This week, I read with immense interest a column by Umair Javed, ‘The Sharia question’ in an English language daily, in which he expresses disappointment with the near universal acceptance of the demand for Sharia law implementation in the country, since the commencement of the latest peace negotiations by the government with the Taliban. He pointed to the plethora of religious ‘scholars’ holding forth on the virtues of religious law without any comment, either by them, or by the television anchors hosting these scholars, on the complexity inherent to the interpretation or implementation etc. It was problematic that the question of Sharia per se had become moot, and that all that remained to be decided were the modalities or the question of ‘whose Sharia.’

I have some observations on both issues raised by Javed. Whilst it may seem a recent phenomenon because of the discourse dominating prime time television recently, the supposed near universal acceptance of a Sharia system in Pakistan is not as recent as the start of negotiations with the Taliban this year. During the last ten years or so, there have been numerous polls conducted in the country, some by foreign pollsters, others by domestic, that have consistently returned between 75% to 85% positive responses to ‘we want Sharia in Pakistan’ type of questions.

Hence the apparent universality of the demand for Sharia law implementation in the country was a foregone conclusion; the recent debates only surfacing it on a national forum. However, even in the face of these polls I have always questioned the validity of this ‘demand’ because of the very complex nature of what Sharia might mean as well as the incidence of polling flaws.

I wrote about the problem with such surveys a few years ago: “that (they) treat the issue of jurisprudence and the future law of the land as if it were a simple question like which soap a person wants to use (a la do you prefer Rexona over Lux?). Given the fact that for Pakistanis there is no working model of Sharia law, and no definition of what Sharia law really implies in daily life, polling on such an issue is a fundamentally flawed approach.

(Those) that argue for the concept of Sharia neither support the model of Saudi Arabia (as they term it dictatorial and flawed and not authentically Islamic), nor that of Iran (also deemed flawed and Shi’ite), nor that of Afghanistan (said to be extremist). Which then begs the question as to which Sharia the surveys talk about? A responsible survey would declare something popular if it were well defined. Where it is a well-known fact that nothing is tangible, starting from how a Khalifa would be selected, whose Islam the jurisprudence would be based on (out of the 75 sects and sub sects in the religion), who would interpret and implement the laws, and what, at a conceptual level would be the difference between Sharia and the current jurisprudence, how can the surveys presume to make (the) proclamations they make?

These surveys prey on the public’s equation of goodness and morality with Islamic values, which is a completely different thing from Sharia. If surveys were to first clearly determine and define for respondents the differences between how Sharia law versus Pakistan’s current law would treat apostasy, blasphemy, murder, rape, freedom of speech, high treason, theft, adultery, women’s rights (to work, study, have/not have children etc.), domestic violence, television, radio, music, property rights, traffic violations, complex corporate disputes, copyright, internet and telephony regulations, taxation etc., any poll results, then, might carry more legitimacy.

Whilst absolutely agreeing with Javed on the context in which the question of Sharia is being discussed (imposition at gunpoint), I was at the same time relieved that questions of ‘which/whose Sharia’ finally began to be discussed. This conversation can, if taken to its logical end, begin to explore the actual complexities of interpretation and implementation – and hence the impossibility of imposing such a system on polity that has, whenever given a chance, always voted for non-religious parties to lead the nation. Even in the very surveys that declare a heavy majority of Pakistanis desiring Sharia implementation, the same respondents vote overwhelmingly for democracy and independence of the current judiciary.

This confusion and apparent conflict between what the public says, and what it actually does at election time, can probably be resolved because of the very ‘whose/which Sharia’ conversations, if carried out intelligently. The public at large, not just a few experts and human rights activists, need to be aware of and understand, for example, the last spate of General Zia’s ‘Sharia’ laws that required a female victim of rape to provide four male Muslim witnesses (of undisputedly pious character) to prove the crime, forensic and other evidence notwithstanding (Hudood Laws); that held worthless the testimony of a woman eyewitness to her husband’s murder (Law of Evidence). The public needs to understand the fallacy of equating the concept of a just, ethical and egalitarian society with an impossible to define and implement ‘Sharia.’ The ‘whose/which Sharia’ conversations on national television can certainly help achieve this, as well as a realization of the diversity of the polity itself that will not accept one man’s ‘belief’ over another’s and hence the necessity of a pluralistic and inclusive system, if serious professionals in the industry pick up the gauntlet.

Separately, another outcome of the Sharia debates (though largely a circus) was the robust push back by several members of the intelligentsia as well as from members of the religious scholars’ community itself, essentially declaring parliament to be the competent authority to enact laws in the country, compliant with ‘Sharia’ or not.

 The writer is a human rights worker and freelance columnist.

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