Pakistan, Taliban and daily life

veiled-women-of-afghanistan_7333It has been a long time since I have voiced the following complaint about coverage of Islam in the mainstream media. However, I have been frustrated all week by the coverage — just about everywhere — about the Pakistani pact that is supposed to bring some kind of peace in the Swat Valley.

The problem, of course, is that we are talking about a political deal with the Taliban.

Now, all week the headlines have said that this 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.

Here’s a typical passage from a Washington Post story that was written, I must confess right up front, by one of my favorite writers on the planet, Pamela Constable:

Neither the Pakistani government nor the Islamist extremists were willing to formalize the accord, announced by Pakistani officials Monday. The proposed pact marks an unprecedented and risky attempt to disarm about 2,000 Taliban fighters, who have invaded and terrorized a once-bucolic area of 1.5 million people in northwestern Pakistan, by offering to install a strict system of Islamic law in the surrounding district.

Supporters see the offer as an urgently needed bid for peace and a potential model for other areas ravaged by Pakistan’s growing Islamist militancy, which controls areas 80 miles from the capital of this nuclear-armed Muslim nation. Critics say it would make too many concessions to ruthless extremist forces and provide them with a launching pad to drive deeper into the settled areas of Pakistan from their safe haven in the rough tribal districts along the border with Afghanistan.

So what do we need to know?

At the very least, we need to know what the “many concessions” are all about. This is another way of stating the obvious. We need to know the practical and doctrinal issues between the “strict system of Islamic law” that the pact might allow, as opposed to the system of Islamic law that already controls Pakistan, a nation in which human rights are already under consistent assault, by blasphemy laws and laws forbidding apostasy among other things.

We need facts. We need to know human details, especially about how the pact would affect the lives of women and religious minorities. What, precisely, is being surrendered here?

Clearly, U.S. officials are concerned:

In Washington, where the Obama administration has been conspicuously silent about the agreement, officials said privately that they considered it a major setback for U.S. goals in the region. “It’s a surrender disguised as a truce,” one official said, describing it as an admission that the government lacks the capacity to defend the crucial western part of the country.

We also are told — amid waves of detail about political developments — that another Pakistani journalist has been killed, apparently by militants linked to the Taliban. We are also told that the Taliban has “ravaged the once-pristine, affluent area for months, burning schools, killing police and ordering women to remain home.” That information helps.

We are also told that “followers of a nonviolent Islamist leader named Sufi Mohammad have been demanding the enforcement of Islamic law for years.” This only raises the same question that I raised before. Pakistan already has a system of Islamic law. What are the changes that the pact would allow? Can we have a paragraph or two of examples of practical effects?

What is all of this violence about, at the level of streets, homes, schools and mosques? What are the changes that will take place and how will they affect basic human rights? I’d like to know.

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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.

  • Perpetua

    I agree. When the Taliban in Swat talks about Islamic law, they mean chopping off hands and execution of barbers and women for not wearing veils. And they ban female education, force women to stay mostly indoors and kill bus public dancers and bus drivers who play the radio.

    In her article this sentence mentions some of the harsh Islamic law being imposed but mixes it up with other matters so the issue isn’t clear:

    The Taliban has ravaged the once-pristine, affluent area for months, burning schools, killing police and ordering women to remain home. More than half the populace is believed to have fled their homes.

    Also here she just uses “Islamic law” rather than making the distinction between a harsh version of Islamic law and the current version in Pakistan and naively accepts the characterization of the Islamic leader she refers to as Sufi Mohammed as “non-voiolent”. When the extremists say non-violent, they mean submit to our rule to end the violence:

    In Swat, where followers of a nonviolent Islamist leader named Sufi Mohammad have been demanding the enforcement of Islamic law for years, the announcement of the agreement Monday was greeted by relief and hope.

  • Ben

    As far as I could could tell from talking to journalists and frontier province experts in Pakistan:

    * The deal sets up a religious court of appeals within Malakand District (region includes Swat). Until now, the lack of an appeals court meant appeals were handled out of state or by secular courts. The secular court system takes forever to decide cases — over a decade in some cases — and that was apparently allowing the appeals process to be misused to wear out adversaries.

    * The religious courts are more efficient than the secular ones because they allow a lower standard of evidence, according to some. Apparently in the secular courts the credibility of witnesses are frequently challenged by paying off other people to disparage the witnesses.

    * The deal also sets up time limits for the decision of cases: six months for civil cases, four months for criminal.

    * Most observers emphasized that this form of Islamic law (nizam-e-adl) will not involve grisly punishments — i.e. no cutting off of thieves’ hands. But some worried that this was a slippery slope: militants would keep pushing the envelope until the harshest punishments were in place.

  • Perpetua

    Hi Ben,
    How do you square that with the fact that the Taliban has already been killing people for what they consider violations?
    Do you consider death less of an issue than cutting off a hand?

  • Ben

    Hi Perpetua,

    The deal wasn’t struck with the Taliban directly so their interpretation isn’t bound by any document. The deal was between the provincial government in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province and a guy named Sufi Mohammad, who is the father-in-law of the Taliban leader in Swat. Pakistan political leaders were clearly hoping the father-in-law would have some pull with the son-in-law, or be able to convince some of his followers to lay down their guns.

    We’ll see how it shakes out.

  • Jerry

    I really agree with your basic point, talking about Sharia without defining what you mean is at best unfortunate. has some interesting facts that show how different it is than Western law. We hear a lot about chopping off hands and stoning people, but beyond that, some of the other concepts strike us as strange, such as Qisas, which deals very differently for crimes such as murder.

    I think that covered much the same ground and a point about the importance of politics. One quote struck me from that blog posting:

    …if the Taliban win the war in Afghanistan and the Americans leave the region, it is the sharia that will ensure that the territories conquered in Pakistan stay with them.

  • R.S.Newark

    So now, for the first time, baseball fans can actually say there is a “Sultan of Swat” and he’s not Babe Ruth.

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  • 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.