The more you look, the less you see in Swat sharia deal

February 26th, 2009
Posted by: Tom Heneghan

Ten days have passed since Pakistan cut a deal with Islamists to enforce sharia in the turbulent Swat region in return for a ceasefire, and we still don’t know many details about what was agreed.  The deal made international headlines. It prompted political and security concerns in NATO and Washington and warnings about possible violations of human rights and religious freedom.

(Photo: Supporters of Maulana Sufi Mohammad gather for prayers in Mingora, 21 Feb 2009/Adil Khan)

In the blogosphere, Terry Mattingly over at GetReligion has asked in two posts (here and here) why reporters there aren’t supplying more details about exactly how sharia will be implemented or what the  doctrinal differences between Muslims in the region are. Like other news organisations, Reuters has been reporting extensively on the political side of this so-called peace deal but not had much on the religion details. As Reuters religion editor and a former chief correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I’m very interested in this. I blogged about the deal when it was struck and wanted to revisit the issue now to see what more we know about it.

After consulting with our Islamabad bureau, reading other news organisations’ reports and scouring the web, I have the feeling — familiar to anyone who has reported from that part of the world — that the more you look at this deal, the less you see besides the fact of the deal itself. The devil isn’t hiding in the details because there aren’t many there. He’s playing a bigger political game.

First, look at the deal that made all the headlines. On February 16, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) government agreed with the local Swat Islamist leader Maulana Sufi Mohammad what was essentially a sharia-for-peace swap. The short text was all of two paragraphs in the original, as reported in the Urdu daily Roznama Express (Daily Express, below). The MEMRI Blog has the Urdu original (click here) and a translation that says they agreed that:

“…all non-Shari’a laws, i.e. those which are against the Koran and the Hadith, will stand ineffectual and cancelled, in other words, terminated …

“…Shariat-e-Muhammadi [Prophet Muhammad’s Shari’a] will be expediently implemented whose details are present in the books of Islamic jurisprudence and which is derived from four sources: Allah’s book [the Koran], Sunnat-e-Rasool [Prophet’s deeds], Ijma [Consensus], Qiyas [Reasoning].  No decision against it will be acceptable. In the event of revision, i.e. appeal, a house of justice, in other words a Shari’a court, will be created… whose decision will be final…

” …A sharia court system “will be implemented in totality with mutual consultation following the establishment of peace in the Malakand Division.”

The wording is so broad that it’s open to all sorts of interpretations. It was so vague that even the Pakistani media didn’t quote it much when reporting on the deal. After the overall fact of the deal itself, the news nugget here is the promise of a sharia appeals court for the area. A federal sharia appeals court already exists in Islamabad, so this seems to be more a practical local issue than a larger doctrinal one.

With that deal done, the government needs to issue a regulation establishing it in law. None has been signed so far, none has been published and journalists in Islamabad say none has been issued there. The Pashtun Post website has posted a text it describes as the proposed resolution, but it is actually a text drawn up last year when the NWFP government first considered reestablishing sharia in Swat. It’s a good bet that the final wording will be quite close to this long legal text, which basically sets out the composition of the more sharia-compliant courts to be established in the region.

How does it stipulate sharia should to be applied? In the relevant paragraph, it simply says:

“A Qazi (Islamic judge) shall seek guidance from Quran Majeed (Noble Koran) and Sunna-e-Nabvi (way of the Prophet) … for the purposes of procedure and proceedings of conduct, resolution and decision, of cases and shall decide the same in accordance with Shariah. While expounding and interpreting the Quran Majeed and Sunna e Nabvi … the Qazi shall follow the established principles of expounding and interpreting Quran Majeed and Sunna-e-Nabvi … and, for this purpose, shall consider the expositions and opinions of recognized Fuqaha’a (jurists) of Islam.”

(Photo: Swat girls return to school after peace deal, 23 Feb 2009/Adil Khan)

In other words, we still have no specifics. And it’s looking like we won’t get many more even when President Asif Ali Zardari signs and issues the final text. Sharia looks secondary here to the ceasefire the deal ushered in. The final sentence of the Feb. 16 agreement summed it up:‘‘We request Maulana Sufi Mohammad bin al-Hazrat Hasan to end his peaceful protest [for implementation of Sharia] and help the government in establishing peace in all the areas of Malakand Division.’’

That sentence also contains the deal’s Achilles heel. Maulana Sufi Mohammad is only one player on the Islamist scene in Swat. “Help the government in estabilishing peace” means convincing his son-in law Maulana Fazlullah, who has forged ties with other Pakistani Taliban factions and al Qaeda, to give up the fight.  His group did announce a ceasefire this week, but he might just be using that to refresh his forces for the next round of fighting. As our report noted: “Authorities have struck peace deals with militants in several parts of the northwest over recent years, including one in Swat last May, but none has succeeded in eliminating militant sanctuaries.”

We’re not the only ones saying that. For example, Najmuddin Shaikh, Pakistan’s former foreign secretary and its former ambassador to Washington, explained in the Daily Times why the deal is getting such short shrift:

“It is a sad but almost foregone conclusion that this agreement will be no more effective than the ones concluded in the past, and that while there will be a welcome albeit temporary respite from the daily bloodletting in Swat, the strife will soon resume.”

Another question is why Pakistan should agree to a local sharia regime if it already has sharia law. Well, it does and it doesn’t. The constitution says no law can be repugnant to Islam and there are some specifically Islamic laws, such as the one on hudood offenses such as blasphemy, fornication, apostasy and blasphemy. But the court system is based on the secular model established during the British colonial period. Courts are overloaded with cases and some are shamelessly corrupt. So a traditional sharia court where the qazis handed down verdicts with more speed and less fuss than the civil courts can appeal to Pakistanis frustrated with the secular system, regardless of the school of Islam they follow.

The Swat deal would set deadlines of up to six months to decide cases and would also set up an appellate court for the region. But they will not be “qazi courts” run by Islamic scholars and the judges will not even need to be experts in Islamic law. The 2008 text says hiring preference would be given to “those judicial officers who have completed a Sharia course of four months duration from a recognised institution.”

(Photo: Swat residents inspect a school blown up by Taliban, 19 Jan 2009/Abdul Rehman)

These details are interesting, but they hardly mean much to an outside reader. And they pale in the wider context of the major political struggle going on in the region, which is what Reuters and other main news organisations are focusing on. In his column in The News, Islamabad political analyst Ayaz Amir warned against “missing the essence of Talibanism”:

“I think we are not getting it. Talibanism in Afghanistan is a revolt against the American occupation … Pakistani Talibanism … is a slightly different phenomenon …  It is a revolt against the Pakistani state. Or rather a revolt against the dysfunctional nature of this state.

“If this were Nepal this would be a Maoist uprising. If this were a Latin American country it would be a peasant or a Guevarist uprising. Since it is Pakistan, the revolt assaulting the bastions of the established order comes with an Islamic colouring, Islam reduced to its most literal and unimaginative interpretations at the hands of those leading the Taliban revolt.

“…This revolt is spreading. Hitherto it was confined to the Frontier Province. But on February 7 we saw this revolt cross the River Indus for the first time when a police check post in Mianwali (Qudratabad near Wan Bachran) was attacked by Taliban fighters. On Feb 11 another police outpost near Essa Khail came under attack.”

If Pakistan were considering a more sharia-compliant justice system in relatively calm areas such as Islamabad or Lahore, it would presumably hold lengthy discussions and produce detailed guidelines to be followed by law-abiding citizens. That would be interesting to drill down into. But Swat and neighbouring areas of NWFP are in the grip of an armed insurgency. The Taliban militants have unleashed a reign of terror on the region, killing and beheading politicians, singers, soldiers and opponents and destroying nearly 200 girls’ schools. They’re the men with guns who will ultimately decide how this vague deal is implemented. Or if it is implemented at all.


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