Jan 18, 2008

Islamists Divided: Enforcing Shariah by Violence

Nicholas Schmidle is a Pakistan-based writer and a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. This is his first article for the magazine.

Published in NY Times in 6th Jan 2007 - Next Gen Taliban- Nicolas Schmidle writes that, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, better known by its abbreviation, J.U.I., is a hard-line Islamist party, widely considered a political front for numerous jihadi organizations, including the Taliban. In the last parliamentary elections here, in 2002, the J.U.I. formed a national coalition with five other Islamist parties and led a campaign that was pro-Taliban, anti-American and spiked with promises to implement Shariah, or Islamic law.

In the past year, the J.U.I. chief has tried to disassociate himself from the new generation of Taliban wreaking havoc not only across the border in Afghanistan, as they have for years, but also increasingly in Pakistan. At the same time, Rehman has been trying to persuade foreign ambassadors and establishment politicians here that he is the only one capable of dealing with those same Taliban.
In the process, some Islamists maintain that Rehman has sold them out. Last April, a rocket whistled over the sugarcane fields that separate Rehman’s house from the main road before crashing into the veranda of his brother’s home next door. A few months later, Pakistani intelligence agencies discovered a hit list, drafted by the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, with Rehman’s name on it.
According to this past summer’s U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, approved by all 16 official intelligence agencies, Al Qaeda has regrouped in the Tribal Areas adjoining the province and may be planning an attack on the American homeland.

Rehman doesn’t pretend to be a liberal; he wants to see Pakistan become a truly Islamic state.

For now, it is Islamist violence that seems to have the political upper hand rather than the accommodation of Islamist currents within a democratic society.
Musharraf’s government says the increasingly frequent bombings are evidence of Talibanization creeping east from the Afghanistan border. The local Taliban militants blast shops selling un-Islamic CDs, cable-TV operators, massage parlors and other sites they consider havens of vice. A newspaper editor in Dera Ismail Khan showed me a letter he received, signed by the Taliban, warning him not to print anything that defamed the mujahedeen. They threatened to blow up his office if he didn’t comply.

Mushahid Hussain, secretary general of the pro-Musharraf faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, told me that no one can negotiate the politics of the North-West Frontier Province better than Rehman.

In September, he had the first meeting of his 30-year political career with an American ambassador. What did Rehman and Anne Patterson, the American envoy, discuss? “She urged me to form an electoral alliance with Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf,” he told me a few days after the meeting. “I am not against it. But politically, because of the American presence in Afghanistan and rising extremism, it is a bit hard for us to afford.” Plus, the fact that the Americans thought Bhutto could tackle the Taliban had simply baffled him. “She has no strategy in those areas, and nothing to do with those people,” he said.

“We are struggling for the enforcement of Shariah,” Sirajuddin told me inside a brick shed that was his office. “Twice, in 1994 and 1999, the government said it was committed to enforcing Shariah in this area, but it never did. The people here want Islam to be a way of life.” He added: “We are Muslims, but our legal system is based on English laws. Our movement wants to replace the English system with an Islamic one.” Read more

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