by Christopher Nadeem
(IPS) PESHAWAR --
lawyers and some community activist groups are worried that the ruling party, by creating an Ombudsman's office, could be paving the way for "virtue police" -- impacting the country even more than the recent passage by Pakistan's North West Frontier Province of a bill on Islamic law or 'sharia'.
Right after unanimous passage by the NWFP government of the 'sharia' bill on June 2, officials of the ruling Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) religious alliance were already talking about the next step in the road to what they think is a puritan society faithful to Islam.
For them, this step is the creation of Ombudsman's offices at the provincial, district and other levels that would be tasked with ensuring that the Islamic laws are enforced.
The decisions of these offices would not subject to challenge, and each office would carry out its mandate through a 'hasba force', a special force that Pakistani legal experts and activists fear will turn out resembling the vice and virtue squad of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan in the past.
"The 'hasba' act should be rejected because it is fascist in nature," said Qazi Anwar, a Supreme Court lawyer. "It is more dangerous because they will be giving sticks in the hands of the mullahs."
For instance, Anwar says, "It will enable the force to enter or search any premise without a search warrant. This is against the personal liberties of the citizens provided by the Constitution."
Islamic scholar Dr Mohammad Farooq, heretofore sympathetic to the MMA, now says that the way its leadership has gone about introducing an Islamic system in the province since its electoral victory in October 2003 leaves a lot to be desired.
Since many of the changes under 'sharia' have not been debated, he says they will the public will get even more confused when the Ombudsman's offices are set up-- whether the issue is about veil for women, beards for men or other matters.
The Islamisation process worries many here not so much because of the religious aspect, but because of the political use of religion. The MMA's plans have not only sent shivers among the liberal segments of society, women and minority groups, but has also pitched the provincial government against the central government in Islamabad.
After all, Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has been trying to show the western world that he is clamping down on religious extremism.
Some activists and some politicians had been wary of speaking out against the 'sharia' decision for fear of being labelled un-Islamic. But some aired their views anyway at the first public dialogue on the issue on June 4, organized by the civil society group Joint Action Committee.
Abdul Akbar Khan, parliamentary leader of the Pakistan People's Party in the NWFP assembly, did not oppose the 'sharia' bill in the legislature, but said at the dialogue that there was no need for it because Pakistan's Constitution is already Islamic in nature.
In the eighties, several areas of the criminal justice system -- the 'hudud' law, laws on narcotics and blasphemy were 'Islamised'.
The 'sharia' bill, which would have Islamic law take precedence over other laws and would govern the lives of people in accordance with Islamic teachings, is expected to become law when the NFWP governor signs it. This is a mere formality.
Khan adds that the bill is "defective and unconstitutional" because provinces cannot legislate on matters of finance and economy, which are the domain of the federal government. This, he said, would affect the bill's plan to the banking system into an interest-free one.
Legal expert Sher Afan Khattak calls the 'sharia bill' an eyewash for the MMA leadership to show that it is carrying out its election pledges. In fact, he says it is a copy of the Enforcement of Sharia Act 1991, "with a few minor changes." This law however was never full implemented.
The passage of the MMA's 'sharia' bill was far from a surprise. In recent months, the MMA has cancelled licenses to buy and sell alcohol, banned music in public transport, stopped male coaches from training female athletes, shut some cinemas and removed billboards with pictures of female models.
It also ordered government departments to make arrangements to hold prayers during office hours.
It is the women who fear the implications of the MMA's version of 'sharia' law and its 'hasba' squads the most -- whether it is in the area of dress codes or education.
Activist Bushra Gohar said: "They are wasting time and resources on non-issues. It will be an embarrassment for the country. The women in this part of the country are already backward because of the conservative social set-up. They want to push women further back."
"They will harass the women through the 'hasba' squads. And it will be up to the extremist hooligans to determine what's right and what's wrong," she pointed out, adding that women fear they might one day be prevented from leaving home to work.
The MMA wants to set up separate universities for women in their version of Islam, but rights activists say this is not about religion but violations of women's rights.
The chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Afrasiab Khattak, minced no words: "The MMA government wants to bring in segregation in society on the basis of gender."
"They are following in the Taliban's footsteps. Now it's in education and sports, soon it will be the work places," he said. "Music and dance is in our culture," he added, yet the MMA wants to force things that are against Pakistani culture. Khattak says that Pakistan is once again caught between the religious and military elements, which he calls two sides of the same coin.
After all, he said, the religious parties won with such a big margin in the 2002 election with the blessings of the military-dominated government -- this is why they are now a major partner in the coalition at the central government, apart from running NFWP.
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