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Last Updated: Monday, 2 June, 2003, 23:52 GMT 00:52 UK
Pakistan province cheers Sharia
The BBC's Paul Anderson
By Paul Anderson
BBC correspondent in Pakistan

Jamaat-e-Islami members demonstrate in Pakistan
Islamists have a strong presence in the province
There were cheers and shouts of "Allah is Great" in Peshawar's elegant assembly building when the bill introducing Sharia, or Islamic law, went into the statute books.

There was never any chance it would not be passed - the alliance of radical religious parties which governs the province, the MMA, has an absolute majority.

Nonetheless, it went through unanimously and without debate, and that says something about the influence which the alliance enjoys in North West Frontier Province and across the country.

The MMA were delivering on an election promise to line the province's education, judicial and economic systems with Islamic principles.

The Taleban were totally different - they were uneducated and revolutionary. We are doing things though through democracy
Zafar Azam,
provincial law minister

In practice, that means abolishing interest payments in banks, imposing more Koranic studies in school, and subjecting the administration of justice to Sharia interpretation.

The architects of the law say they want a society free of the evil and corruption.

After decades of misadministration, bribery and soaring crime, not many people object to that.

'Best for the poor'

On the streets, people were pleased when the Sharia bill was introduced.

"We should have the freedom to decide whether we need to work or not."

Meraj Humayun Khan, NGO worker


"This is best for the poor," said one man. "As Muslims, we should all support it."

However, many liberals and political moderates dismiss the Sharia law as a political crowd pleaser, which may not have any real effect.

Years ago, Sharia was enshrined in the Pakistani constitution.

A Federal Shariat Court exists to make legal judgments based on Sharia.

But what worries many people is the agenda of the Islamists beyond the Sharia law in the province.

They look at the imminent introduction of another bill establishing an accountability bureau to promote virtue and police vice, and fear the worst.

Fear of 'Talebanisation'

"Our society is gradually being pushed towards religious totalitarianism - a system that was practised by the Taleban in Afghanistan in a crude form, which is carried out here in a more sophisticated way," said Afrasiab Khattak, head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

A female legislator from the ruling religious parties alliance give thanks with tears in their eyes as Islamic law is approved
Radical religious parties control the provincial government
Mr Khattak says that unlike the Taleban, the North West Frontier Province's leaders are moderate, but are driven to immoderate lengths by a support base of young radicals straight out of the Islamic religious schools.

In a show of strength and religious zeal in Peshawar last month, vigilante groups of such radicals tore down posters and billboards depicting women.

"My fear isn't about the chief minister or his ministers," says Meraj Khan, who manages an NGO project. "It's about the workers of the religious parties who take the law into their own hands and start to implement Sharia according to their interpretation."

"But I feel the most serious danger is they will not take up our issues - literacy, health, domestic violence, poverty. The problems are of such magnitude now, and they don't have the capacity to address them. So they're trying to distract us," she says.

Democracy

The provincial government dismisses such arguments along with the charge it is overseeing the creeping Talebanisation of North West Frontier Province.

People have been tearing down adverts featuring women and Western products
Adverts showing women have been torn down
"The Taleban were totally different," says the provincial law minister, Zafar Azam. "They were uneducated and revolutionary. We are doing things though through democracy."

Mr Azam says he wants his province to be a test case for the rest of the country.

But Islamic party leaders are not waiting for the results.

They are already pushing their agenda at national level, using their influence as a powerful opposition force to squeeze concessions from the government.

In protracted negotiations over changes made by President Pervez Musharraf last year to shore up his power, religious leaders have demanded - among other things - measures which Islamise the economy, education and the media.

They may get them. If they do, they will be able to show their voters they are a force to be reckoned with in national politics.

And this just eight months after they stormed onto the political scene.


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