THE government of Pakistan and Sufi Mohammed, a one-time river-crossing guard and currently a militant Islamic leader, have entered into an agreement that calls for the establishment of Shariah or Islamic law in the northern mountainous area of Swat in exchange for cessation of hostilities by his followers.
Sufi Mohammed does not control the Taliban operating from the tribal areas of Pakistan but has offered to act as a mediator. Considering the number of failed agreements that the Pakistan government has made with the militants in the last seven years, this one is also bound to fail.
Whenever a country cedes to the demands of militants and compromises its writ, it sets the stage for future retreats and reversals.
The ultimate aim of the militants is not the institution of Shariah law in a tiny swath of Pakistan but control of the entire country.
Most experts agree that a military solution to religious insurgency is not possible and that a negotiated settlement is the only choice. But negotiations have to occur within the framework of state authority and sovereignty. In Swat, those fundamentals were set aside for political expediency. The government asserts that the compromise in Swat does not weaken the state. In fact, the government has lost control of the area.
In a fair and transparent general election a year ago, people rejected religious parties and returned to power the secular-leaning political party of Benazir Bhutto. During the campaign, she was assassinated by Taliban militants. Asif Ali Zardari, her husband, took control of the party and became president.
He neither has the credibility nor the smarts to stop his country s downward spiral to disaster. By ceding to the demands of the militants, he has trashed the mandate his party had received at the polls.
The linchpin of the recent agreement is the Shariah law that would be instituted in Swat Valley.
Definition and interpretation of Shariah law vary widely. For militants, it means the enforcement of harsh and brutal punishments, the types that were commonplace during the Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
To moderate Muslims, Shariah law is a just and fair system where citizens of the state, irrespective of their religious beliefs, are treated equally and with fairness. They look at the system not as a set of punitive laws but as a broader framework that nurtures a humane welfare state.
The militants and many orthodox Muslims believe Shariah law is divine, but in reality it is not. It is based on two important sources: the Qur an and Sunnah. The former is the sacred text of Islam and the latter is a body of secondary literature based on the Prophet Mohammed s life, his deeds, actions, and sayings. Interpretations of sacred text and Sunnah literature abound. The varying interpretations give the law its flexibility and resilience. Unfortunately these crucial points are lost on militants who tend to think of the law as rigid and unyielding.
Furthermore, less than 5 percent of Shariah laws are punitive in nature. The majority of laws deal with welfare of the people. The likes of Sufi Mohammed are not interested in feeding the hungry or comforting the sick.
They are interested in meting out harsh punishment that would be a deterrent to others. Again this mind-set was very much part of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The Shariah laws have been part of the tribal justice system for a long time. Under an agreement with the British, the tribes exercised a measure of autonomy and self-rule. The tribal chiefs and the assembly of elders used a mixture of Pushtun code of conduct and Islamic law to arbitrate disputes and give enforceable judgments. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism and militancy has pushed the tribal leaders aside, and now the likes of Sufi Mohammed call the shots.
Treatment of women under the Shariah laws has been a hot topic in the West. In its true spirit, based on the Qur an and Sunnah, the Shariah gives equal status to women, gives them the right to get educated, the right to choose husbands, the right to inherit, and the right to demand financial support from their husbands in case of divorce. Under the true Islamic law, there is no compulsion in religion and it is a religious obligation for Muslims to protect the life, property, and places of worship of non-Muslims.
Swat was one of the most developed and prosperous areas of Pakistan. It boasted a network of excellent roads, free education for both boys and girls, and a thriving, agriculture-based economy. Because of its scenic beauty, it was often called the Switzerland of Pakistan and was a favorite tourist destination.
Alas, several uncouth and uneducated religious zealots have undone most of the progress and have turned the clock back. The Zardari government, lurching from one indecisive step to another, has been implicit in this onslaught.