The Duck of Minerva

Pakistan To Enforce “Sharia” in Swat

5 May 2009

Great. The “peace deal” in Swat is officially off, and not only will Pakistan whole-heartedly address militants in the region, it will also enforce Sharia law itself, ostensibly to rob the Taliban of public support in the region.

What are the assumptions at work here?

Assumption A) That Taliban have begun to thrive in the northeast provinces primarily because the civilian population wants sharia law (and not because the Taliban have guns and the state failed to step in and protect communities in the region). Of course, there is something to this – many people prefer order, even brutal order, to lawlessness, which is what facilitated the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, and the emergence of al-Shabab in Somalia. However the government may be overestimating support for sharia per se, in a region historically practicing a much looser blend of Islam and pre-Islamic custom. Is it strict religious law people want, or is it efficient governance and an end to corruption?

Assumption B) That the international community is more worried about the capture of the Pakistani state by the Taliban than in the human rights consequences (and implications for the radicalization of the nuclear-armed Pakistani state) of a state-initiated religious crackdown in the northwest. This may well be true at first, all things considered, but I bet it won’t last long, particularly once YouTube videos of the first high-profile floggings emerge. Pakistan remains between a rock and a hard place.

Much depends, perhaps, on what interpretation of “sharia law” Pakistan has in mind. In the West, we often associate sharia with controversial punishments for hadd offenses, but in many area where sharia is nominally in place, these punishments are rarely implemented. And moderate Muslims in many parts of the world have seized upon Qur’anic doctrine to promote a more equitable vision of society still grounded in religious law. Perhaps Islamabad has an opportunity here to forge a middle path between state and human security as it seizes the moral high ground back from the Taliban.