The Hasbah Bill in NWFP: The Beginning of the ‘Talibanization’ of Pakistan?

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The Hasbah Bill in NWFP: The Beginning of the ‘Talibanization’ of Pakistan?

Repeated attempts at passing the Hasbah Bill in the legislative assembly of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan have raised the specter of national implementation of Sharia law. Introduced by the religious party coalition of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), this legislation outlines new religious laws that are to be enforced by a “morality police.” Though the law has been rejected as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, and Pakistani President Musharraf has voiced his opposition, the MMA has vowed to continue in its attempt to set up structures of religious oversight and enforcement.

What are the prospects of the establishment of religious laws enforced by a morality police in Pakistan? Some observers evince considerable concern. By historical standards the religious parties did extraordinarily well in the October 2002 provincial and national elections: while they typically garner between 5 and 8 percent of the popular vote, this time the parties collected 11.1 percent. Widespread popular disaffection with the Musharraf regime has substantially weakened Musharraf’s domestic political viability. He could be forced to make significant concessions to the religious parties or otherwise be overthrown. The MMA, or elements in the army sympathetic to it, will then replace Musharraf and move to institute religious law.

This is a troubling scenario. However, it neglects an understanding of the arrangements of military and political power in Pakistan. There are countervailing electoral and institutional factors that militate against the establishment of Sharia law. Though the MMA is certainly adept at organizing disruptive rallies and engaging in bellicose rhetoric, its grassroots appeal is limited. Despite the electoral successes enjoyed by the MMA in the 2002 elections, the mainstream political parties–the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League– collected more than twice the vote nationally. They oppose the MMA’s agenda within the provincial and national assemblies.

To be sure, though national establishment of Sharia law is unlikely, it could be argued that given the MMA’s success within NWFP a regionalized establishment of religious law is possible. This argument has some merit. The Pakistani government’s writ does not extend to portions of NWFP and Baluchistan, both provinces that border chronically unstable Afghanistan. Al Qaeda and Taliban militants hide out here and cross over into Afghanistan and plan terrorist attacks there and in Pakistan. The presence of these elements means there is scope for informal, extra-constitutional implementation of some form of local Sharia law. This in itself is a worrying possibility that does not respond to easy solutions.

Nevertheless, whatever the strengths of the fanatical elements, it is at best restricted to small portions of the Pakistani territory. Therefore, the nation-wide implementation of religious law is a very distant possibility. Even if Musharraf is overthrown by way of a coup, his replacement will be another general who has risen through the ranks of the army and is devoted to the protection of the army’s privileges. The army’s tentacles dig deep into the unelected civilian and military bureaucracies that run Pakistan. As an institution it desires the maintenance and extension of its formidable political and economic privileges, not the realization of an obscure religious ideology. Therefore, a successor to Musharraf would be equally unwilling to cede genuine power to the religious parties. This wariness of the religious agenda is likely to persist even if a potential replacement is more sympathetic to the cause of the MMA than an adamantly secular dictator like Musharraf.

Pakistan has undergone this particular experiment before. In the 1980s General Zia, a personally fervent Islamist, promised to create an Islamic state organized around Sharia law. However, aside from a few provisions relating to family law, the vast body of law was untouched and the establishment of an Islamist legal order never came to pass. In other words, Zia did not change the legal structures of the state nor cede any power to the religious clerics.

The lessons of Zia’s tenure are that the Pakistani army zealously guards its dominance no matter who rules the roost. It will not voluntarily cede power to clerics which is what Sharia law necessitates. In turn, the MMA does not have nearly enough popular support to pull off a revolutionary transfer of state authority (as happened in Iran in 1979). Thus while the Hasbah bill is a troubling reminder of how Islamic extremism is alive and well in Pakistan, as long as the army remains the overwhelmingly dominant institution in the country, the nation-wide establishment of Sharia law remains a chimera.

Ahmed Humayun is Senior Analyst at Georgetown University’s Emerging Threats Project and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). 

This article was published by Real Clear Politics on April 28, 2007:


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