FaithWorld

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.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Pakistan agrees to sharia law to end Swat fighting

Pakistan has agreed to introduce sharia law in the Swat valley and neighbouring areas of the north-west in a peace deal with Taliban militants. Religious conservatives in Swat have long fought for sharia to replace Pakistan's secular laws, which came into force after the former princely state was absorbed into the Pakistani federation in 1969. The government apparently hopes that by signing a peace deal in Swat it can drive a wedge between conservative hardliners and Islamist militants whose influence has been spreading from the tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan into Pakistan proper.

Critics are already saying the deal will encourage Taliban militants fighting elsewhere in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and could threaten the integrity of the country itself. Britain's Guardian newspaper quotes Khadim Hussain of the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, a think-tank in Islamabad, as calling the peace deal a surrender to the Taliban. It also quotes Javed Iqbal, a retired judge, as saying, "It means that there is not one law in the country. It will disintegrate this way. If you concede to this, you will go on conceding."

News of the peace deal followed an acknowledgement by Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari that the Taliban had "a presence in huge amounts of land" in Pakistan and were trying to take over the country. In an interview with CBS, he said Pakistan was fighting to survive.

Militants killing laughter and music in Pakistan region

It’s hard to write about the Taliban on a religion blog without giving the impression that this militant movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan is basically religious. It’s certainly Islamist, i.e. it uses Islam for political ends. But it’s hard to find much religion in what they’re doing, while there’s a lot of power politics, Pashtun nationalism and insurrection against the Kabul and Islamabad governments there. (Photo: Pakistani pro-Taliban militants in Swat Valley, 2 Nov 2007/Sherin Zada Kanju)

It’s often difficult to separate religion and politics in groups like this, but President Barack Obama gave a basic rule of thumb in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington last week:

“Far too often, we have seen faith wielded as a tool to divide us from one another – as an excuse for prejudice and intolerance. Wars have been waged. Innocents have been slaughtered. For centuries, entire religions have been persecuted, all in the name of perceived righteousness…

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Pakistani Taliban force girls’ schools to close

Taliban militants have banned female education in the northwest Pakistan valley of Swat, depriving more than 40,000 girls of schooling. Last month, the Taliban warned parents against sending their daughters to school, saying female education was "unIslamic".  The warning was reiterated by a close aide to militant leader Mullah Fazlullah in a message broadcast through an illegal FM radio station on Friday night. Government schools have been shut down and some 300 private schools due to reopen next month after the winter break will probably remain closed, a senior official said.

The development highlights the extent to which the Taliban have extended their influence from the tribal regions on the border with Afghanistan into Pakistan itself, and their willingness to challenge Pakistanis' way of life.

In the same vein, the blog All Things Pakistan, in a post headlined "Pakistan at War: No Women Allowed" runs a photo of a banner in Mingora, the main city in Swat, which it says reads: "Women are not allowed in the market."  It says the Taliban has banned the entry of women in markets and ordered the killing of women who violate the ban. "From the picture, this is clearly a textile and cloth market -- the type of market where, in Pakistan, you would expect most customers to be women," it says. It also says that most shop owners have sold or shut down their business because of falling sales.

A list of Top 10 lists – “it was the election, stupid”

“Top 10 Stories” lists are a perennial feature,  especially in the United States (which explains a lot of the picks below). Now that they’re all out there, I took a quick look at the “Top 10 Religion Stories 2008″ lists to see if any pattern emerged. Of course one did: “It was the election, stupid.” Even a website dedicated to pagan news found a “pagans and politics” angle to top its list.

The Religion Newswriters Association, which polls member religion reporters, has been drawing up such lists for about 30 years. Election-related stories swept the top three slots last year. They did the same in 2004 as well, but the election shared the top spot back then with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ movie. The election-dominated lists show some divergences, but the most interesting compilations were the more specialised ones down in the second list below.

Here’s a quick list of the Top 10 lists, first those dominated by the U.S. election and then others I actually found more interesting:

Do dead terrorists lose all right to any respect?

Do dead terrorists lose all right to any respect? I ask this because my post Should India cremate Mumbai militants, spread ashes at sea? last week has prompted a surprising wave of comments suggesting these corpses should be desecrated. Readers have been proposing (and we have been deleting) graphic and crude scenarios for disposing of the nine corpses still lying in a Mumbai morgue. The proposed solution of cremating the bodies and spreading the ashes at sea – originally from a blog post by Leor Halevi in the Washington Post – seemed far too tame for them. (Photo: Gunmen at Mumbai train station, 26 Nov 2008/Official CCTV image via Reuters TV)

The Mumbai militants were murderers. Once they’re dead, though, what purpose would it serve to dismember them, feed them to crocodiles or turn them into a stoning pillar? What would it say about the Indian government if it disposed of these bodies without even the barest minimum of respect for the dead? Indeed, what does it say about readers who want it to do just that?

BTW the majority of comments – even those that are understandably very angry – call for a minimum of respect for the dead, no matter who they are.

Should India cremate Mumbai militants, spread ashes at sea?

The bodies of nine Islamic militants killed while attacking Mumbai in November still lie in a public morgue there. Indian Islamic leaders have refused to bury them in a local Muslim cemetery, saying terrorists “have no religion” and do not deserve a religious funeral. Although India suspects the militants came from neighbouring Pakistan, Islamabad refuses to take the bodies back as this could presumably undermine its claim to have no link to the gunmen. Indian officials say they still need the bodies for their investigations into the Nov. 26-29 massacre, in which 179 people were killed, but those inquiries will end some day. What should the Indians do with the bodies then?

A U.S. historian has come up with a proposal that would dispose of the bodies without requiring Pakistan to take them. Leor Halevi, a professor of Islamic history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, wrote in the Washington Postthat India should cremate them and scatter the ashes in international waters, as Israel did after executing the Nazi commander Adolf Eichmann in 1962. He notes this would be an un-Islamic method of burial and would avoid a permanent grave that could become a memorial for other militants.  He writes:

“If Indian Muslims can agree, then, that the terrorists died as non-Muslims and that burning their bodies is the optimal solution, they simply need to urge the government to dispatch the corpses to the crematorium after ruling on their lack of religion.

A one-stop shop for the latest on Islamic creationism

Readers of this blog know of our interest in Islamic creationism and its leading spokesman, Adnan Oktar (pseudonym: Harun Yahya), interviewed here last June. Over at Science and Religion News, Salman Hameed has been posting comprehensive updates to this story including articles by himself and others. Hameed, an astronomer and assistant professor of science and humanities at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, is working on creationism in today’s Islamic world and how Muslims see science and religion. (Photo: Harun Yahya, 21 May 2008/Osman Orsal)

Hameed’s blog is a kind of one-stop shop for anyone interested in this topic. Since he’s posted several items in recent weeks, here’s a quick index:

Lots of advice for Obama on dealing with Muslims and Islam

President-elect Barack Obama has been getting a lot of advice these days on how to deal with Muslims and Islam. He invited it by saying during his campaign that he either wanted to convene a conference with leaders of Muslim countries or deliver a major speech in a Muslim country “to reboot America’s image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular”. But where? when? why? how? Early this month, I chimed in with a pitch for a speech in Turkey or Indonesia.  Some quite interesting comments have come in since then. (Photo: Obama image in Jakarta, 25 Oct 2008/Dadang Tri)

Two French academics, Islam expert Olivier Roy and political scientist Justin Vaisse argued in a New York Times op-ed piece on Sunday that Obama’s premise of trying to reconcile the West and Islam is flawed:

Such an initiative would reinforce the all-too-accepted but false notion that “Islam” and “the West” are distinct entities with utterly different values. Those who want to promote dialogue and peace between “civilizations” or “cultures” concede at least one crucial point to those who, like Osama bin Laden, promote a clash of civilizations: that separate civilizations do exist. They seek to reverse the polarity, replacing hostility with sympathy, but they are still following Osama bin Laden’s narrative.

Lashkar-e-Taiba’s goals

In the aftermath of the Mumbai massacre, a lot of attention has been focused on the militant Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba that has been blamed for the bloodbath. Simon Cameron-Moore, our bureau chief in Islambad, has written an interesting piece on what they’ve done in recent years. As a religion editor watching this story unfold, I was also curious to know how they think. What kind of religious views do they have? My Google search has turned up an interesting answer.

An article entitled “The Ideologies of South Asian Jihadi Groups” gives a very concise and complete run-down of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s thinking (hat tip:Times of India). In today’s context, the article’s author is just as interesting as its content. An academic at the time he wrote the article in 2005, Husain Haqqani is now Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington. He’s been in the media quite often arguing that Islamabad did not support Lashkar-e-Taiba even if it was operating in Pakistan. Indian media arent’t buying it.

Sorting that out is not my job. I just wanted to note a list of the goals Lashkar-e-Taiba has set for itself. In a publication entitled Why Are We Waging Jihad? that Haqqani cites, the goals are listed as: