Pakistan and the Arab Spring

Pakistan's Sharia odyssey serves as a frightening guide to where the Middle East and Northern Africa are headed.

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.”

Third, injunctions or fatwas are delivered by clerics based upon their interpretation of Sharia in the broadly defined area of the "code of conduct" for Muslims. For instance, fatwas ranging from prohibiting Muslim girls from receiving modern education or banning the use of polio vaccines, to favoring (Sharia-compliant) Islamic banking have been delivered in Pakistan by clerics.

The significantly lower output in Pakistan (compared to that of India) – in terms of the number of book titles published or the number of doctorates awarded, even after adjusting for the population ratios  –  may be attributed to the socio-economic influence of Sharia. In the years 2004 and 2007, 1,072 new titles and 432 doctorates were released and awarded in Pakistan, respectively. Yet even when scaled to India’s population, Pakistan has managed to produce just about 8,000 book titles and 3,000 doctorates, compared to India’s 82,537 titles and 14,000 doctorates.

A nation’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is a useful (lagging) indicator of the impact of a government’s socio-economic policies implemented under the influence of regressive ideologies such as Sharia. While Pakistan’s per capita GDP rose slightly from $2,000 to $2,400 from 1999 to 2009, India’s per capita GDP nearly doubled from $1,800 to $3,400 during the same period.

In sum, as observed in Pakistan, the continued emphasis on Sharia in a Muslim community as a divine code of conduct eventually leads to an entrenched religiosity, regressive outlook, socio-economic stagnation and violent radicalism directed at non-Muslims as well as internal conflicts. In contrast, India’s embrace of modernity, as evidenced in part by its secular and democratic constitution has led to a continued socio-economic development and resulted in a moderate outlook.

As evidenced in Pakistan, it appears that popular support for Sharia is a necessary condition for the large scale formation of jihadist groups. Conversely, reduced enthusiasm for Sharia relates to the same for armed jihad. For instance, the inability of al-Qaeda to sustain itself in Iraq even in the chaotic aftermath of the American intervention can be construed as in part due to a lack of favorable conditions for Sharia aided by decades of Saddam Hussein’s Sharia-limiting policies.

A long-running social experiment called Pakistan has taught us the perils of advancing Sharia under any form of governing. Supporting Islamists in Arab nations for whom a core vision is Sharia, it appears, will likely ensure the formation of many Arab-versions of Pakistan.

That would be one too many failed experiments.

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