Sharia law comes to the Swat valley

Ghazal Mahtab
6 March 2009

(This week's shooting of the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore reminded Pakistanis of the extent to which their country is under attack by Islamist extremists. With terrorist strikes in the country's major cities becoming an increasingly common phenomenon, liberal and secular Pakistan has been shaken to the core by a Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked tribal insurgency that is spilling out of control from the country's rugged borderlands in Afghanistan.

But one of the sharpest wake-up calls was delivered not by the bomb or the gun, but by the pen. In February, the provincial government of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) reached an agreement with insurgents in the Swat valley, winning a ceasefire in exchange for allowing elements of sharia law to be imposed upon the region. Already, Islamists have moved to ban education for girls, the culmination of a bombing campaign against girls' schools. That the Swat valley - a picturesque tourist hotspot not far from the capital Islamabad - is now in the firm grasp of Islamists is a measure of Pakistan's plight.

Ghazal Mahtab reports from the Swat valley on life under the Taliban. A version of this piece was published in Afghanistan Monitor. - Editor's note)

The recent "peace deal" agreed on 16 February between the NWFP provincial government and the Taliban-linked militant group Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM), "Movement for Enforcing Mohammad's Sharia Laws" has sent shockwaves across Pakistan. Although the federal government supports the deal as part of "efforts to bring peace and negotiated settlement" to the region, many Pakistanis worry that under the cover of negotiations the NWFP is being converted stealthily into a safe haven for al-Qaeda, the Taliban and their social mores.

Since 2007, the Pakistan military has been battling insurgents in the Swat valley, a former tourist hotspot in the northwest of the country, not far from the Afghan border to the west and the capital Islamabad to the east. Under the deal, the government will implement elements of sharia law in the region of Malakand in the NWFP, an area which includes the Swat valley. The military's presence in the area will also be toned down, with troops redeployed to designated camps and forts.

Politicians argue that the deal has the consent of the people of the region. Information Minister Sherry Rehman claims that "the public will of the population of the Swat region is at the centre of all efforts and it should be taken into account while debating the merits of this agreement." But critics argue that a majority of local people in Swat are against the deal, despite demonstrations mobilised by the deal's Islamist proponents in its support.

The costs of compromise

Residents of the valley remain vulnerable to intimidation and violence by the militants that has drastically curbed public life, especially for women. Describing the education of girls as "un-Islamic", militants in Swat have destroyed 191 schools including 122 for girls since 2007. Eventually, on 24 December 2008, Maulana Shah Dauran, a Taliban spokesman, announced that girls' education would be outlawed in the valley from 15 January and issued a warning that all girls' schools would have to be closed by the set deadline.

According to retired Lt. Gen. Hamid Nawaz, a former Interior Minister and Defense Secretary, "People in Swat are living in fear of militants and they have no other choice but to praise the accord."

Maulana Sufi Muhammad, who negotiated and sealed the sharia law enforcement deal in Swat with local government officials, is the founder of TNSM. The movement, however, is now headed by his son-in-law, the religious cleric, Maulana Fazlullah, known as "Maulana Radio" for his illegal nightly FM station, broadcasting his latest fatwas (religious edicts), preaching extremism, and defending Taliban actions.

Sufi Muhammad sent thousands of Pakistani militants to Afghanistan to fight American forces alongside Taliban insurgents after the US invaded the country in 2001.

He was arrested by security forces in Pakistan in 2002 and  TNSM was banned by the government, but he was released last year after agreeing to "renounce violence" and help work towards peace in the region.

Under the peace deal the government will introduce a sharia-based judicial system in parts of NWFP, including the Malakand division, home to around three million people. The system, as the NWFP chief minister pointed out in a news conference, would be run by the same judicial officers, under the same procedural laws, as elsewhere in the country. According to the government, the only Islamic content in the law is the nomenclature, with the substitution of English titles for courts and officials with Arabic ones (e.g. changing title from "judge" to "qazi")

Sharia in the "picturesque" valley

On the ground, the evidence points to a much darker picture. Islamists in the valley remain bent on imposing harsh interpretations of sharia on women and public activity. The sharia makes it compulsory for women to cover themselves from head to toe in public and be accompanied by an immediate relative when venturing outside their homes. Though sharia in its original scriptural form doesn't directly proscribe women from schools or from working, modern interpretations can bend sharia in a particularly chauvinist direction, barring women from public life and education. The outlawing of women's education by the Taliban in Swat combined with threats to "cut the throat of any girl above seven years old who was not veiled on the street" is part of such a harsh interpretation of sharia.

At the same time, sharia law formalises and enforces the tribal and traditional beliefs in the society to an extent that one hardly can distinguish between a requirement of sharia and a tribal custom. The requirement for men to wear traditional clothes (the "shalwar kameez"), grow beards and wear caps when outside their homes brings religious authority to traditional social habits.

Taliban militants ordered men in Swat to grow beards by 25 January and wear caps when outside, or face potentially gruesome punishments, such as risking having acid thrown at them. Barber shops in different areas had been ordered to stop offering shaves to customers.

Under sharia and its interpretations, entertainment is strictly limited. Since 2007, Taliban radicals in Swat have targeted and burnt down CD, TV, computer and music shops. Those in the entertainment industry shared the fate of the shops; a dancing girl, Shabana, who defied the Taliban's ban on entertainment and dancing was murdered, and her bullet-ridden body - strewn with bank notes, CDs of her dance performances and pictures from her photo album - was discovered in the centre of Mingora, the main city in Swat.

The sharia laws also sanction public executions for convicted murderers and adulterers and amputations of those found guilty of thefts.

Not a solution

The "peace deal" between the NWFP provincial government and TNSM has been greeted with concern and reservations by NATO, British and American officials. Western officials remember in particular how the Waziristan Accord of 2006 allowed Taliban and other Islamist fighters the chance to re-group and re-arm in the rugged borderlands, safe from the intervention of the Pakistani government.

According to Lt. Gen. Hamid Nawaz, the accord reflects the government's growing "weakness and helplessness." Since the insurgency began in the valley in 2007, more than 1,200 policemen, civil servants and Swat residents have died in shelling by the army or from attacks sanctioned by the Taliban. Tens of thousands of residents have fled the conflict, swelling Pakistan's already large ranks of internally displaced people.

The deal has also reminded many Pakistanis in the country's main cities of the increasingly precarious position of liberal rights and values in the country. Critics have condemned the deal, accusing the government of surrendering to extremist elements by allowing local leaders in northwestern region to introduce sharia law which, they fear, will stoke more violence in the long-run and lead to Talibanisation of Pakistan.

In an interview with the SAMAA news channel, Brigadier Mahmood Shah, the ex-chief of security in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (an autonomous region along the border with Afghanistan), termed the deal merely a "temporary relief" and "not a solution to long-lasting peace." He pointed out how similar agreements had been made in the past in neighbouring areas (like the Waziristan Accord), but all they did was allow the militants to breathing room to regroup and to re-arm.

Speaking to Geo news, Iqbal Haider, former Federal Law Minister and prominent human right activist, said that "the document signed by the NWFP government and Sufi Muhammad does not include one word about restoring peace... the document is unlawful and extra-constitutional." Haider insisted that "truth will be sifted from falsehood soon and the people will know that such types of accords will not get rid of terrorism, religious fanaticism and extremism."

Nevertheless, Pakistan's beleaguered president, Asif Ali Zardari "defended" the deal and stated that use of force alone will not solve Pakistan's problems. A "multi-pronged strategy, which includes economic program, force, and dialogue" has to be used. The Pakistani government insists the deal should be seen in a "positive manner".

Senior provincial minister Bashir Bilor said, "Our condition for accepting their demand was that they establish peace. We are hopeful; with the cooperation of Sufi Mohammad, we will restore peace."

Islamabad has the difficult task of spinning the deal to its western allies. While Pakistan's federal government and the NWFP provincial government have stated that "establishment of complete peace is imperative for the implementation of the accord", NATO has described the accord as a "negative development". "We should all be concerned by a situation in which extremists would have a safe haven." said James Appathurai, a NATO spokesman. "I do not want to doubt the good faith of the Pakistani government, but it's clear that the region is suffering very badly from extremists and we would not want it to get worse".

Jennifer Wilkes, the spokesperson of the British High Commission in Pakistan, echoed such doubts. "We have concerns. Previous peace deals have not provided a comprehensive and long-term solution to Swat's problems. Britain wants the current peace deal to end violence, not create space for further violence." Such arrangements "need to be clear, robust and monitored long-term, and include enforceable measures on cross-border movement to tackle cross-border militancy" in Afghanistan. 

But the geopolitical exigencies of the deal will be lost on the residents of Swat, who face the prospect of living under the sway of fundamentalists.

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