By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 20, 2009
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, April 19 -- A potentially troubling era dawned Sunday in Pakistan's Swat Valley, where a top Islamist militant leader, emboldened by a peace agreement with the federal government, laid out an ambitious plan to bring a "complete Islamic system" to the surrounding northwest region and the entire country.
Speaking to thousands of followers in an address aired live from Swat on national news channels, cleric Sufi Mohammed bluntly defied the constitution and federal judiciary, saying he would not allow any appeals to state courts under the system of sharia, or Islamic law, that will prevail there as a result of the peace accord signed by the president Tuesday.
"The Koran says that supporting an infidel system is a great sin," Mohammed said, referring to Pakistan's modern democratic institutions. He declared that in Swat, home to 1.5 million people, all "un-Islamic laws and customs will be abolished," and he suggested that the official imprimatur on the agreement would pave the way for sharia to be installed in other areas.
Mohammed's dramatic speech echoed a rousing sermon in Islamabad on Friday by another radical cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who appeared at the Red Mosque in the capital after nearly two years in detention and urged several thousand chanting followers to launch a crusade for sharia nationwide.
Together, these rallying cries seemed to create an arc of radical religious energy between the turbulent, Taliban-plagued northwest region and the increasingly vulnerable federal capital, less than 100 miles to the east. They also appeared to pose a direct, unprecedented religious challenge to modern state authority in the Muslim nation of 176 million.
"The government made a big mistake to give these guys legal cover for their agenda. Now they are going to be battle-ready to struggle for the soul of Pakistan," said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of security studies at Quaid-i-Azam university here. He predicted a further surge in the suicide bombings that have recently become an almost daily occurrence across the country. Two recent bombings at security checkpoints in the northwest killed more than 40 people.
Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to the region, said in an interview broadcast Sunday on CNN that the decision by insurgents to keep fighting in spite of the peace deal should be a "wake-up call to everybody in Pakistan that you can't deal with these people by giving away territory as they creep closer and closer to the populated centers of the Punjab and Islamabad."
Also Sunday, a suspected U.S. missile strike killed three people at a Taliban compound in the South Waziristan tribal region; such attacks have become a powerful recruitment tool for extremist groups in Pakistan as anti-American sentiment builds.
The government agreed to Mohammed's demands in an effort to halt violent intimidation by Taliban forces that the army was unable to quell despite months of operations in the former tourist haven. In recent interviews, Swati leaders and refugees described armed men in black turbans whipping suspected thieves on the spot, cutting off the ears and noses of village elders who opposed them, and selling videos of police beheadings.
"We really had no other choice. We had no power to crush the militants, and people were desperate for peace," said Jafar Shah, a Swati legislator. His Awami National Party, though historically secular, sponsored the sharia deal. "Now people are calling us Taliban without beards," he said ruefully, "but it was the only option available."
Provincial and federal officials also hoped their show of good faith would halt further insurgent inroads and buy time for foreign aid programs to shore up the impoverished northwest against the Islamists' message of swift justice and social equality.
Instead, the evidence suggests that the extremist forces have drawn the opposite lesson from their victory in Swat and are gearing up to carry their armed crusade for a punitive, misogynistic form of Islam into new areas. There have been numerous reports of Taliban fighters entering districts south and west of Swat, where they have brandished weapons, bombed and occupied buildings, arrested aid workers, and killed female activists.
"When we achieve our goals in one place, we need to struggle for it in other areas," Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan told Pakistani news services by telephone last week. "Sharia does not permit us to lay down our arms if the government continues anti-Muslim policies." The goal, he said, is to "enforce the rule of Allah on the land of Allah."
In the northwestern town of Mardan, insurgents attacked girls schools, forced CD shops to close, ordered barbers not to shave beards and bombed the office of a nonprofit aid agency, killing a female worker. Taliban commanders accused the agency of "propagating obscenity." Taliban fighters occupied the Buner district for several days, closed a religious shrine and burned DVDs in the streets. They then toured the region in a convoy of trucks, even entering a secured army area while displaying heavy weapons.
"The inescapable reality is that another domino has toppled and the Taliban are a step closer to Islamabad," the Pakistan-based News International newspaper warned last week after the Buner takeover. The paper compared Pakistan to Vietnam: a weak and corrupt state being "nibbled away" by determined insurgents: "The Taliban have the upper hand, and they know it."
Surprisingly, there has been little official or public protest against the creeping tide of Islamist extremism. Analysts said this is partly because of fear of retaliation and partly because of strong religious sentiments that make Pakistanis reluctant to criticize fellow Muslims.
Even in especially shocking cases, such as the public flogging of a Swati girl suspected of having an affair, the response from national leaders was a muddle of denial and obfuscation. Some said the incident, which surfaced last month on a videotape, had been staged to sabotage the peace deal. Others said it was a minor issue compared with U.S. cross-border missile strikes.
A handful of influential Pakistanis have begun to raise the alarm, warning in newspaper columns or speeches that government and society need to confront the enemy within and acknowledge the difference between conventional sharia and the crude, brutally enforced Taliban version of an extremist Islamist state.
"In Swat they got their system imposed at gunpoint, and now they are ready to Taliban-ize the whole country," Altaf Hussain, the exiled head of the Muttahida Qaumi Majlis political party, said at a teleconference of Muslim clerics in Karachi on Sunday. Denouncing the insurgents' abusive and autocratic methods, he said, "We have to decide between our country and the Taliban."
Sharia in Pakistan, as in Afghanistan, exists in tandem with a modern legal code but does not supersede it. Sharia courts rule on certain religious and moral issues, while other cases are tried by regular courts. Mohammed, Aziz and other radicals espouse a more severe version like the one Taliban rulers imposed on Afghanistan in the 1990s, which segregates women and imposes harsh punishments.
Supporters of the Swat agreement pointed out that residents have been demanding sharia for years to replace the slow, corrupt justice system. But Swati leaders said that the local version of Islamic law was traditionally moderate and that in elections last year Swatis voted overwhelmingly for two secular parties.
Indeed, older natives of Swat like to recall earlier days when serenity and tolerance prevailed in the region of apple orchards, forested hills and glacial streams. Tourists from Japan and Europe came to explore ancient Buddhist ruins, while residents practiced a timeless mix of tribal customs and Islamic faith.
"There was something in the soil that made the people soft," said Asad Khan, a Swat native in his 40s who lives in the city of Peshawar. "Our culture was one of civilized hospitality. Everyone was a Muslim, but almost no one was a fundamentalist. The climate was not good for harsh people and ideas."
This week, after the peace accord was endorsed, officials and pro-government news media described the atmosphere in Swat as relieved and heading back to normalcy. But several people who visited the Swati capital of Mingora this week said they saw worried faces, no women in the markets, and clusters of black-turbaned men watching everyone closely.
"Things are confused and unclear. People have suffered a lot, and they are desperate for peace, but they don't know if it will last," said Afzal Khan Lala, a provincial legislator, reached by phone in Mingora. "If the Taliban are sincere, then peace should prevail. But if they have ulterior aims and seek supremacy over the state, I doubt peace will come to Swat."