ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Mingling with thousands of other young men, Saeed Khan lifts his fist. "We want quick justice - sharia is the only solution to Pakistan's problems," he yells.
For Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, there couldn't be a more welcome gathering. He's not been one to mince words about his initiative to introduce Islamic holy laws - but last week he praised the hard-line Taliban regime's enforcement of the laws in neighboring Afghanistan.
"Today in Afghanistan," Mr. Sharif told a crowd, "crimes have virtually come to naught. I want this kind of system in Pakistan. Justice will end oppression and bring prosperity."
In his effort to persuade parliament's upper house to approve proposed sharia, Sharif hopes public enthusiasm like Mr. Khan's will help. But Sharif's three-month-old plan has widened a rift between hard-core militants and liberal Muslims. It also troubles non-Muslims, who fear persecution.
Western diplomats in Pakistan have balked at Sharif's latest push, ahead of his Washington meeting with President Clinton in less than two weeks.
To avoid having to default on foreign-debt repayments, Pakistan seeks support from the US and other Western countries in the form of new loans of about $5 billion.
Since Pakistan's nuclear tests in May, the Clinton administration has stepped up efforts to persuade the country to accept some global safeguards - such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty - for its nuclear program.
The US interest is primarily driven by concerns about a nuclear race between Pakistan and India. Relations between the two have remained tense for more than 50 years mainly over control of the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir.
"It's probably that [Sharif] thinks Washington would primarily be concerned about the nuclear issue after Pakistan's nuclear tests this year, so something like Islamization may not be the focus of concern," says one Western diplomat, who asked not to be named.
But senior Pakistani officials say Sharif is compelled by the urgent need to halt worsening lawlessness in parts of the country. In the port city of Karachi, more than 600 people are estimated to have been killed in clashes between rival political groups this year.
Corruption is widespread in the police and judicial system, which often means that cases can be dragged through courts for several years. Sharif took the extreme step last week of announcing military courts in Karachi will hold trials of criminals. The courts are required to hand down sentences within 72 hours of beginning to hear cases.
However determined Sharif may be, he is still short of the two-thirds majority support he needs in the 87-seat senate for approval of an Islamic-law amendment already passed by the lower house. On Sunday, the opposition asked the US to link aid to guarantees that Pakistan would remain democratic.
Opposition leaders suggest that if the sharia laws are passed, Sharif would assume wide-ranging powers, even curbing freedom of speech, as civil laws become subservient to Islamic ones.
Sharif's critics say he would also use the new laws to expand his powers by deciding what is Islamic and what is not. There is also concern that his insistence on "quick justice" may be counterproductive in a country where the police and the judiciary have been accused of widespread corruption by independent human rights activists.
"Pakistan's legal system could become speedy, executionist-style," says Asma Jehangir, Pakistan's leading human rights lawyer. Others say the latest moves could toughen the opposition.
"The tough remarks by Nawaz Sharif will only ... fact harden the respective positions between supporters and opponents of the move," says Ghazi Salahuddin, a prominent political columnist.
For critics like Salahuddin, a central question is how far the Senate can resist pressure from Sharif and Islamists.