Pakistan's Frontier Passes Islamic Law, Rankling Islamabad

Article excerpt

Outside the Markaz-e-Islami, the provincial headquarters for extremist groups and parties, hundreds of bearded, turbaned men leaped in the air, stuffing traditional sweets into each other's mouths amid hugs and embraces.

They were celebrating the passage of sharia, or Islamic law, last week in Pakistan's rugged Northwest Frontier Province, where an alliance of Islamic extremist parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), have ruled since last year.

But in Islamabad, some 120 miles from here, the same news triggered fears of a Taliban-style insurgency along the treacherous border with Afghanistan. In response, the central government fired two top officials in the frontier province, including the head of police.

Pakistan's mullahs have always been ideological allies of Afghanistan's former brutal regimen. After Sept. 11, they expressed their solidarity with protests and subsequently rode into power by capitalizing on anti-US sentiments.

"I have nightmares," says Rakhshanda Naz, an activist with Aurat Foundation, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Peshawar. "[The mullahs here] have always idealized the Taliban. Now they want to suppress women and force people to live according to the mullah [dictates]."

But proponents of the bill insist that Pakistan's brand of Islamic law is different.

"We want to create an atmosphere where every Muslim abides by Islamic laws, enabling us to establish a true Islamic welfare state first in the frontier and then gradually in the whole country," says Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman, head of the powerful Jamiat-e Ulema Islam party and a senior leader of the MMA. "The Taliban ... was an ideal Islamic system, but they were trying to implement it by force. But here in Pakistan, we are trying to bring about an Islamic revolution in accordance with the wishes of the people who voted for us."

In many ways, the new bill, which does not apply to non-Muslim minorities, resembles the Taliban style of Islam. Prayers are now mandatory in schools, shopping malls, and government offices, Friday (the Muslim Sabbath) has replaced Sunday as the weekly holiday, and women will be forced to attend separate educational institutions.

In addition, legislators belonging to the ruling Islamic parties have announced that purdah, a head scarf, is mandatory for all women; that medical tests for women, including ultrasounds and X- rays, should be conducted by female health workers; and that female athletes should not be trained by male coaches.

The ruling parties also have plans to propose a hisbah, or accountability, act that would support the creation of a religious police force along the lines of the the Taliban's Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. With the Islamic coalition holding a two-thirds majority in the provincial assembly, the law is likely to be passed. …