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Bearded State

With the MMA zealots nipping at his heels, NWFP chief minister Durrani shows up his illiberal side

Bearded State
Bearded State
When Akram Khan Durrani was chosen to lead the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) government in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) last year, among the initial measures he took was to start growing a beard. Nearly pipped to the post because the formidable Jamaat-e-Islami, a constituent of the six-party MMA, didn't want to endorse the candidature of the 42-year-old clean-shaven politician, Durrani simply threw aside his razor. And thus was belied the expectation that power would temper MMA leaders.

Durrani's beard is the least inimical of the controversial steps he's taken to demonstrate his government's Islamic provenance. The day he was anointed chief minister, he banned the sale and use of liquor. The list of proscriptions only grew: music was banned on public transport, gambling dens outlawed, drivers ordered to stop public vehicles at the muezzin's call for prayers. And the government promised to build separate places for women to perform ablutions.

Even these initial measures failed to enthuse the more zealous MMA cadre. Flush from an unprecedented victory in the October elections—the MMA won 70 out of 125 seats in the NWFP—they clamoured for a rooting out of interest-based banking, a ban on co-education institutions and introduction of the Islamic concept of justice. They also accused the Durrani government of duplicity, arguing that sale of liquor and gambling dens in the NWFP were proscribed decades back.

The reiteration of the old orders goaded the police into cracking down on cinemas screening soft porn and billboards displaying lascivious posters. The police also began to organise public bonfires of audio and video cassettes purportedly containing pornographic material. The government's activism was just the signal needed for MMA supporters to take to the streets. Offices of cable operators were raided and cables snapped. A few music shops were also destroyed in this display of atavistic passion.

Always a deeply conservative society, the NWFP has been in ferment for some time. For one, the Taliban experiment in neighbouring Afghanistan fanned hopes of establishing a true Islamic society. Washington's war against terror bolstered this sentiment, convinced as many here are that the Taliban were targeted because of their espousal of the Islamic governance system. This heady mix of pro-Islamic and anti-US sentiments was the prime reason why the MMA swept the polls, the first time since 1946 the province has elected a one-party (or pre-electoral alliance) government.

No wonder Durrani and his cabinet are busy trying to find ways to introduce Shariah. The government has decided to constitute a committee of Islamic religious scholars and experts to advise the MMA government on Islamising the system of governance and justice. This is in addition to the MMA's pre-election pledge to the recommendations of the Islamic Ideology Council (IDC). The IDC was formed years ago but its recommendations, such as introduction of interest-free banking, were never implemented, either by an elected or authoritarian regime.

The MMA has also been pressuring the federal government to shift the weekly holiday from Sunday to Friday. The precarious position of Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Jamali in the National Assembly, and his persistent efforts to rope in the MMA to bolster his strength, rendered him amenable to MMA's pressure. But opposition from the business lobby and the failure to stitch a deal between Jamali's Pakistan Muslim League Qaid-e-Azam and the MMA compelled the federal government to backtrack.

For some years, the weekly holiday in fact had been on Friday in Pakistan. But in 1997, Nawaz Sharif reverted to Sunday under pressure from businessmen, who argued that a holiday on Friday cut Pakistan off from the global market for three days in a row.

Observers are divided on the impact of the MMA's Islamic agenda on other provinces. Some feel its religious programme could help the alliance to exploit the rising anti-US, anti-Musharraf sentiments in Pakistan and fan out beyond the NWFP and Balochistan. The MMA won two new seats in the recent byelections in Punjab. All this has sparked speculation that governor's rule could be imposed in the NWFP. But such undemocratic measures may only augment the MMA's strength.

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