Thu, Aug 04, 2005 - Page 4 News List

Islamic law sparks outcry

PAKISTAN A bill passed to enforce an Islamic way of life has prompted critics to warn of `Talibanization' and the government to seek a ruling on its constitutionality

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN

Pakistani female legislators read the ``hisba'' bill, (accountability bill) during an assembly session in Peshawar early last month. Islamic hardliners ruling Pakistan's northwest introduced a bill to create what opposition lawmakers described as a Taliban-style parallel judicial system.

PHOTO: AFP

Since coming to power in state elections nearly three years ago, a coalition of radical Islamist parties here in North-West Frontier province has faced a few stumbling blocks on the road to creating a model Islamic state.

First, they made it illegal to play music on city buses, but that law seemed to fall flat on its face. Caravans of luridly painted buses still cruise the streets of Peshawar, tinny pop music pouring out of their windows.

Then they banned mannequins in shop windows, but shopkeepers shrugged it off. The mannequins quickly returned to the bazaar, displaying stiff smiles.

The Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, as the coalition of religious radicals is called in Urdu, did succeed in closing the two pubs that served alcohol (though only to non-Pakistani foreigners). Some of their foot soldiers went on a free-for-all, vandalizing advertising billboards that displayed pictures of women. And the coalition banned musical performances at a government-owned concert hall.

But high unemployment, dysfunctional schools, a dearth of doctors in the countryside, women dying at alarmingly high rates in childbirth -- these problems it has been thus far unable to tackle.

Now, in the latest tussle over the influence of religious radicals in Pakistani society and politics, the Islamist-led provincial legislature has passed a bill that would empower religious police to ensure that the people of Frontier province comply with "Islamic values and etiquettes" in everyday life. The authors of the law assure that the hisba police and a government-appointed cleric who would adjudicate cases would use persuasion, not force, though skeptics wonder how voluntary it would be.

The bill has prompted a shrill outcry against what critics call the potential Talibanization of the province. Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, keen to cast himself as a moderate, has spoken against the bill, and his government has appealed to the Supreme Court to decide whether it complies with the federal Constitution. The Supreme Court heard arguments on Monday and Tuesday, but has not yet issued a judgment.

In Pakistan, shariah, or Islamic law, already regulates civil matters like marriage, divorce and inheritance. But the federal Constitution guarantees personal freedoms, which, critics say, the hisba law would violate.

The most controversial provision of the "hisba" bill -- roughly meaning accountability -- is the appointment of a "mohtasib" -- roughly meaning ombudsman -- in each of the 84 counties and districts in the province. The mohtasib would have authority to regulate a broad spectrum of public and private life, from making sure Muslims offer daily prayers and children obey their parents, to stopping bribery of government officials and child labor. It would be up to the mohtasib to interpret Islamic "values" in each locality. He would have a police force at his disposal. There would be no appeal.

"The law is very clear," argued Bushra Gohar, who runs an organization here that promotes women and children's rights. "The mohtasib does have extraordinary powers to be judge, jury and executioner. No one can appeal. No one can question."

Pakistan's attorney general, Makhdoom Ali Khan, said he worried that such a law would allow each ombudsman to interfere in the lives of Pakistani citizens and essentially install a parallel judiciary.

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