In Pakistan, a regional parliament controlled by Muslim fundamentalists is approving legislation to introduce Sharia, or Islamic law, to the North-West Frontier Province. But the move is under fire from opposition parties and the national government, which is a close ally of the United States.
A six-party religious alliance known as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or the MMA, governs the Pakistani province bordering Afghanistan. By introducing Sharia, or Islamic law, to the region, the religious group is delivering on an election promise to align local legal, education and economic practices with Islamic teachings.
The architect of the new legislation, provincial law minister Zafar Azam, says that the law will help eliminate "evil and corruption," particularly from the justice and police systems. After decades of poor administration and rising crime, few people are opposed to that proposition. "They want a change in justice system, in court system and police system as well as in the society. The Sharia fulfills these requirements," says Mr. Azam. "This is the demand of the people and for that demand they gave us the vote because our slogan was that we will give you Sharia."
Leaders of the radical MMA government are strongly opposed to the presence of U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan and are sympathetic to hard-line Taleban forces that continue to fight the U.S. led anti-terrorism forces in that country.
The MMA came into power by capitalizing on a surge of anti-American sentiment. U.S. and Afghan officials believe the Pakistani border province could be sheltering Taleban fugitives and members of the al-Qaida terrorist network.
Mr. Azam dismisses criticism that his government is dragging the already strictly conservative province back to the era of the Taleban in neighboring Afghanistan. He says the Taleban were uneducated and forced people to follow Islamic teachings. "We are democratic people and we will bring the change in the society in a democratic way. The Taleban were revolutionary people," he says. "They do each and every thing on the basis of revolution. There will be not a single word in the Sharia that we are going to force the people to go to Mosques and grow beards. We will go to the people and we will try to prevent them from evil things."
The provincial law ministers say Sharia will not apply to non-Muslims.
Opposition deputies in the provincial parliament, like Wajheeuzaman Khan, say Sharia is being introduced as a mere political move. Mr. Khan says the legislation was approved unanimously because lawmakers could not be seen opposing a fundamental element of the Muslim faith. "We are Muslims but we don't want to bring this Taleban kind of government because we are already in the environment of Islam. They should concentrate on those issues, which are more important," he says. "How many jobs they have created in the last six months? How many health facilities have they delivered to the people? How many education facilities have they delivered to the people? Nothing of any sort."
The radical Islamic alliance is planning to introduce another piece of legislation known as the Hisba Act. This will be used to enforce Islamic laws through a system of local ombudsmen and religious police. Critics say that if it passes, the province will have religious police similar to those used by Afghanistan's deposed Taleban rulers.
Afrasiab Khatak is the head of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "We can say it is a Pakistani edition of Talebanization. It will encourage militancy, it will encourage extremism, it will encourage bigotry, it will encourage vigilantism," he says. "So it is a dangerous trend, which can lead to rise of fascism in our society."
Most residents in Peshawar, the provincial capital, say they are not opposed to Islamic law, but they insist their economic problems need to be solved first. The Pakistani province is one of the poorest and underdeveloped regions in Pakistan.
In addition to economic concerns, the move to introduce Islamic law has created tensions between the local and national governments. Under Pakistan's constitution, the central government can challenge any provincial measures considered contrary to national laws, and educational and economic policies.
A private welfare group has already challenged in the supreme court the MMA government's move to enforce Sharia, saying it is unconstitutional. The judges will hear the petition next Thursday.
The Sharia bill still must be signed by the governor of the province, Iftikhar Hussain Shah, before it becomes law.
The national government is showing its concern about developments in the province. Recently, the administration of Prime Minister Zafarullah Jamali recalled two top officials from the province. They were accused of failing to act decisively when supporters of the MMA mobbed the provincial capital last month and tore down billboards using female models to sell products.