Once again, Pakistan's mullahs are on a collision course with President
Pervez Musharraf. In the latest clash, on June 2, religious groups that
control Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province declared that Shari'a law
would be enforced in their territory—superceding the British-style
legal system that is Pakistan's law of the land. Shari'a is the strict
religious code that governs Islam. From now on, Arabic, the language of
the Koran, will be obligatory in schools; girls 12 years and older will
have to wear the head-to-toe veil known as the burqa, and women will not
be allowed to leave home unaccompanied by a husband or male relative.
A challenge to Pakistan's shaky, secular government is the last thing
Musharraf needs, but the mullahs are pushing a showdown. The Muttahidda
Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a political bloc of six religious groups, intends
to set up a morality police to enforce Islamic virtue, raising cries
among human-rights activists against the "Talibanization" of the
province. But popular support for the change is evident: even before the
law imposing Shari'a was passed, Islamic youths roamed the town of
Peshawar tearing down billboards featuring images of unburqa'd women.
The religious parties warned Musharraf not to interfere. "We will resist
all threats," said the MMA's Secretary General, Maulana Fazlur Rehman.
In retaliation, Musharraf could dissolve the provincial assembly. But
the MMA is making threats of its own, warning that 68 of its members
serving in parliament may resign if Islamabad tries to overturn the
local law. That poses no direct peril to Musharraf, who took power in a
bloodless coup in 1999. But the flimsy coalition Musharraf stitched
together after last October's elections could come unraveled if there
are mass resignations. And if the elected government falls, Musharraf's
popularity could plummet, as could his standing with his main
international ally: the U.S.
Meanwhile, a nationwide alliance of mullahs has launched a direct attack
on Musharraf, demanding that he no longer serve as both the country's
President and army chief. They say they are willing to drop that
demand—if Musharraf agrees to apply Shari'a law throughout the
country, a step the President, a religious moderate, is loathe to make.
If he wants to save his façade of civilian government and retain
international support, he may have to swallow hard and make peace with
two exiled former Prime Ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif,
whose parties together are strong enough to foil the clerics.