The decision to introduce Islamic law to the scenic region was reached by the government of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Tahrik-e-Nifaz Shariat Muhammadi movement (TNSM) to end years of war and violence. Sharia came into effect last 16 February. With the president’s signature it becomes fully operational.
Recent weeks have shown what the new regulation entails. Hundreds of local lawyers have lost their job, NGOs cannot operate, anti-polio vaccinations have been stopped, imprisoned Taliban militants have been released and violence against women has skyrocketed. However, the flogging of a 17-year-old woman caught strolling with a man not her husband caused an uproar.
Still most members of Pakistan’s National Assembly voted in favour of the resolution, including non-Muslims. Only one party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), did not vote in favour of the resolution and expressed instead reservations about it.
Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, slammed the president’s decision to sign—he also expressed disappointment that non-Muslim parliamentarians did not oppose the resolution in the National Assembly.
“It is shocking and surprising that non-Muslim members of the lower house of parliament remained silent,” he said.
He did however appreciate the fact that the MQM did not vote in favour of Sharia in Swat.
What has happened has alarmed the NCJP secretary. In his opinion the decision to hand over the Swat Valley to the Taliban will probably encourage them to try to impose Islamic law in other areas of the country. In the end a parallel justice system will be set up and bowing to fundamentalist violence will give the Taliban a free rein and they are bound to demand more.
On Sunday the Taliban also threatened Muslim lawmakers that they would be treated as non-Muslim if they voted against the resolution. From their point of view a negative vote amounts to “apostasy”, a crime punishable by death according to their radical interpretation of Islam.
Muslim Khan, a spokesman for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), issued a warning: any lawmaker voting against the resolution that imposed Sharia in the Swat Valley should consider contesting the next election for “seats reserved for minorities”, if “he is still alive”.
In the meantime the uproar over the Chand Bibi affair continues across the country. it involved a 17-year-old woman who was publicly flogged by the Taliban, an action caught on a cellphone camera whose video was eventually shown around the world.
Jesuit Herman Roborgh SJ, an expert in Islam-Christian relations, knows the Swat Valley very well.
“The Swat Valley was a favourite tourist destination for all the years I was living in Pakistan during the 1990's and Muslim families were proud of the education their daughters received,” he said.
Things changed after the army pulled out and the Taliban took over. Now “the destruction of schools means no education for girls,” he noted.
Talking about the case involving the young woman he said: “Had they [the Taliban] not approved, the young woman would not have been flogged. They are behind it.”
In doing this they caused an outcry in most of the country, a sign that the “Taliban went too far in trying to impose Islamic precepts,” he said.
“Pakistani society should reject the application of Sharia,” he added.
Still President Zardari’s signature appears to have snuffed out whatever hope was left that a modicum of freedom might endure in the area.
By contrast, the Taliban celebrated the event with shouts of joy.
(Nirmala Carvalho contributed to this article.)