Page last updated at 15:47 GMT, Monday, 16 February 2009

Will Sharia law bring order to Swat?

Residents in Mingora, Swat
Residents in Mingora, Swat, distribute sweets in celebration of the deal

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Islamabad

The announcement that Islamic Sharia law will be imposed in a part of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) as part of a peace deal with the Taleban has inspired both jubilation and widespread concern.

The province says the new judicial system will apply in its Malakand division - located on its northern fringe.

Human rights groups fear that parallel systems of justice lead to social fragmentation and will hurt civil society in the long run.

And many in Western circles are concerned that the NWFP government, which is controlled by the secular ANP party, is helping the militants revive a Taleban-style system of tribal justice based on inhumane punishments.

But many people in Swat, part of the Malakand division and the scene of a bloody insurgency in recent months, are jubilant at the news.

Public needs

On the eve of the announcement, the militants called a 10-day truce and the army lifted a curfew that in some areas had continued for several weeks.

There is considerable war fatigue in Swat, and people would be happy to live under any system provided there is peace

"The sun is out after weeks of winter rains, and the people are celebrating on the streets, because there are no soldiers on the streets and no mullahs in the back alleys," one acquaintance from Swat wrote to me.

This indeed is a sea change from just two days ago, when civilians continued to be beheaded by the militants or indiscriminately killed by military fire.

Does this mean the people of Swat are welcoming a Taleban-like system of justice with open arms while the world looks on with horror?

Quick and simple

These reactions are two extremes that need to be tempered with a touch of reality.

For one, this is not the first time the NWFP government has introduced Sharia in Malakand. In fact, some form of Islamic justice has been in force in the region since 1994.

Tribal areas map

In 1999, the system was amended to make it more responsive to public needs.

It is now being re-enacted with further amendments, along with a provision for an appeal court that was not there earlier.

Malakand division once comprised the princely states of Swat, Dir and Chitral, where life was governed by customary law, or rivaj, which many people also described as Sharia.

Since 1969, when the states were annexed by Pakistan, the people have been up against the British legal system with its complex procedures, its preference for documented evidence over oral, and the costs it incurs.

Many believe it was the people's craving for simple and quick justice that motivated them to support the radical cleric Sufi Mohammad's cry for Sharia in 1994.

That movement led to the introduction of the first Sharia law in the region.

Sharia has also been the central plank of the Taleban's war ideology in Swat - unlike in the more egalitarian tribal regions called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), where disputes over Sharia have not been central to the military-militant conflict.

Now the NWFP government has proposed a Sharia-based system that would make justice quick, and perhaps slightly less expensive, without allowing it to end up into an anarchic Taleban version.

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.

But he said the government had developed mechanisms to put a time limit on the adjudication of cases, something which does not exist elsewhere.

In addition, disputes can be settled under a larger body of customary law than is the case elsewhere in the country.

The only Islamic content is the nomenclature - the government has substituted English titles for courts and officials with Arabic ones.

Shaky path

The question is, does the government have the administrative capacity to work the system even though it has failed to do so twice already?

And will the militants agree to give up their space and let the government rehabilitate its administrative institutions in areas they control?

Residents in Swat
Thousands of residents have fled the conflict in Swat

NWFP officials have been wary of the army's intentions, and have been blaming it for promoting instead of curbing militancy in Swat.

They have now indicated they will be asking Sufi Mohammad to persuade the militants, led by his renegade son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, to disarm.

This is a shaky path.

Sufi Mohammad is still the symbol of the Sharia movement in Malakand division, but he has been away from the region too long, having spent several years in a Pakistani jail.

Besides, his repeated denunciation of armed violence has had little effect on militants, who draw influence from several groups of foreigners and militants from other areas of Pakistan who have infiltrated Swat.

These militants are in the forefront of violence in Swat and are known to have sabotaged an earlier peace deal with the government.

But there is considerable war fatigue in Swat, and people would be happy to live under any system provided there is peace.

NWFP hopes that if the Taleban persist with violence despite the introduction of Sharia, it will be easy to isolate them in areas they control.

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