HE has for a long time now nurtured an elusive dream of emerging as Pakistan's Amirul Momineen. But it was finally sheer strategic desperation that drove Nawaz Sharif to make a bid for total and absolute power. The prime minister has left the masses with little choice between submitting to his Muslim League style of Islamisation or openly rebelling against what Benazir Bhutto calls a blasphemous amendment to the Constitution.
When he could no longer take the heat from the fallout of the US Tomahawk missiles, Sharif diverted the people's attention towards the 15th constitutional amendment which proposes to make the Quran and Sunnah the supreme law of the country. He succeeded.
On August 31, there were 10 stories on the bill on the outer pages of the daily The News, with several commentaries on the editorial pages. But at what cost has this latest decision been made? Sharif's future path is strewn with immense dangers and nobody is even for a moment ready to believe that the slogan of Islam will reverse the Sharif government's waning stars. He has already proved that the heavy mandate he recieved was, in retrospect, a wee bit too heavy for his faculties. Questions are being asked how this new law would bail the nation out of the economic rot that has set in.
The real dangers of the 15th Constitutional Amendment lie in the mysterious silence of what it does not say. Once the amendment is passed, Sharif can without even consulting the cabinet decide what is Islamic and what is not Islamic. There would be nothing to stop him, not even the superior judiciary. "Taking an extreme example, there is nothing in the bill to legally prevent the government from concluding that the whole electoral system, Parliament, the existence of provinces, the judiciary and the political parties in their present form are all un-Islamic. And that, therefore, they would be replaced with a nominated shoora of pious Muslims (as defined by the government), the merger of all provinces into a single administrative unit, qazis well versed in Shariat but not constrained by the niceties of common law and no political opposition," says commentator Khalid Jawed Khan.
As it stands today, the bill has several controversial clauses which are being debated all over the country. In an unprecedented move, it is stated in the bill that if it is defeated in the Senate (the Upper House), that will not be the end of it, as is the normal case. Instead the government could then bring it before a joint session of Parliament, where it has a comfortable majority. With the MQM and JWP also joining the oppostion, the government has lost its majority in the Upper House. These two parties are now grouped with the PPP, ANP, BNP, NPP (Mengal group) and PPP (Shaheed group).
The ANP leader in the National Assembly, Esfandyar Wali Khan, told Outlook, "Our worst fears have been confirmed. This means eliminating the Senate which has equal membership from all federating units. This way the voices from the three smaller provinces are being silenced. Also once again we will be branded as anti-Islam when we oppose it. But we have no fears."
However, at the same time even Muslim Leaguers are beginning to appear uneasy with the new law. In private conversations with Outlook, they say they have been meeting to express their apprehensions. "We were never consulted nor taken into confidence and we are having problems not supporting this bill because of the 14th Amendment," says one Leaguer.
The law ministry too was completely bypassed during the drafting and presentation of the bill. It was consulted only to vet the proposed legislation. Most of the work has reportedly been done by a former deputy attorney general, Riaz Gillani. But ironically when it is passed, law minister Khalid Anwer will have the thankless job of defending it.
Significantly, the federal government has assumed the right to interpret Islam and decide what is Islamic and what is not. This way the Constitution is completely bypassed, as are Parliament and the judiciary. Sharif has done this before—he'd unilaterally named Rafiq Tarrar Pakistan's president and then merely informed his cabinet. This time also, only one-man 'consultations' with Abajee may precede decisions on what comes under the framework of Islam.
In fact, this will empower the government to have absolute extra-parliamentary powers where its dictates will be unchallengable. "I have no doubt that by undermining the supremacy of Constitution and independence of judiciary, an attempt is being made to establish a Talibanish government headed by crown prince Mian Nawaz and overseen by Amirul Momineen Rafiq Tarrar," says Asma Jehangir, chairperson of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission. "The amendment will destroy the balance among federating units guaranteed through equal representation in the Senate and will revoke the entire Constitution.
And after the passage of the bill, Pakistani women will be in the hands of the local Taliban." And if Sharif thought he would appease the Jamaat-e-Islami which has taken to the streets recently over rampant corruption charges and the US missile strikes, he was mistaken. It was outrightly rejected by the Jamaat chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed, who said Sharif was morally lacking to be the one to enforce true Shariat. "How can a government which looks the other way when the country is being looted and which encourages interest in banking even think of enforcing Islam?" he asked.
Interestingly, economists are worried whether Sharif will announce interest-free banking which would at this stage of bankruptcy be absolutely suicidal. "We are no Iran or Saudi Arabia that we can thumb our nose at the rest of the world. An interest-free financial system will bring disaster to this impoverished nation," warned the English daily The Frontier Post.
Legal experts are astounded that after years of military dictatorship, the country could well be on course to suffer years of civilian dictatorship where there will be no legal hitches to any law which emerges from the prime minister's secretariat. "Sharif and his administration should concentrate on bringing back economic stability rather than trying to concentrate more powers in his hands. The bill has an in-built mechanism to allow the federal government a walkover vis-a-vis the Constitution, judiciary and, above all, parliamentary demcoracy," notes a legal expert.
WHAT about the different Islamic sects which were never in the forefront as they are today? Will Sharif's brand of Islamisation please all? Will we now see a dozen different Islamic courts handing out judgments on their own sect? While the need of the hour is to get together all the different sects, Sharif seems bent upon divisiveness in the name of the Shariat. Besides, what kind of Islam does Sharif visualise? He has publicly said he is impressed by the courts in Saudi Arabia and their mode of fair justice. There are other examples also in the neighbourhood, like the Iranian clergy or the dictatorial Taliban. It is not for nothing that a PPP parliamentarian in the Lower House shouted as Sharif sat after announcing the new amendment, "Nawaz Sharif start growing your beard from tomorrow. "
Even independent parliamentarians have voiced concern over Sharif's latest Islamic somersault. "By introducing this bill, the government has admitted to a complete lack of understanding of the problems of governance. It remains a mystery how the clauses of this bill will bring about a reduction in unemployment, increase in prices, lawlessness as well as effectiveness in the education and health sectors. Sadly after the political parties have destroyed virtually all instruments of state, now even our religion will not be spared disgrace," said Daniyal Aziz, an independent MP.
But while the Amirul Momineen stayed home to ensure that he converted the people into good Muslims, he missed the opportunity of a lifetime—stuff that make the dreams of a Muslim Leaguer. An international and historic position was taken at the NAM summit when for the first time South African president Nelson Mandela called for a peaceful resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. More Islamisation anyone?