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Shariah Zone: One Solution for Pakistan?

Sunday 22 February 2009, by I. A. Rehman

The civil war underway in the tribal areas and a large part of the Frontier province, including Swat, presents the biggest challenge Pakistan has ever faced. At stake is not only the integrity of the state but also the nature of its polity. The odds are heavily stacked against Pakistan’s survival as a democracy.

This grave situation has been created by a combination of several factors. The authors of the Pakistan demand may not have wanted to establish a religious state, but their argument was derived wholly from the religious identity of the population of the designated territory. Soon after the new state came into being, enforcement of Shariah rule was demanded. This demand has never been opposed. Instead, the state has been yielding to the clerics throughout its 61 years.

Between 1949, when the Objectives Resolution was adopted, and 1979, when the Federal Shariat Court was established with powers to strike down any law considered to be repugnant to Islamic injunctions, Pakistan repeatedly affirmed its constitutional obligation to enforce the Shariah.

In addition, the armed forces were indoctrinated in a religious context as General Ziaul Haq’s rule to reserve senior posts for genuine Islamists remained in force for a decade. These historical precedents are enough to convince a militant in Swat that he is only asking the state to honour its constitutional pledge.

On another point, the state chose to avoid integrating the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA) with the rest of the country. In 1994, when a movement for enforcing Shariah in place of the archaic Frontier Crimes Regulation began in PATA, the government obliged by setting up Qazi courts. This did not satisfy the clerics and they were accommodated further in 1999. Dissatisfied again, the agitators decided that instead of asking the state to enforce the Shariah, they would do the job themselves.

Meanwhile, world powers failed to ensure the establishment of a government of national unity in Afghanistan after the fall of the Najibullah regime. The vacuum was filled by religions militants who had been trained, among other things, to carry out terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings. Thus, over the last few years, a vast territory comprising Afghanistan, FATA, and the former PATA districts, has become a theatre of a war. US and Nato forces are fighting the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and the Pakistan Army is battling with the tribal militants, the self-styled Pakistani Taliban.

As things stand, the US’s ability to win the new Afghan war in coming years seems doubtful. Neither the US nor Nato has an exit strategy. Only two possibilities emerge: either the messy war will continue for another decade, or the Taliban will be brought into the ruling coalition which they will eventually dominate. In either case, Pakistan will be buffeted by almost irresistible storms.

If fighting continues in Afghanistan, militants from the tribal areas keep up their fight there alongside the Taliban. Consequently, militancy in Pakistani territories would grow. The US pressure on Islamabad to fight the extremists and the latter’s inability to comply could strain relations to a breaking point. In that event, the survival test for Pakistan would be tough.

If Taliban of any hue come into power in Afghanistan, the pressure on Pakistan to allow a similar dispensation in the Frontier region will increase manifold. Even now, the tribal areas are not prepared to merge with the NWFP. In future, they may claim freedom to join Pakistan or Afghanistan, and in the latter case, they may well want to take NWFP along – a possibility many Pakhtuns may not choose to resist.

Whatever happens in Afghanistan, Pakistan will face in FATA and perhaps the NWFP a situation that resembles the present US predicament. The Pakistan Army may have the capacity to lay the territory to waste while killing hordes of people, but it will not – and cannot – do that. For one thing, the army will risk its unity if it strikes out against ideological allies and, for another, the state will be overwhelmed in the aftermath of an unwelcome war.

The sole option will be to buy a truce by separating the Shariah lobby from the terrorists and creating FATA and PATA as a Shariah zone, which may quickly encompass the Frontier province. The question then will be whether Pakistan can contain the pro-Shariah forces within the Frontier region.

In such an eventuality, the hardest task for the government will be to protect the Punjab against inroads by militants. Already, religious extremists have strong bases across the province and sympathizers in all arenas: political parties, services, the judiciary, the middle class, and even the media. For its part, the government is handicapped because of its failure to offer good governance, guarantee livelihoods, and restore people’s faith in the frayed judicial system.

This bleak prospect can be averted only through a bold, imaginative, and wide-ranging strategy. An order presided over by clerics will not guarantee deliverance to the Frontier region as matters have perhaps gone too far to be reversed. The fact is, people will reject theocracy only after paying the cost of opting for it. Pakistan should think of minimizing the damage by granting full autonomy to FATA and the Frontier province in the hope that this will douse the fires.

For the rest of Pakistan, the government will have to resolve its meaningless row with the judiciary and lawyers, work by a broad political consensus, and wean the people away from parallel courts through visible improvements in the system of justice and policing.

Ultimately, the key to a safe future lies in Afghanistan. The war there must be brought to a speedy end. It is posing a greater threat to Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, India, and the Central Asian states than to the US. A way must be found to bring all these countries and the US together at a table to evolve a mechanism by which to bring peace to that thoroughly ravaged land. The task is not impossible. But one wonders whether Pakistan has the will and the resources to escape falling into the well its myopic soldiers of fortune have dug for others.

I. A. Rehman is a leading human rights advocate, a prominent art critic, and a well-known columnist. He is also a founding member of the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy, and a councilmember of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

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