Asia-Pacific, Headlines

RIGHTS-PAKISTAN: Nawaz Sharif’s Use of Religion Fools No One

Beena Sarwar

LAHORE, Sep 15 1998 (IPS) - Pakistan’s government is freely using state-run television to counter growing opposition to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s surprise decision to establish a legal system based on religion.

Images of Sharif on pilgrimage in Mecca, hands folded in prayer, are frequently telecast on national TV to convince Pakistanis that the country would be stronger when the Quran and Sunnah (Islamic traditions) are made the supreme law of the land.

But the ruling Pakistan Muslim League stands alone in support of the ‘Shariat Bill’, the proposed 15th amendment to the Constitution or CA 15 which was introduced on Aug. 28.

Sharif, who is just six seats short of a two-thirds majority in the country’s parliament, has lost all his coalition partners, including the Awami National Party (ANP), who have pulled out in protest.

ANP parliamentary chief Asfandyar Wali Khan blasted the Shariat Bill as a “misnomer” in a 45-minute speech in the National Assembly that was heard in almost total silence except for stray catcalls from the ruling party benches.

Accusing the prime minister of trying to concentrate all power in his hands, Khan asserted that “the kind of power he (Sharif) seeks was not even enjoyed by Hitler or Mussolini.”

The government’s attempt to change the country’s laws has also alienated some ruling party members, including prominent lawyer Khursheed Kasuri and federal minister Syeda Abida Hussain who have been vocal in their protest.

Even religious parties have reacted in dismay. The right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed, said that he suspects Sharif of wanting to “bargain away national interests by signing the CTBT and recognising Israel” under cover of the “smoke screen” provided by the proposed amendment.

The government’s move has taken the wind out of the sails of the religious parties who can neither openly oppose the bill nor allow Sharif to claim credit for the country’s “Islamisation”.

Sharif though may have given his arch-rival Benazir Bhutto a new lease of political life after nearly two years in political isolation. The former prime minister who is embroiled in several corruption cases was back on the political stage and accusing Sharif of playing the religious card to stave off his government’s collapse.

Leaders of seven opposition parties, including the ANP and Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) meeting last week in Islamabad announced plans to launch an agitation against the bill.

“We friends are together again,” Bhutto claimed at a press conference in Islamabad following a mammoth rally in Sargodha in Punjab, the prime minister’s home state.

Many Pakistanis believe the bill is a gimmick meant to divert attention from the serious problems facing the country like the deepening economic crisis and escalating sectarian violence.

At a meeting last Saturday, the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) voted unanimously against the proposed amendment, which it said was “an attempt to avoid debate on basic issues” and to divide the people by “introducing a non-issue”.

They expressed alarm at the government’s attempt to muffle liberal opinion. Speaking at a religious convention last Saturday, the prime minister urged the audience to “force those opposing it (CA 15) to retreat and repent for their mistake”.

“You have been asking me to implement the Islamic system. I have done my job, now it’s your turn to play your part,” Sharif said. “My entire government and machinery is now at your disposal.”

The premier’s religious rhetoric has set off alarm bells. “This is an open call for religious extremists to attack those of us who don’t agree with their thinking,” warned prominent rights lawyer Asma Jahangir who sees the fight ahead as a “struggle between democratic and anti-democratic forces.”

According to her, “whenever there is a crisis in the country, the politicians bring in an amendment in the name of the Shariat.”

Former chief justice of Pakistan’s apex Supreme Court Sajjad Ali Shah has described the prime minister’s call as “an invitation to civil war”.

“The bill is totally unnecessary given that the Constitution authorises courts to strike down any provision that is un-

Islamic,” he said. “The government has taken this step with the intention of concentrating all power in the hands of Nawaz Sharif.”

Sharif has, however, categorically denied using religion for political purposes. “Islam is my faith, religion and belief. I have never used it for any political gains,” he told the religious convention last week.

He also sought to allay fears that the shift to fundamentalism would lead to the trampling of minority or women’s rights in Pakistan. However, independent groups have made it clear that they will not accept the bill in any form.

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