Pakistan agrees to sharia law to end Swat fighting

February 16, 2009

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.

The militants in Swat had been pushing for the enforcement of a hardline version of Islamic law. They had already banned female education, outlawed music and dancing, and carried out summary executions.

According to Pakistan’s Daily Times the peace deal envisages a more moderate interpretation of sharia, seen by many of the people in Swat as more efficient than the country’s bureaucratic secular judiciary, and also includes a commitment to reopen girls’ schools. But it questions whether this moderate interpretation will survive. 

“The people of Swat want quick justice, the kind enforced by the Wali of Swat, as if in a city-state utopia, but they are bound to get more than they have bargained for by rejecting the dilatory system obtaining in the rest of Pakistan,” it says. “They will get the “munkir” (forbidden) part of the sharia dealing with forbidden acts plus the “maruf” (approved) part dealing with acts of piety. The “praiseworthy” acts of piety such as the saying of the nimaz five times a day in the mosque will be greatly approved, but those who don’t observe the ritual will suffer physical and financial pain. And the list of the “maruf” stretches endlessly, which means that you can be thrashed for a number of things you thought were not “penal”. It is probable that the scared people of Swat simply don’t know what they are in for.”

So will this peace deal help take the steam out of the Taliban insurgency, using time-honoured tactics of divide and rule, and give the government some breathing space for bigger battles ahead? Or is it the beginning of a slide into the Talibanisation of Pakistan?

(Reuters file photos of people fleeing fighting in the Swat valley)

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