July Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 21 years ago

Special prayers are offered at the huge Jama Masjid in the heart of Peshawar city after the passage of the Shariat law in the Frontier province.

The cleric delivers a sermon, following which MMA supporters start marching towards ‘Markaz-e-Islami,’ the headquarters of Islamic forces in Peshawar. Once there, they leap in the air, and amidst hugs and embraces, stuff sweets into each other’s mouths.

“Allah-o-Akbar (Allah is great). Revolution, revolution, Islamic revolution,” the slogans echo, as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) declare June 2 an annual public holiday to commemorate the passage of the bill.

Every Friday since the passage of this bill, has been celebration day. The clerics at mosques and madrassas in the Frontier province deliver sermons and take a pledge from the people to help implement strict Islamic laws to put an end to “evil practices” and create a pure Islamic society.

The rest of the country watches in anxiety and dismay, with fears that this could be the precursor of a wider Talibanisation process. The Balochistan Assembly has already decided to table the Shariat law for the province in upcoming sessions.

These religious forces, who were supporters of Afghanistan’s Taliban, rode into power in the two provinces bordering Afghanistan by capitalising on anti-US sentiments prevailing after the American-led war on Afghanistan.

Encouraged by the obscurantist atmosphere prevailing in the province, young extremists mutilated billboards and hoardings with female models in Peshawar, fuelling fears that there was worse to come.

“I have nightmares,” says Rakhshanda Naz, a Peshawar-based activist at the NGO Aurat Foundation. “Many are brushing this aside by saying it’s a re-enactment of the ’91 bill passed during Nawaz Sharif’s first tenure. They don’t realise how corrosive it is. The MMA have always idealised the Taliban. Now they want to suppress women and force people to live according to the mullah’s diktat.”

“People like me cannot even voice dissent to their policies, otherwise they (extremists) dub you un-Islamic and issue death threats,” she says.

Under the new bill, prayers have been made mandatory in educational institutions, shopping malls, and government offices; Friday has been declared a weekly holiday instead of Sunday; music in public transport has been banned and local musicians have been stopped from performing. Female athletes are now only permitted female coaches, and separate educational institutions have been proposed for women.

“It’s like caging a bird,” says Madiha Adnan, a Peshawar-based TV and stage performer. “I was already known as a rebel in my family. I have divorced my husband who was opposed to my performing. But I cannot divorce my art,” she says. “They (the mullahs) want to separate me from what is essentially my life. I have, therefore, decided to leave the Frontier province in order to be able to perform elsewhere in the country,” says the dejected female artist.

Legislators belonging to Islamic parties have already proposed mandatory purdah for all women, and that medical tests for women, including ultrasounds and X-rays, be conducted only by female health workers. However, the Shariah law will not apply to non-Muslim minorities like Christians, Sikhs and Hindus living in the Frontier.

“The Taliban were misrepresented. Their system was an ideal Islamic system but they were trying to implement it by force,” says Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a senior leader of the alliance and head of the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islami (JUI).

“Here in Pakistan, however, we are trying to bring about an Islamic revolution in accordance with the wishes of the people who voted for us,” he adds.

The Islamic parties of the Frontier are planning to table the Hisbah (accountability) Act, which envisions the creation of a religious police force on the lines of the dreaded Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice force, run by the ousted Taliban militia. The decision of the chief of the force (Mohtasib) will be considered final and cannot be challenged in Pakistan’s superior courts, according to the proposed Hisbah Act, thus creating yet another parallel judicial system, and making people answerable to, and punishable by these squads for transgressing their moral codes and adopting lifestyles of their own choice.

mma-2-jul03Sources say students of madrassas and members of Shabab-e-Milli, who have been given the task of defacing billboards and cleansing society of ‘evil practices,’ will be recruited as soldiers for the Hisbah force. The act of vandalising billboards has already been emulated in Multan, and the nazim of Karachi and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) leader, Naimatullah Khan, appealed to corporations to stop putting up ‘obscene sign boards with women.’

An attack on a circus in Gujranwala in which tents were torched also drew its inspiration from this line of thought.

“We want to create an atmosphere where every Muslim abides by Islamic laws, enabling us to establish a true Islamic welfare state in the Frontier and then gradually in the whole country,” says JUI’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman.

This is not the first time that the mullahs have tried to impose their version of Islam in the Frontier. The Shariah was implemented in Dir and Malakand tribal agencies by a local religious leader, Maulana Sufi Mohammad, who sent thousands of men to Afghanistan to aid the Taliban against US forces after September 11, 2001.

While religious leaders traditionally had a following in the tribal areas, this is the first time that their showing in the polls has given them decision-making powers. The Islamic parties wiped out the Awami National Party (ANP) in the Frontier and other nationalist groups in Balochistan by cashing in on the Pashtun vote, as their anti-American and pro-Islamic election campaign blended well with the ethnic card. The ousted Taliban represented the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and these Islamic parties presented their defeat not only as a defeat of the Muslims, but of the Pashtuns by the Americans, with Islamabad’s support.

There are two major parties which are a force to reckon with in the MMA’s coalition of six parties. The JUI, headed by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, derives its support from the conservative tribal society and has a base in the orthodox madrassas and their networks, making fundamentalist and hardline views a party compulsion. Its concentration is in the Frontier and Balochistan provinces. The Jamaat-i-Islami has Pan-Islamism as its ideology and links with international Islamic forces such as the Islamic Liberation Front (FIS) of Algeria, the banned Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and the Jama-i-Islamia of Indonesia. It aims at strengthening the party position at a national level by capitalising on anti-US sentiments.

Many accuse Pakistan’s military establishment of paving the way for the recent successes of the religious alliance, a charge which has been vehemently denied. “The MMA is the Military-Mullah Alliance,” says the Peshawar-based former Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Afrasiyab Khattak, who has now joined ANP. “The military establishment created this political alliance of mullahs to use as a bargaining chip with the west. As with the mujahideen and then the Taliban, they will spin out of control,” adds Khattak.

Khattak argues that while the major political parties led by the two former premiers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, were fractured and divided into groups, the religious parties were encouraged to unite. Moreover, they were not allowed to campaign before elections, while the MMA brought together a million people under the banner of a conference.

Some observers say it is the lack of ideological alternatives that has attracted people to the MMA. However, many believe that the MMA’s only ideology is that of political expediency. After campaigning rigorously for separate electorates, they rushed to bring in minority representatives on MMA tickets once the government announced joint electorates.

The MMA leaders argue that the Shariat Bill guarantees security to minorities, but it was during the MMA’s provincial government in the Frontier last year that a decree was issued against a writer of Afghan origin, Fazl Wahab, a resident of Mardan, that led to his murder. His crime was writing a book that was critical of the Taliban and their style of governance.

The MMA has vigorously opposed the Legal Framework Order (LFO), but eventually indicated that it would be open to accepting government conditionalities if its 14-point Islamisation agenda was adopted. “It’s the politics of tokenism,” says Feeroz Shah, a young man sitting in a café outside Peshawar. “They roam around in Pajeros and talk about simplicity and equality in religion!” His friend, the owner of a video store, agrees. ” The Friday holiday is about all they can accomplish. They have no economic or other strategies for running the country.”

The Shariat Bill was passed unanimously, and many opposition politicians feel there was no room for dissent, since this was a religious matter, “It’s like Bush’s ‘with us or against us’ philosophy. The MMA has projected itself as the bastion of Islam, so opposing it has become tantamount to rejecting religion,” says a Pakistan Peoples’ Party female legislator.

“In a state founded on religious ideology, it is impossible to revert laws or any other thing for that matter, that’s brought forward and imposed on the basis of religion. Questioning the law becomes like questioning the religion,” says a human rights activist, Amir Murtaza.

In 1979, Pakistan witnessed its first wave of Islamisation of laws in the shape of the Hudood Ordinances, promulgated by then military dictator, President Zia-ul-Haq. Human rights groups and women activists have been battling this discriminatory and repressive legislation ever since. Despite numerous re-examination boards, they continue to exist on the statute-books. The Qisas and Diyat law declares murder an offence against a person, not the state, thereby pardonable by the victim’s family or negotiable through offers of blood money. It ensures that a husband who kills his wife can be forgiven by her brother and other such stipulations which render a crime against a woman a lesser offence than crimes against men. Social activists claim this makes the state a mere spectator in cases of violence, and coercion is used to settle cases, with women suffering the most.

While the religious parties were opposed to the creation of Pakistan, they have cashed in on the two-nation theory, arguing that the country was formed on the basis of the religious divide, and should therefore be governed by religious law. During the 1950s and ’60s, Islamic parties fought an ideological war with liberal and progressive socialists, a campaign that was believed to be spearheaded by elements within the military establishment. The progressive forces have not been able to recover from the frontal assault by the state, or to garner popular support and offer resistance to these extremist groups which have enjoyed the support and patronage of the country’s defence establishment.

The main components of the MMA, the JUI and Jamaat, have been involved in sending their activists to Afghanistan and Indian-administered Kashmir during the last two decades, where they served the interests of the country’s defence establishment.

The JUI madrassas have produced several Taliban leaders, including Maulana Abdur Razzaq and Jalal Uddin Haqqani, and given them degrees in ‘jihad,’ while prominent jihadi leaders like Masood Azhar, head of the banned Jaish-e-Mohammad, was also a student at Karachi’s Jama Masjid, Binori Town. The Jamaat’s huge network and its working cadre participated in the Afghan jihad against the Soviets and its activists went for jihad inside the Indian-administered Kashmir. The head of Al-Badr, Bakht Zameen, and Syed Salahuddin, chief of Hizb-ul Mujahideen, the Kashmiri extremist groups, are the product of Jamaat ideology.

Sources maintain that the Taliban and other jihadi groups still have strong sympathisers amongst Pakistan’s religious circles. Intelligence estimates indicate many Taliban and Al-Qaeda fugitives may be hiding in the vast, sparsely populated tribal areas of the Frontier and Balochistan, where the MMA holds sway. There are increasing concerns in Washington that overt Islamisation laws will embolden the fugitives and hamper search and arrest operations in the region.

Though the Shariat Bill has been passed with relative ease, the opposition parties have vowed to put up a battle to resist the Hisbah Act, which observers say would be the instrument making Talibanisation a reality. “We will fight this (Hisbah Act) tooth and nail. There is no religious or legal sanction to what they are proposing, it will push us back to the stone ages,” says Aitzaz Ahsan, a leading People’s Party stalwart. “This is an infringement on human rights.” A woman parliamentarian of the PML-Q in NWFP, Dr. Simi Jan, has also condemned the proposed act, declaring, “We will not allow them to pass this law, not just by protesting at the provincial level, but also at the Centre, where we have a majority.”

“Pakistan’s Islamic parties have a bright future. It is a golden opportunity for us to make Pakistan a pure Islamic state,” says Liaquat Baloch, a senior Jamaat leader.

These ambitions have shaken the ruling clique in Islamabad. President Pervez Musharraf’s government fired a warning shot, openly showing displeasure towards hooliganism by extremists. But Islamic leaders have threatened a nationwide anti-Musharraf campaign if Islamabad interferes with policies in the Frontier province.

“Since we have passed the Islamic laws, stomachs rumble in Washington and the cramps are felt by Musharraf’s puppet government,” says JUI’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman.

The Islamists are pushing Musharraf hard, trying to isolate him in the eyes of the people. However, at the same time, they do not want to confront the powerful military. “We do not want any confrontation with the army. It is for the army leadership to realise that Musharraf does not have the legitimacy to serve as military chief as well as president,” says Senator and Jamaat ideologue, Professor Khursheed Ahmed. “The army must not have any political role.”

President Musharraf himself is walking a tightrope. He has sided with America’s war on terror and expressed his commitment to root out terrorists, especially the Al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives hiding in Pakistan. “Musharraf is trying to gain legitimacy via Camp David and Washington. And the legitimacy of the Islamic parties comes from within the masses,” says Khursheed Ahmed.

Being a key ally in the American war on terror, Musharraf has to convince Washington that he is getting rid of extremists. But in a classic Catch-22 situation, he needs the support of the Islamists to extricate himself from a domestic political crisis, that could force him to dismiss the Parliament or find his powers dramatically curtailed.

“If both Musharraf and the mullahs take a hardline stance, this will help each of them to strengthen their case,” says an observer. “The mullahs’ opposition brings Musharraf closer to the west as a liberal military leader, and Musharraf’s hardline stance against the Islamists serves the purpose of mullahs who want to make inroads in society in the name of Islam. This makes a showdown inevitable.”

Musharraf knows he could score points not only in the west but also among Pakistan’s liberal and progressive people, by containing the extremists and restraining them from implementing strict Islamic laws and the proposed Hisbah Act. However, there are those who argue that the military will continue to need these religious forces to serve its own ends and may, as a result, find itself poised between the devil and the deep blue sea.