Pakistan's frontier passes Islamic law, rankling Islamabad

Outside the Markaz-e-Islami, the provincial headquarters for extremist groups and parties, hundreds of bearded, turbaned men leaped in the air, stuffing traditional sweets into each other's mouths amid hugs and embraces.

They were celebrating the passage of sharia, or Islamic law, last week in Pakistan's rugged Northwest Frontier Province, where an alliance of Islamic extremist parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), have ruled since last year.

But in Islamabad, some 120 miles from here, the same news triggered fears of a Taliban-style insurgency along the treacherous border with Afghanistan. In response, the central government fired two top officials in the frontier province, including the head of police.

Pakistan's mullahs have always been ideological allies of Afghanistan's former brutal regimen. After Sept. 11, they expressed their solidarity with protests and subsequently rode into power by capitalizing on anti-US sentiments.

"I have nightmares," says Rakhshanda Naz, an activist with Aurat Foundation, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Peshawar. "[The mullahs here] have always idealized the Taliban. Now they want to suppress women and force people to live according to the mullah [dictates]."

But proponents of the bill insist that Pakistan's brand of Islamic law is different.

"We want to create an atmosphere where every Muslim abides by Islamic laws, enabling us to establish a true Islamic welfare state first in the frontier and then gradually in the whole country," says Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman, head of the powerful Jamiat-e Ulema Islam party and a senior leader of the MMA. "The Taliban ... was an ideal Islamic system, but they were trying to implement it by force. But here in Pakistan, we are trying to bring about an Islamic revolution in accordance with the wishes of the people who voted for us."

In many ways, the new bill, which does not apply to non-Muslim minorities, resembles the Taliban style of Islam. Prayers are now mandatory in schools, shopping malls, and government offices, Friday (the Muslim Sabbath) has replaced Sunday as the weekly holiday, and women will be forced to attend separate educational institutions.

In addition, legislators belonging to the ruling Islamic parties have announced that purdah, a head scarf, is mandatory for all women; that medical tests for women, including ultrasounds and X-rays, should be conducted by female health workers; and that female athletes should not be trained by male coaches.

The ruling parties also have plans to propose a hisbah, or accountability, act that would support the creation of a religious police force along the lines of the the Taliban's Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. With the Islamic coalition holding a two-thirds majority in the provincial assembly, the law is likely to be passed. Under the act, any decision by a chief police officer would be considered final and unassailable in Pakistan's superior courts.

Although Pakistan's Islamic leaders reject comparisons to the Taliban religious police, who used to whip women for not wearing veils and men for not growing beards, activists in Pakistan's extremist parties are already spreading fear. Two weeks ago, more than 100 activists used stones and iron rods to destroy billboards featuring women in Pepsi and Pizza Hut advertisements. Soon after, dozens of extremists attacked a circus in central Punjab's Gujranwala and torched the tents, injuring more than 100 people.

"People like me cannot even voice dissent to their policies; otherwise [extremists] dub you un-Islamic and issue death threats," Ms. Naz says.

"Some 'smart' guys from Pakistan's military establishment created the political alliance of mullahs to use as a bargaining chip with the West. But now the extremists of MMA are getting out of control," says Afrasiyab Khattak, chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an NGO based in Lahore.

US and Pakistani intelligence estimates indicate many Taliban and Al Qaeda fugitives may be hiding in the vast, sparsely populated tribal areas of the Northwest Frontier Province and Balochistan, where the MMA holds sway. Officials are increasingly concerned that overt Islamization laws will embolden these fugitives and hamper search operations in the region.

Meanwhile, President Pervez Musharraf is caught in a domestic political crisis.

On the one hand, he needs the Islamic alliance's support for controversial constitutional amendments that would empower him to remain president and chief of the military simultaneously. Islamic leaders are demanding he set a deadline for retiring as military chief and seek reelection from Parliament as president.

On the other hand, as a key ally in the US war on terror, Musharraf has to convince Washington that he is clamping down on extremists.

The president has publicly opposed sharia law. But Islamic leaders have threatened a nationwide anti-Musharraf campaign if Islamabad interferes with their policies. "Since we have passed the Islamic laws, stomachs rumble in Washington and the cramps are felt by Musharraf's puppet government," says Mr. Rehman.

Yet letting the Islamists gain power for short-term benefit could propel Pakistan into murkier waters. "It will become like Afghanistan here. It will give rise to extremism and perhaps a breeding ground for the likes of Osama bin Laden," Mr. Khattak says. "We are caught between the military and mullahs. "

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