islam, will officiate rather than a Qazi. Analysts said the courts are unlikely to hand down Taliban-like sentences.
(UPDATE: Haider followed this up on Tuesday with an analysis “Pakistan takes risk with Islamic Law.”)
According to the Karachi daily Dawn, the draft regulation to implement Islamic law, which was already under debate in the provincial capital of Peshawar, has been made more restrictive than a text drawn up last October. That regulation gave sharia courts wide powers with no recourse for appeal. This latest draft says the Federal Sharia Court in Islamabad will be the final court of appeal. Ordinary judges, not qazis (Islamic judges), will officiate. All that makes it sound like sharia in Swat will be less harsh than the summary sharia judgments the Taliban may impose in other areas.
(Photo: Swat school bombed by Taliban, 19 Jan 2009/Abdul Rehman)
So far, so good. But that’s just on the theory side. As for the practical issues, the Daily Times in Lahore focuses on the local politics behind the sharia drive. It says implementation will depend on local Islamist leaders such as Maulana Sufi Mohammad and adds:
“A chilling feeling is that the Sufi and his warlord son-in-law will preside over the establishment of the sharia law and will also interfere in the day to day implementation of it. The power of the Sufi will derive from the gun of the Taliban and he will not for long allow a sharia which is different from the one enforced by the Taliban elsewhere. This is very important because sharia is the order that will ensure longevity to the governance of the Taliban in the various territories they hold. Finally, if the Taliban win the war in Afghanistan and the Americans leave the region, it is the sharia that will ensure that the territories conquered in Pakistan stay with them.”
So once again, as mentioned here in our last post about Swat, religion and politics form an unpredictable and combustible mixture with the Taliban. If previous blogosphere debates about sharia are anything to go by, we’ll probably hear a lot about how sharia is imposed, how the system compares to Saudi Arabia and whether this reflects true Islam. That will be interesting, of course, but won’t go far enough to understand what’s happening in Swat. There will also be a heavy dose of local politics involved, much of it opaque to outsiders. But it’s in this practical sphere that the real issue will lie. The Daily Times gives the context for this political struggle that points to a wider strategy in which sharia is a tool. It’s worth repeating: “…if the Taliban win the war in Afghanistan and the Americans leave the region, it is the sharia that will ensure that the territories conquered in Pakistan stay with them.”