In Pakistan's frontier, a prelude to Taliban-style rule

Legislators in the fundamentalist-ruled Northwest Frontier province vote next month on implementing sharia.

US forces may have ousted the Taliban regime in Afghanistan more than a year ago, but their influence still permeates across the border in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province. Last weekend, a new fundamentalist government there announced plans to establish a version of sharia (Islamic law) similar in many ways to the rigid code practiced by the Taliban.

Mullahs representing an alliance of extremist parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA), have ruled the province since gaining an unprecedented majority in general elections last fall, cresting on a wave of anti-US sentiment following attacks on Afghanistan. Until then, religious leaders always commanded a following in the tribal areas - but had no real decision-making powers.

In some ways, the proposed laws are a diluted version of the sharia practiced by the Taliban. Girls will be required to cover their heads with scarves, but won't need to entirely veil themselves. And rather than banning education for women, the new laws will require separate universities for men and women. Yet many here fear the laws are a prelude to the Taliban's harsher practices.

"It is just a beginning of Talibanization of society. They always did identify with the Taliban ideology, so once the laws are implemented there will be no difference between them, and they will tread the same path as the barbaric mullahs of Afghanistan," says Farzana Bari, a leading rights activist who heads Pattan, a nongovernmental organization in Islamabad.

A shariat council wrote the laws, and a provincial cabinet has already approved them. Ruling fundamentalists say a local assembly will vote on them sometime next month. Because fundamentalists enjoy a two-thirds majority in the house, a vote in favor is probable. Even before the weekend announcement, Islamic militants in Peshawar, the capital city of the frontier, were burning video cassettes and whitewashing signs with female models.

The government plans to set up a hisbah, whose members will visit villages, towns, and cities to ensure the laws are being implemented. Mullahs will be able to order policemen to take action against those who violate the laws. The concept is similar to the Taliban's religious police - Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice - which used to whip women for not wearing veils and men for not growing beards.

The laws have yet to define punishments. But the ruling fundamentalists of the province seem willing to follow the footsteps of the Taliban with public punishments. "We have not decided for the punishments as yet, but according to Islam, punishments for murder, theft, and adultery should be given in public so people learn the lesson and do not commit the crime again," says a religious leader, Maulana Gul Naseeb. "We want to create such an atmosphere which could lead us to the ideal Islamic state and we hope people in other parts of the country follow us and implement Islamic laws," he says.

Such plans are sowing fear in the province, especially among artists. The proposed laws call for a ban on music in public transportation, as well as posters of movies, video cassettes, and public art performances by artists. "Nobody will be allowed to promote obscenity and Western culture," says a leading religious leader, Maulana Mohammad Ibrahim, who is credited with drafting the laws.

For Madiha Adnan, a Peshawar-based TV and stage female performer, "It is like caging a bird." "I have divorced my husband who was opposed to my performing before public. But now what can I do, I cannot divorce my art," she says. "I have decided to leave the frontier province so I can perform elsewhere."

Pakistan witnessed its first wave of Islamization of laws in 1979, promulgated by then-military dictator President Zia ul-Haq. Human rights groups have been battling these Hudood Ordinances ever since. Under the most controversial ordinance, adultery is a public offense punishable by stoning to death. Despite numerous reexamination boards, the ordinances continue to be enforced. Another set of Islamic laws declares murder an offense against a person, not state, thereby pardonable by the victim's family or negotiable through offers of blood money. Social activists claim this makes the government a mere spectator while coercion is used to settle cases.

"In a state founded on religious ideology, it is impossible to revert laws or any other thing for that matter, that's brought forward and imposed on the basis of religion. Questioning the law becomes questioning the religion" says a human rights activist, Amir Murtaza.

Observers say fundamentalists have intentionally decided to go ahead with their plans, hoping to avoid criticism while the world is diverted toward Iraq. "It is time for liberal and progressive people to resist the moves of Pakistani Taliban and save the society," Ms. Bari says.

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