Devils are in the details

1950701-at_a_village_in_swat-pakistanThe other day, I wrote the following about one of the major news reports on the events unfolding in Pakistan’s Swat valley, where government leaders are trying to work out a compromise with the Taliban. News reports have been telling us that:

… (T)his compromise with extreme elements of Islam will bring sharia law to the region. This is very confusing to me, because Pakistan already has sharia law.

So clearly, we are talking about one of the complex realities at the heart of coverage of Islam today. There is no one Islam. There is no one system of sharia law. Reporters have to provide practical details that draw lines between Muslims who are, in some ways, practicing different religions or, at the very least, radically different versions of the same religion.

Now, the Los Angeles Times has published an update that gives us some more generalities, but one or two powerful details. Here is a key summary passage:

The agreement was unveiled early last week, when officials in the North-West Frontier Province said they would allow the imposition of Islamic law, or Sharia, in Swat and surrounding districts in exchange for a cease-fire by the insurgents. In the intervening days, however, both sides have repeatedly made contradictory statements about the nature of their accord.

Critics have described the pact as a dangerous capitulation to Islamic militants who began battling government forces in Swat more than a year ago, enforcing their dominance of the valley with beheadings, floggings, school burnings and abductions.

Once again, here is the same confusion that I cited earlier. Pakistan already has Sharia law, right? Are the Taliban leaders, in effect, being given the power to set up another level of Sharia law and, if so, what would that look like, other than “beheadings, floggings, school burnings and abductions”? Legal abductions?

Pakistani officials, you see, are trying to get the United States to back this compromise, which is being brokered by onetime Taliban commander Maulana Sufi Mohammed. Is that possible?

Late, late, late in the story we finally get to a symbolic detail about the actions of a key militant, Maulana Qazi Fazlullah.

As violence escalated in Swat during the last year, Fazlullah’s followers sought to impose a social code similar to that mandated by the Taliban in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, after the Islamic movement seized power and forced women and girls to stay at home. More than 200 girls schools in Swat were burned down or bombed in the last year as militants seized control of town after town.

Over the weekend, provincial officials said girls schools would be allowed to reopen and that the students could sit for an upcoming round of exams. But Monday, a spokesman for Mohammed told journalists that the resumption of girls’ schooling was only “under consideration,” not agreed upon.

Right. There you have it. Try to forget that detail.

Photo: A tourist brochure photo of a village in the Swat region.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dave

    There are three faces of Islam, broadly speaking. There is the Islam of largely Muslim countries, where it’s the overwhelming majority religion and the backbone of society. There’s the Islam of countries that are not majority Moslem, and there it’s a minority faith trying to coexist without excessive accommodation. And there’s political Islam, which makes headlines.

    Each of these divide into subsets. Turkish Islam is not the same as Indonesian Islam. Moslems in Europe and America are on different paths. Only one fringe of political Islam flies airliners into office buildings.

    It’s not too much to ask the mainstream media to give at least this much as a sidebar or a link when covering something as complex and off most American’s radar as the turnover of Swat.

  • Jerry

    You nailed the key point. A very weak central government is giving in to the Taliban and is now trying to paint a fig leaf over the capitulation. The situation in Pakistan has to be very closely watched and hopefully accurately reported because we have a close-to failed state with nukes that could be taken over by the Taliban.

    The story in Pakistan is more complex than the media reports on (what else is new). For example, an interesting but inaccurate Smithsonian article on a Pakistani celebration from last December seeks to put Sufism in opposition to the Taliban and to speculate that the Sufis will win. That article is about as accurate in portraying Sufism as the movie Romancing the Stone was, but it did have some interesting points about the complex religious environment of Pakistan.

  • Dave

    That article is about as accurate in portraying Sufism as the movie Romancing the Stone was

    Jewel of the Nile.

  • Jerry

    Dave, thanks for the correction. I would not want someone who wanted to learn about Sufism watching the wrong movie. Sigh.

  • Ben


    I think you’re mixing up Taliban insurgency tactics with sharia. The abductions and school burnings that you mention are done to intimidate locals into leaving or ceding control to the insurgency. Those aren’t actions tied to an Islamic judicial system.

    The guy who used to oversee the tribal areas for the provincial and central governments told me that he doesn’t see this deal working because the Taliban aren’t really after sharia, they are after military control over the region. Other observers see logic to the deal: Since the Taliban have used the banner of Islam to generate sympathy for their cause, the provincial government is hoping to undercut that sympathy by expanding sharia.

    Yes, Pakistan has sharia already in the form of parallel religious and secular courts. This deal expands the appellate level on the religious court side and sets some maximum time-frames for the decision of cases.

    There *do* seem to be varying interpretations of what constitutes sharia. For instance, some of the harsh penalties for certain crimes come with conditions (stoning for adultery BUT you must have four eyewitnesses to the act in progress). How much emphasis gets placed on those conditions versus the penalties is just one set of differing interpretations.

  • Ben

    ….we have a close-to failed state with nukes that could be taken over by the Taliban.

    For what it’s worth, I was in Pakistan last week and no serious analysts there see the Taliban taking over the central government. Various Taliban groups have been holding ground in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) — which has always been semi-autonomous. The Taliban have expanded into a more settled area with Swat, but that’s still a mountainous tribal zone.

    The inability of the Pakistani military to make much headway in these areas is bad because that leaves a haven for terrorist groups and destabilizes Afghanistan. But don’t look for bearded guys with AKs capturing Army headquarters in Rawalpindi.

  • JRock

    I don’t think that Afghanistan is going to be that much destabilized with the addition of +30,000 US troops headed there.

  • Dave

    Jerry (#4), how can one not love a movie in which Danny DiVito gets redeemed by boom-box-toting Sufis?

    “No sheep is safe tonight…”

  • John McCoy

    Terry, I don’t think it’s very accurate to describe the (non-Taliban-run) Pakistani legal system as “sharia,” or even necessarily “a version of sharia.” I’m hardly an expert in this, but the (very substandard) Wikipedia article on the law of Pakistan ( has some statements that match my overall understanding of this, which is that Pakistani law starts out in 1947 as a holdover of British Raj law, and although it’s morphed since then, it’s retained much of the form and function of a typical common-law country such as the U.S., such as adverserial forms of justice and stare decisis.

    Although the system has been modified extensively since 1947 (if memory serves, Nawaz Sharif implemented many reforms that pointed in the direction of sharia), it’s still pretty hard to describe it as sharia per se.

    (Compare Pakistan’s system of law against, say Saudi Arabia’s system of law, where the Quran is described as the Constitution of the state of Saudi Arabia.)

    Under a standard sharia system, for instance, judges are all clerics, which I’m pretty sure is not the case now in Pakistan. I doubt there’s much room for adverserial justice in sharia, either.

    Additionally, I’m not aware of non-Muslims (who are small but definitely noticeable minority) having to pay the dhimmi tax, for instance (though that’s hardly to say that they are well-treated).

    But your criticism of these articles being short on details is accurate.


  • George Conger

    Some background …

    In 2003 the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of six Islamic parties governing the North West Frontier Province passed the Sharia Act in the NWFP assembly. This bill placed gave Sharia law a privileged status above Pakistan’s secular civil law code in the Province. In July 2005 the assembly passed the Hasba Act, which sought to give legal effect to the passage of the Sharia Act.

    Before the bill was signed into law by the provincial governor, President Musharraf intervened and directed the attorney general to petition the Supreme Court to overturn the law under Article 186 of the 1973 Constitution.

    The government argued that provincial assemblies may legislate only “subject to the Constitution” and “subject to, and limited by, the executive authority expressly conferred by the Constitution or by law made by the Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament)” citing Articles 137 and 142 of the Constitution.

    The Supreme Court ruled the Hasba Act was unconstitutional and blocked the law and the MMA accepted the ruling.

    The political deal now being put into place on Shariah law is extraordinary in that it implements Shariah law, not through the legislative process, but through force of arms.

    While it may be a “done deal” politically, it will certainly be challenged in the court system as it runs counter to the current secular constitution.

    This story received some play in the Anglican church press at the time as it would have effectively made Pakistani Christians (of whom there are several million in the whole country) subject to Sharia law.

  • Tom Heneghan

    Terry, I agree that news reports on this deal have been thin on religion details but don’t agree that digging for more will reveal any basic new insight. I started explaining this in a comment but it got so long that I posted it on my own blog FaithWorld. It’s called The more you look, the less you see in Swat sharia deal.

  • Dave

    The Pakistani Foreign Minister (iirc) was on the PBS News Hour last night, and seemed to be making sense despite his lumpy delivery. He said that the deal was with conservative elements of civil society in Swat, not with the Taliban, and that it was intended to take the wind out of the Taliban’s sails (an interesting metaphor for such an inland, upland place) with the local population. He also said that Sharia is not enshrined in Pakistani law directly, but rather that there’s a basic rule that no Pakistani statute may contradict Islamic law.

    Of course he could have been blowing smoke, but that’s always a risk with any government spokesperson.

  • Pingback: The more you look, the less you see in Swat sharia deal « GOATMILK: An intellectual playground edited by Wajahat Ali