Political Accountability in the Name of Religion

In Pakistan the process of Islamization has mostly been a matter of political expediency. Mr. Bhutto’s effort to declare Ahmadi’s as non-Muslims, General Ziul Haq’s promulgation of Hudood Ordinance (Islamic Penal law) or Nawaz Sharif’s Enforcement of Shariat Act all had political motivation, though they were professed to strengthen Islam and usher a more just society. Unfortunately, the experience has shown to be otherwise.

Now the government of religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) of the sensitive North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) has passed the Hasba (Accountability) Bill with similar objectives. Are the people in for similar experience or worse? Although at the moment this concerns only one province but the nature of the bill has potential to have consequences for the rest of the country.

The NWFP assembly passed the Hasba Bill on July 14, 2005, almost without any debate within days of its presentation. The Bill revolves around two-pronged objective to achieve Islamic way of life: Amer-Bil- Maroof and Nahi-anil-Munkir. The first is obligation of enjoining good as laid down in Quran & Sunnah; the second is obligation of forbidding evil. The ‘Mohtasibs’ (Ombudsman) appointed under the Hasba laws are to ensure both these objectives.

Now comes the difficult part. These obligations are not in the form of recommended actions but are enforceable under penalty. The Mohtasibs have at their disposal the ‘Hasba police’ to carry out accountability and to keep watch on ’emerging evils and injustices in the society’.

There is a long list of do’s and don’ts envisaged under the Hasba laws, which the Mohtasibs are required to ensure. These include, amongst others, protecting Islamic values and etiquette, watching the media for upholding Islamic values, enforcing various aspects of Sharia including prayers and checking indecent behavior.

There are three levels of Mohtasibs: Province, District and Tehsil. All Mohtasibs are term appointees. They would have the support of an ‘Advisory Council’ comprised of ‘selected’ religious scholars, lawyers and respectable citizens. In effect they would be part time judicial officials wielding more powers than even the regular judiciary, as they could start ‘Suo Moto’ proceedings for infractions under Hasba law.

What it boils down to is that the Mohtasibs would be able to start proceedings against anybody on what they may consider infraction of religious obligations. The definition of Amer-Bil Maroof and Nahi-Anil-Munkir is wide enough for varying (or subjective) interpretations. The proceedings before the Mohtasibs cannot be challenged in any court or by any authority.

The dangers in the intended Hasba system are the same as has been witnessed in the previous efforts of Islamization. National Commission on the Status of Women set up in 2000 to report on possible discriminatory laws against women submitted a detailed report on Hudood Laws. Some of the important findings and recommendations were:

– The laws were hurriedly drafted and equally hurriedly implemented.

– Hudood Laws are full of lacunae and anomalies. These have been exploited by the unscrupulous elements to perpetuate great cruelty especially on women and children.

– The experience of last 24 years has shown that these laws have been counter-productive and have added to the misery of the people in general and women in particular.

– Islam essentially is a religion that promotes justice, but when in the name of Islam, injustice is perpetrated then it becomes necessary to scrutinize the laws introduced in the name of Islam.

– Members by a majority vote recommended the Hudood laws to be repealed.

With such experience the question now arises as to why this Bill and why in such a hurry? MMA, which has been in power in NWFP since after the elections of October 2002, did promise to enforce Sharia during their election campaign. Once in power they apparently realized the enormity of their promises. Hence, it is not surprising that their efforts in this direction so far have been quite rudimentary.

They did pass a Shariat Bill in June 2003, but in practical terms did not go beyond removing ‘indecent’ bill boards, discourage music and voice rhetoric about the role of women. So what are their compulsions in pushing with this bill even if it meant confrontation with the Federal government who had warned them to desist from such a move? (The Federal government has since moved a reference at the Supreme Court questioning the constitutional validity of the Hasba Bill).

The foremost compulsion could be that the elections are coming. The local government elections are just around the corner, which to a large extent would be the stepping-stone for the national and provincial elections scheduled for 2007 with likelihood of being held earlier. MMA probably considers it the right time to revisit their electoral base by fulfilling some of the promises made during the last election campaign. However, there appear to be other compulsions too.

Although MMA has reaped benefits by cooperating with President Musharaff, it has not been without a dent to their credibility. They may have gauged the likely adverse political fallout of this cooperation and now want to undo some of that. Also President Musharaff seems to have stepped up his fight against religious extremists. This naturally puts the hard line clerics (who are plentiful in MMA) on the road to confrontation with the federal government and they consider it necessary to strengthen their defenses. Whatever their impetus, this bill can come very handy, win or loose in the court.

In case of victory in the court MMA would have a vigilante judicial officials, fully loyal (being their appointees), giving them a great advantage over their opponents when the election slugging starts. If they loose they have another ‘battle cry’ of being prevented from doing service to the cause of Islam! They could effectively take credit for doing something in the name of Islam without actually doing it.

The matter of concern, however, is not the credibility or the longevity of MMA. It is the consequences of such half-baked efforts and how it affects the people and the religion. As seen in the past, such politically motivated experiments not only bring more hardship to the people but also tend to cast a negative image of the religion itself, especially in the present day charged atmosphere.

There is yet another problem. Religious laws once promulgated are not easy to modify let alone repeal. Any move to change meets with full fury of the religious establishment. Even the all-powerful Pakistani President learnt his lessons the hard way. Addressing a Human Rights convention in April 2000 Musharaff, in his enthusiasm of ‘enlightened moderation’, proposed procedural reforms of the controversial Blasphemy laws. Later, facing stiff opposition form the clerics, he had to backtrack and has never revisited these areas again.

Now that the matter is in court a very hotly contested legal battle is on the cards. The good news is that Chief Minister of NWFP Akram Khan Durrani has said that his government would accept the decision of the Supreme Court. It is hoped that the MMA hierarchy would stick to this resolve. The country and the people of Pakistan can ill afford go through yet another turmoil at this critical juncture of their history.