It now appears that Islamic parties running on the platform of Sharia are well set to arrive at the corridors of power in the Middle East and Northern Africa following the Arab Spring. Understandably, some influential analysts have called for political inclusion of the religious groups and have warned us about the dangers of touting secularism in that part of the world.
How would the Middle East and Northern Africa’s landscapes look in a few decades, in the context of socio-economic stagnation, rights (the very issues that sparked the revolution) and violent radicalism?
Instead of speculation and wishful-thinking driving policies, I believe that we can make a well-educated guess on the future of the Arab Spring, based upon the evolution of Pakistan.
In 1947, a social experiment was launched, when British-ruled India was partitioned into two nations – Pakistan and India – for the Muslim minorities and Hindu majority, respectively. In the beginning, the people of these new nations had a common culture, language, ethnicity, and culinary habits. Despite their numerous similarities, however, these nations have embarked on drastically different paths. While India has become a secular nation with a thriving and diverse economy, the constitutionally Islamic Pakistan has declined into an economic basket case; many even see it as a fountainhead of terror.
I have argued that of all possible contributory factors associated with Pakistan’s descent into violent radicalism, Sharia and armed jihad not only stand out, but they also appear to have played an overarching role. Soon after 1947, Pakistan did what the Islamists in post-Arab Spring revolutions are intending to do: starting out slowly, the country set out to systematically increase the influence of Sharia at every level.
How popular is Sharia in Pakistan? A poll conducted by World Public Opinion in some relatively cosmopolitan urban areas of Pakistan in the years 2006-2007 found that 79 percent of the respondents agreed with “[requiring] Islamic countries to impose a strict application of Sharia.” According to a 2010 Pew Global Attitudes poll, 82 percent of those surveyed in Pakistan were in favor of harsh Sharia-driven penalties such as stoning those who had committed adultery.
Broadly speaking, there are three ways in which Sharia has influenced the society in Pakistan. First, certain aspects of Sharia are codified as law, mostly restricted to the arena of civil law. This has elevated the prestige of Sharia and that of the clerics in the society.
Second, the portrayal of Sharia as a divine law necessitates its interpretation by clerics of all persuasions and enhances their authority. This influence is readily leveraged by the subset of radical clerics to advance the cause of religiously endorsed armed jihad. For instance, a former jihadist commander thus noted the role played by clerics in providing leadership to the jihadist groups operating in Pakistan: “There are two bodies running these affairs: mullahs [clerics] and retired generals.”
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