Fundamentalist Islamic law expands in Pakistan

In an apparent expansion of Islamic fundamentalists’ authority in the picturesque Swat Valley, local Pakistani officials have agreed to close shops at prayer times and crack down on prostitution and drug dealing as part of a proposed peace deal, according to local media reports Thursday.

The steps were among 17 points agreed to at a Wednesday meeting involving provincial government officials and supporters of a pro-Taliban cleric mediating the negotiations.

Although Sharia, or Islamic law, has been in practice in many parts of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province and its tribal areas, its official expansion into a region less than 100 miles from Islamabad, the capital, last month has unnerved secular groups, human rights activists and Western officials.

In a separate development underscoring the debate in Pakistan over religious extremism, a bomb exploded Thursday at the mausoleum of a 17th century Sufi poet in Peshawar, the provincial capital, after the site’s management had received a letter complaining that women were coming to pray there.


The predawn blast damaged a corner of the memorial to Rahman Baba, a Pashto-language poet, but no one was injured. The bomb appeared aimed at the mystical Sufi form of Islam opposed by hard-line Muslims.

Other steps reportedly agreed to in the Swat Valley on Wednesday include banning “obscene” films, taking “stern action” against drug dealers and cracking down on corruption.

The deal has sparked fears among some analysts that conceding this much authority to extremists will only expand their power, risking further national instability and making it more difficult for the central government to exert its authority.

“I’m not surprised,” said I. A. Rahman, head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a civic group.

“They’ve given them a yard and now they’re taking 2 kilometers.”

Supporters counter that the agreement only codifies the reality on the ground and argue that it could divide different fundamentalist groups and ultimately strengthen the hand of the government.

Pakistani authorities got some concessions in return for allowing Sharia in Swat, once a top tourist destination.

Militants have agreed not to display their weapons in public, although it’s unclear whether they are also required to turn them in. And officials have pledged that girls will be allowed to attend schools -- militants had burned down several educational institutions for girls in the region -- although the agreement reportedly doesn’t mention this issue.


But some analysts said this issue is more complex than it appears. The area has long been a conservative religious stronghold extending back to British rule, which ended in 1947, said Ishtiaq Ahmed, a professor at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University. He said pat solutions would not apply.

“At the end of the day, this matter will be resolved not necessarily by accommodating Western liberal democratic standards,” he said.

Although burning girls schools is certainly reprehensible to many, there are fundamental contradictions Pakistan has not fully grappled with, Ahmed said, such as the balance between secularism and religion in a country officials named the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan.” In this light, it’s understandable why some citizens have seen Sharia as a justifiable and attainable goal.

In some of the other steps unveiled after Wednesday’s meeting, women would inherit property and assets in keeping with Islamic guidelines, which generally give daughters half of what sons receive. And classes about the Koran, the Muslim holy book, would be offered in prisons.


“The agreement this stupid government signed with the mullahs says everything will be decided in line with Sharia, but who decides Sharia? The mullahs,” Rahman said. “And while they said they will not stop small girls from attending school, I’m quite sure they won’t allow grown girls to attend college.”