KARACHI, PAKISTAN -- At an open-air stand across from this city's largest mosque, a trader named Yusuf does a brisk business selling illegal sex accessories: aphrodisiacs, pornography, love potions and the best-selling Stud, advertised as the "world-famous delay chewing gum for men."
A spirited entrepreneur who speaks in enthusiastic bursts about the benefits of his products, Yusuf also considers himself a committed Moslem. He supports Pakistan's new government of political and religious conservatives and welcomes its proposal for tough Islamic laws that, if implemented, would likely push him into bankruptcy, jail or both.
Yusuf's seemingly irreconcilable attitudes illustrate the quandary faced by Pakistan's new leaders as they try to fulfill their pledge to create a more pious Islamic society by enforcing strict interpretations of the Moslem legal code, known as Sharia. The new laws are expected to prescribe amputation for thieves and imprisonment or death for fornicators.
Many Pakistanis, tired of crime, corruption and the breakdown of civil institutions, support the idea of tough new laws and punishments. But at the same time, millions of citizens prosper from booming and well-organized trade in pornography, prostitution, drugs, smuggling, kidnapping and petty extortion. Neither the powerful proprietors nor the numerous customers of these businesses show any enthusiasm about changing their ways.
For months this year, Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and his supporters delivered fiery Islamic exhortations in their campaign to defeat the secularist former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. But Sharif's government, which faces a panoply of economic and foreign policy problems, already has indicated that it does not want to alienate Pakistanis by pushing too suddenly for a strict Islamic order.
Several weeks ago, the government promulgated a law derived from the Koran, Islam's holy book, requiring bus and taxi drivers to pay the equivalent of 100 camels -- just under $10,000 -- to the family of any pedestrian killed in a highway traffic accident. Bus drivers promptly went on strike, saying the fine was too stiff, and the law was quickly suspended to settle the protest.
For at least a decade, rightist Pakistani politicians and generals frequently have mouthed fundamentalist Islamic slogans but rarely have put them into practice. In the broadest terms, that is because 43 years after Pakistan was founded as a homeland for Moslems on the Indian subcontinent, neither the country's leaders nor its citizens have been able to forge a comfortable marriage of religion and politics.
The reasons are many and complex. As an institution, Islam in Pakistan is weakened by a diversity of sects. And while many ordinary Pakistanis profess a strong sense of Islamic identity, they have consistently rejected the most radical Moslem clerics, who are widely seen as power-hungry, opportunistic or financially corrupt.
Particularly among the country's urban elite, there is a wide gap between frequent, pious, public pronouncements about Islam and private social mores that have been heavily influenced by the West. "There's a lot of hypocrisy in this society," said Razia Bhatti, editor of Newsline, a Karachi-based magazine. "People try to pretend that they are what they are not."
The country's tiny secular elite feels pressure to toe a religious line in public because Pakistan's small cadres of organized fundamentalists have proven that they can quickly stir up popular frenzy against anyone branded as anti-Islamic.
Bhutto, for one, appeared intimidated during her 20 months as prime minister by the cultural veto power of the fundamentalists. Although vocal in her support for women's rights, she cultivated a demure and traditional public manner and never sought secularist laws challenging the widespread discrimination against women engendered by Islamic practices.
Stuck between the country's Westernized elite and its Islamic radicals are tens of millions of peasant farmers, urban laborers and small-time traders, whose personal lives are steeped in Moslem traditions, but whose livelihoods depend on a deeply corrupt economy. These ordinary Pakistanis sometimes voice a yearning for credible religious leadership even as they prosper and revel in its absence.
At Karachi's Smugglers' Market, where Yusuf and dozens of other traders offer a dazzling variety of illegally imported sex accessories, Indian and pornographic films, Western cosmetics and luxury goods, the contradictory forces shaping modern Pakistan are obvious.
Across from the sex market looms the Meman Mosque, a towering edifice of red sandstone with cool marble floors and an aura of solemn beauty. A number of the Smugglers' Market traders lamented in interviews that they cannot leave their shops to pray at the mosque because they fear they will be robbed while gone. It is a reduction in Pakistan's crime and chaos, rather than any evident enthusiasm for an austere religious life, that leads the traders to say they favor strict Islamic laws. When an Islamic system is achieved, "ours will be a peaceful and strict society," said shopkeeper Muhammad Sayeed.
In a back office of the Meman Mosque, the chief mullah, Razaul Mustafa Azmi, his shirt buttoned with jewelled studs, pored over the mosque's accounts. A burning cigarette dangled from his lips. He paused to discuss negotiations over a construction project with an assistant, stuffed a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth and settled back to explain why Islam has been slow to take hold as an organizing principle in Pakistani society.
"Until religious leaders like us are in the government, it won't be possible to have proper Islam," he said. "People lack Islamic education. . . . They are only interested in rituals and prayers."
While Azmi dismissed the sex market across the street as "wildness," he said it occurs in all Moslem countries. Besides, he noted, since Islamic law allows a man to take four wives, he may require some help to please them.
Next to the mosque is one of Karachi's police stations, where officers lounged one afternoon reading newspapers. Traders at the Smugglers' Market say they bribe the police not to interfere with their business. The police say that is not true, but they concede that if they arrested any of the traders for selling sex objects, local residents would mutiny -- as happened recently in the city of Lahore after police raided a popular brothel.
One senior officer said that the basic problem was that "sex mania" from the West had corrupted Pakistan's women, causing them to lose their minds and seduce men in an accelerating cycle of decadence. Strict Islamic laws might eventually solve this problem, he said, "but it will take some time."