Pakistan Edging Toward Islamic Rule

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

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.

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.

Added to Pakistan's woes is anger in the region over its support of the Taliban. Pakistan, increasingly isolated, denies supporting the group. But Jane's Defense Weekly last week reported that a quarter to a half of Taliban manpower and equipment originates in Pakistan under the ISI, Pakistan's equivalent of the CIA. Two of the three camps bombed by the US were training sites for Pakistani rebels headed for Kashmir.

Last month, Turkey, Iran, and Russia all formally asked Pakistan to cease aid to the Taliban. Ominously, Iran is massing troops on its eastern Afghan border. The US is pushing Pakistan to help eliminate Taliban-sheltered terrorist camps - a request dangerous for Sharif since it allows hard-liners to say the he is acting as a messenger for the West.

Beneath the surface, say a host of Pakistanis, the root problem is an identity crisis dating to the 1947 partition of India. That crisis is now becoming acute due to cultural forces of East and West, Hindu and Muslim.

Pakistani intellectuals sound like psychologists diagnosing the children of divorce: Families were split in 1947. Revered father of the country Mohammad Ali Jinnah died before he could lead Pakistan in the way Jawaharlal Nehru led India. (A revisionist move presents the secular Jinnah as a Muslim model.) Until 1971, Pakistan was a "two-headed monster," as Lord Louis Mountbatten, last viceroy of India, referred to the divide between Pakistan and East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.

"This country never developed properly," says a leading official. "For 50 years, we have asked, are we Muslim? Are we Pakistani? Or tribal? We have a love-hate relationship with America. We watch American movies every night. But then we ... romanticize Osama bin Laden."

In terms of identity politics, the US missile strikes could not have come at a worse time. They forced Sharif to choose between an inclination to assure Washington that Pakistan was a good partner and worthy of IMF loans - and a strong urge at home to assert a Muslim identity. The powerful madrasa movement of Islamic schools has increased to more than 7,000 today, with 300,000 young men who aspire to be Muslim clerics. In Friday prayers, the mullahs denounce the corruption and seemingly dictatorial impulses of Sharif, who this year dismissed the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the president of Pakistan.

Even in the military, Islamists are making inroads. An earlier breed of Sandhurst-educated officers are giving way to a new breed of more provincial officers.

What most worries foreign office officials is that, in the words of one, "The US will start to assume we are a Taliban nation, which we are not." Such a reading could mean that the world's superpower will begin to treat Pakistan and India as separate partners in a region where they have long been viewed together - further adding to Pakistan's isolation.

Yet dangers of isolating Pakistan and allowing the country to go bankrupt are not in the cards, say US officials. "Do we want to see Pakistan disintegrate?" asks one high ranking State Department official. "Will we stand by while that happens? The answer is no."

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