The Sharia question

February 17, 2014


DURING a recent talk show discussion on the form of Islamic laws desirable for Pakistan, the anchor brushed aside a panelist’s cautious questioning of the premise by proclaiming that ‘everyone in Pakistan wants Sharia, and what is left to determine is its form’.

This statement, especially the first part, has gained a fair number of peddlers since the initiation of negotiations with the TTP. Every evening we now have the luxury of picking from a variety of clerics paying tribute to the salvation offered by religious law, while carefully avoiding any comments on the inherent complexity involved in its interpretation and application. Such is the freedom of choice on offer in the Islamic Republic.

The underlying message being projected is the universality of its demand. Everyone wants it. Nobody’s disagreeing with the basic gist. All that’s left to determine are the modalities.

In fact, as far back as 2011, the head of a political party (who shall not be named for fear of a defamation suit) vaguely announced that Sharia is a system that distinguishes humans from animals, and that the concerns regarding violence in Swat — the application of ‘Sharia’ according to its proponents — was the ‘so-called liberal class’ engaging in unnecessary alarmism.

In the context of such claims of universality, what one could ask is whether a significant majority in Pakistan actively reflects on the shortcoming of their ‘heathen’ legal-political system, and expresses a deep-seated desire for an order based on the ‘true’ version of Islam. Despite the clerics and TV anchors’ claims to speak for everyone and everything, the answer is that nobody’s really sure.

What we do know, however, is the following: at least 95pc of Pakistan’s population describes itself as Muslim. Many of them engage in rituals that, they point out, flow from divine instruction. This is done partially out of habit, but mostly in the hope of attaining a better after-life.

There are, however, a hundred other things that ordinary Pakistanis do on a daily basis that have nothing to do with their beliefs or how they worship. A 20-something in Lahore posts a Maulana Tariq Jameel lecture on his Facebook page right before switching to Katrina Kaif’s steamy new Bollywood number. Traders in every city rip unsuspecting customers off and evade taxes, while sporting Sharia-compliant beards and vocabularies.

There is and always has been a duality to life in Pakistan. A delicate, often sub-conscious, demarcation between ritual and aspiration, between piety and accumulation. This duality is equally present in the state as well. Envisioned and functioning (in whatever condition) as a Western, common law enterprise, it has attempted to resolve its own questions of identity through token homage to ritual and form. An Objectives Resolution here, a Second Amendment there — each resulting in a problematic yet somewhat stable equilibrium of sorts.

Liberal commentators, while analysing this condition, have often equated Pakistan’s duality with hypocrisy. This may well be the case, but it’s the kind of hypocrisy one would expect in a country popularly thought to have been created in the name of religion, and where successive regimes, for a host of reasons, have placed a legal premium on ritualistic behaviour.

The crisis, as it stands now, is that the Taliban have fully understood the nature and scope of this duality. Through the government’s indecisive handling of the matter, and a series of well-thought-out manoeuvres by the TTP, Islamic groups have shifted the language of mainstream political conversation away from corruption, redistribution and economic growth, to the question of whether our legal-political system is compliant with the after-life or not.

Closely abetting them in this task, unwittingly or otherwise, have been a herd of clerics, talk show hosts, and ‘analysts’ — each one eager to prove himself a bigger champion of the Sharia, and a bigger representative of the country’s population.

Maybe the underlying thinking underscoring their commentary is that such moves would somehow vanquish the TTP from the turf they’ve laid out. By turning this into a question of ‘which Sharia’ — TTP versus XYZ — the population would magically rally around the yet-to-be-devised alternative, saving the country in the process.

What they completely fail to see in the process is that this turf can never yield one victor. It is designed to fracture opinions, create sectarian differences, and spark conflict. By getting the state and civil society in Pakistan to deliberate on the very question of ‘which Sharia’ (as opposed to ‘whether Sharia’), militant Islamic groups have been helped in accomplishing one of their major goals — a goal that, ironically enough, they’ve been clear about since day one.

By inadvertently echoing the TTP’s critique of Pakistan’s duality, by bringing the question of which form of Sharia to our television screens and newspapers, and by forcing the population to reflect on its own belief system, the government and the media have unsettled a political equilibrium, and effectively lost control of the parameters in which this conflict is taking place. Surely, and I say this with more than a hint of fatalism, it will take nothing short of a miracle for the country to emerge from this stand-off in recognisable shape.

The writer is a freelance columnist.