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Pakistan's Religious Parties Dismiss President's Call to Review Islamic Laws - 2004-05-18

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf wants a review of controversial Islamic laws that critics say discriminate against women and religious minorities in the predominantly Muslim country. Religious parties have dismissed the call as anti-Islam, while other critics say the president needs to take practical steps to make changes.

Pakistan's former military dictator, Zia ul-Haq introduced the strict Islamic laws in 1979, mainly to win the support of religion-based political parties.

Secular parties, human rights groups and non-Muslim minorities have complained the laws are often misused to settle personal scores. But successive governments refused to even debate the matter, under pressure from Islamic leaders.

In speech last week, President Musharraf said the laws should be re-examined to ensure they are not misused. As he put it, the nation must not shy away from debating these laws.

"Is this the teaching of Islam that we can't even discuss it? Islam teaches discussion, it says we must discuss and come to decision through a consensus," said Mr. Musharraf. "And here we are, we don't want to discuss something, which we have created ourselves."

But some critics doubt his call for debate will lead to change. They say the pro-military ruling party will not want to annoy an alliance of six Islamic parties in the Parliament.

Without their support, the government could not have amended the constitution to validate President Musharraf's military coup in 1999 and allow him to stay in office at least until 2007.

Sheri Rehman represents an opposition party affiliated with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. She says Mr. Musharraf has issued scores of ordinances to introduce economic and political reforms, and she argues he could have done the same long ago to amend the Islamic laws.

"That is how it actually came into being through a military government, through an ordinance without discussion in parliament," said Ms. Rehman. "And if he is so moved I don't understand why he has not repealed it himself. ? I think these are just gestures made to appease his donors and the international community."

Among other things, the Islamic laws require the testimony of four male witnesses to prove rape, and women who fail to prove rape claims are often convicted of adultery and jailed. The laws carry death penalty for anyone defaming the Prophet Mohammed and the Muslim holy book, Koran.

Religious parties have strongly opposed all attempts to review the Islamic laws, saying they are sacred.

"Neither President Musharraf nor anyone else speaking on this topic knows anything about Islam and its teachings," said Munawar Hassan, a leader of Pakistan's largest right-wing religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami. "They are trying to secularize [Pakistan] and they are trying to get Islamic ideology and the ideology of Pakistan out of Islamic courses and in the legal system."

Since seizing power, President Musharraf has criticized religious radicalism and even coined phrases such as enlightened moderation to convince the world of his credentials as a liberal Muslim leader.