Can Nawaz Sharif Live On A Prayer?

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TIM McGIRKIt has almost become a truism in Pakistan that whenever a ruler's popularity disintegrates, he begins waving the scimitar of Islam. And not once since Pakistan became a nation 51 years ago has this noisy brandishing of faith ever worked. Today, when the country finds itself ostracized after its nuclear tests and teetering on the edge of economic collapse, Prime Minister Mian Mohammed Nawaz Sharif is reviving the old custom of trying to make the Islamic Republic of Pakistan even more Islamic than it already is. He has introduced a constitutional amendment establishing the Shariah, a 1,400-year-old religious code, as the supreme law of the land.Even in the best of times, the heady days following Pakistan's birth, introducing Islamic law led to quarreling and confusion among the country's 72 Muslim sects and sub-sects. Nobody could ever agree on a proper interpretation of the relevant scriptures. Now could be the worst of times for Pakistan to try such a feat. Everything seems to be going wrong for Nawaz Sharif. His support of the Taliban militia in neighboring Afghanistan has drawn enmity from Iran and the Central Asian republics. India and Pakistan have intensified their cross-border artillery fire in disputed Kashmir. Nearly bankrupt, Pakistan may run out of foreign exchange by the end of the month, since its reserves of $720 million barely cover one month's import bill. The Karachi stock exchange imploded after the May 28 underground nuclear tests, wiping 750 points--half its share value--off the market (it has since rebounded slightly).If the nukes didn't scare off foreign investors, popular outrage over the U.S. missile strike last month in nearby Afghanistan certainly did. Diplomats and executives from many Western companies fled Pakistan fearing revenge attacks by supporters of Saudi extremist Osama bin Laden, the intended target of the American raid. In the port city of Karachi, ethnic gangs armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine-guns prowl neighborhoods hunting for enemies. Sectarian rivalry among Muslims has become so fierce that some clergymen now post bodyguards in their mosques to protect against bomb-throwers speeding by on motorcycles. In Karachi, it has become routine for clergymen to be kidnapped. Their mosques are then seized by adversaries who try to convert the prayer-goers to a harsher vision of Islam.Will a stronger dose of religion cure Pakistan's ills? Many of Nawaz Sharif's countrymen think it could send Pakistan into terminal decline. According to the respected newspaper Dawn, people just want a little improvement in their lives from the tyranny and callousness of Pakistani officialdom. His opponents, among them ex-Premier Benazir Bhutto, say that the Islamic bill he has proposed is likely to increase that tyranny. One interpretation holds that the measure will anoint Nawaz Sharif as a religious dictator, a supreme arbiter of what is considered good and evil under Islam, above the constitution and the law courts. Nawaz Sharif protests that corruption and maladministration have become a kind of cancer in the society for which normal legal procedures are not enough. Only a strict adherence to Shariah law--which relies on the Muslim holy book, the Koran, and the Sunnah, a record of the Prophet Mohammed's deeds and sayings--can save Pakistan. That is the message Nawaz Sharif pushes in regular television spots that show him praying in white robes amid thunderclaps and divine lightning.At present, though, Nawaz Sharif is hoping for a more earthly kind of intervention: he is asking the U.S. to lift economic sanctions, imposed after the nuclear tests, and to push the International Monetary Fund into mounting a rescue. He needs Western aid urgently and has instructed his cabinet ministers to reassure possible donors about his proposed Islamization. This is not, I repeat, not a shift toward fundamentalism, Information Minister Mushahid Hussain recently told diplomats. But as one of them remarked after the sales pitch, It was horribly unconvincing.PAGE 1  |   Iran and the Taliban turn up the heat
If Nawaz Sharif succeeds in driving his Islamic bill through both the upper and lower houses of parliament during the coming weeks, Pakistan, long a reliable U.S. ally in South Asia, will become one of the most severe Islamic states. Only Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan among the 49 Muslim nations observe the undiluted Shariah law. This code of justice punishes theft with amputation, adultery with public flogging and blasphemy with execution. A man can rid himself of a wife merely by saying I divorce thee three times. The moderate Islamic states apply the Shariah to family and religion but not to legal and state matters, simply because many of the Koran's 6,666 verses are allegorical and open to conflicting opinions. Take beards, for example: in Afghanistan, members of the ruling Taliban militia will grasp a passerby's facial hair in their fists. If the beard is shorter than a Taliban's fist, the offender is publicly whipped. But next door in Iran, most Muslims believe that, according to the Koran, a beard can be a stubbly one centimeter long. Nawaz Sharif, whose own chin is cherub-smooth, was asked if he too would grow a beard. No, he replied, nor will women in Pakistan be forced to veil themselves or stay indoors, as they do in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Some women are skeptical of these assurances. It's a terrible thing, says Rashida Patel, president of the Pakistan Women Lawyer's Association. We are already practicing Muslims. With this new law will they be able to enter houses to see if someone is offering prayers or not? Jurists, she says, have studied all 15,000 laws in Pakistan's civil code and found that they comply with the Koran. Patel concludes: There's no law in this country which is against Islam.Nawaz Sharif himself may hold moderate views, but human-rights activists fear that Shariah law could unleash an army of zealots. Minorities are worried, too. Nearly 15% of Pakistan's Muslims are Shias, and last week, after the murder in Islamabad of a Sunni extremist leader and three companions, his followers retaliated by burning down a mosque and several homes belonging to Shias. Pakistan's 2.7 million Christians may also find themselves targeted under Islamic law. Christian rights will be trampled because we cannot interpret our laws under the same system, says Lahore's Bishop Alexander Malik. We took part in the struggle for independence, and now they want the concept of a Middle Ages Muslim state imposed on this country.Few dare to challenge such bigotry, even when it assumes bizarre forms. When a mullah, or priest, named Maulana Sufi Mohammed decided to enforce strict Shariah law in his mountain valley near the Afghan border, he banned cars from driving on the left side of the road, since the left hand is deemed to be unclean. Numerous car crashes failed to deter him. Finally in 1995, the army was called in to crush the mullah's topsy-turvy rebellion. Like an angry genie conjured from a lamp, Mohammed reappeared last week in the frontier town of Peshawar with 15,000 men, vowing to fight to the death for Shariah law. He's not alone. Inspired by the Taliban's medieval puritanism, mullahs in northwest Pakistan are destroying TVs and setting up roadblocks, where they stop cars and rip out music cassettes. Naturally, Pakistanis want to get rid of corruption, but few are convinced that Nawaz Sharif is the man to do this. His industrialist family is one of the country's richest, and yet--like many wealthy Pakistanis--they fork out only a pittance in taxes. Several of his cabinet ministers have run up huge, unpaid loans from the state banks. Many of Nawaz Sharif's cronies were tipped off early that the government intended to freeze foreign currency accounts after the May nuclear tests and were able to transfer their wealth out of the country. Meanwhile, middle-class Pakistanis scrimping to send their children abroad to college had their dollar savings wiped out. The armed forces, which have a tradition of intervening in Pakistani politics, are also displeased with the Premier. A coup attempt by Islamist officers was foiled in October 1995, and some analysts fear that Nawaz Sharif's actions might increase friction between pro-Western secularist officers, often trained at Sandhurst and West Point, and religious extremists within the ranks. Warns Maleeha Lodi, a newspaper editor and ex-ambassador to Washington: Nawaz Sharif is trying to wrap himself in Islam. Perhaps he doesn't know that this will drive deeper wedges into a society that's already badly fragmented.Faced with protests from opposition parties, human-rights advocates and Islamic scholars, Nawaz Sharif might still back down. After all, his campaign for renewed religious fervor could claim him as one of its first victims. Some Islamic radicals don't trust his credentials. Nawaz Sharif's government is part of the same corrupt system he hopes to overthrow, says Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of the militant Jamiat Ulema Islam party. Only we are the true devotees who will enforce Islam. With enforcers like these ready for action, many Pakistanis may wish Nawaz Sharif had never brought the matter up at all.  |  PAGE 2 Iran and the Taliban turn up the heat