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Pakistan Edging Toward Islamic Rule

A strategic nation's secular system is in jeopardy as its leader promotes theocracy.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 3, 1998


A billowy, sail-shaped white granite faade seems to lift Pakistan's modern new Supreme Court building right off the ground. But turbulent Islamic headwinds may now wreck this soaring symbol of law.

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A new plan by beleaguered Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to replace the constitutional legal system with the Islamic law of the Koran is being met with bewildered stares around South Asia.

Though denied by officials here, a Pakistan ruled by religious law could move this strategic country another step away from a modern secular system and closer to the Islamic theocracies of Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The situation is bringing Pakistan's 50-year-old identity crisis to the surface. Opposition to a new law is stiff. But it does not reach Mr. Sharif's ruling two-thirds majority in parliament, where an amendment to bring an Islamic "revolutionary system of social justice" that will "eradicate ... corruption and lawlessness" is now being rammed through.

The result may increase tensions in a long-ignored, complex region that has just witnessed nuclear tests, victories by the orthodox Taliban in Afghanistan, US missile strikes against Osama bin Laden, and the watershed election in India of a new Hindu nationalist party that has skillfully needled Pakistan over the sensitive issue of Kashmir, where a low-level, undeclared war continues.

Mr. Sharif, who is attempting to appease rising Islamic sentiment, promises that Pakistan will operate through an Islamic democratic process of consensus known as ijema. But in practical terms the new law would place the Constitution and courts under an interpretative counsel run by clerics, who would "prescribe what is right and forbid ... what is wrong," according to the amendment.

The impacts on Christian and other minorities, living under a "blasphemy law" that forbids questioning of the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad, and on economic development in a nearly bankrupt country that depends on loans from the International Monetary Fund, are still unknown.

"Sharif is under such attack that he is looking to his own survival," says a Western diplomat here. "He may be doing this to throw a bone to the fundamentalists, before signing a nuclear treaty. So much is going on that no one knows how this fits in. But it is a symptom of the direction things are headed in this region."

Sharif's move is characteristic of larger changes in South Asia. Five months ago Pakistan was moving in a moderate direction. But in April, India put the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party in power. The BJP tested nuclear devices May 11. The United States and others urged Sharif not to answer India's tests, warning of crippling sanctions.

Now, Pakistan's economy is on the brink of default. And Taliban military wins have captured the imagination of ordinary Muslims. In a state ruled by feudal elites, where only 1 in 240 pay taxes (Sharif himself reportedly owes $25 million), and where crime and guns rule the streets in urban and rural areas, strict Taliban law and order is an intoxicating answer. Nor will Islamist hard-liners be appeased by Sharif's attempt to Islamicize Pakistan: The head of the small Jamati al Islami party said he rejects Sharif's sharia bid and stated instead that the president should grow a beard if he wants to be a Muslim leader.