(CNSNews.com) – Emboldened by the Pakistan government’s agreement to allow the imposition of shari’a in the extremist-controlled Swat valley, fundamentalist clerics are pushing to spread the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law across the country.
Weekend remarks by Swat-based pro-Taliban leader Sufi Muhammad suggesting that Pakistan’s courts and democratic system were un-Islamic caused an uproar in the national legislature on Monday.
Senators refused to endorse the recently negotiated “peace agreement” allowing shari’a in Swat until the matter of the parliament’s Islamic legitimacy was settled.
Although Pakistan’s constitution is based on Islamic precepts, the implication of Muhammad’s comments is that in order to be truly Islamic, the form of shari’a being introduced in Swat needs to be expanded throughout Pakistan – a process critics say will amount to national “Talibanization.”
Muhammad, head of a banned Islamist group, was arrested in late 2001 after returning from Afghanistan, where he had led thousands of Pakistani tribesmen to fight alongside the Afghan Taliban against U.S.-led forces.
He was freed in mid-2008 in exchange for an agreement to renounce violence, and helped to broker the Swat shari’a agreement.
Last week the authorities freed another leading radical, Islamabad-based cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz, who has been under house arrest for almost two years. Aziz, too, is calling for shari’a to be imposed nationwide.
Aziz was arrested after a long standoff I n2007 between the military and extremists holed up in Islamabad’s Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), where he was prayer leader. A security force raid ordered by then President Pervez Musharraf cost more than 100 lives, and triggered a wave of retaliatory suicide bombings and other attacks on civilians and security force members.
Since freed unexpectedly on bail, Aziz – who still faces criminal charges for murder, abduction and illegal occupation of property – has not called openly for violence, but on his triumphant return to the mosque on Friday he warned that if the government wanted peace, it must adopt Islamic law.
The cleric’s release came just two days after President Asif Ali Zardari approved the controversial Swat agreement, and added to concerns about the lengths to which the government will go to mollify the muscle-flexing militants.
Altaf Hussain, the leader of the United National Movement (MQM), Pakistan’s fourth largest party, at the weekend urged a meeting of Muslim clerics in Karachi not to allow the Taliban to impose its brand of shari’a on Pakistan.
“In Swat they got their system imposed at gunpoint, and now they are ready to Talibanize the whole country,” Hussain told the gathering in a telephonic link-up from London.
MQM lawmakers in Islamabad have been among the most outspoken opponents of the Swat deal.
‘It’s our country, we know the realities on the ground’
The Swat agreement now approved by Islamabad was negotiated earlier this year by the North-West Frontier Province government in a bid to end a two-year terror campaign in an area once popular with tourists.
The Taliban-controlled valley is less than 100 miles away from the capital and already reports have emerged about Taliban fighters beginning to operate beyond the area.
Taliban and al-Qaeda militants have also long been present in parts of the nearby tribal belt to the south-west of Swat.
The U.S. government and NATO officials in Afghanistan have in past years voiced concern about “peace agreements” struck with Pakistan-based militants, saying they had contributed to deteriorating security in Afghanistan.
Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, warned at the weekend that “giving away territory” to extremists in Swat could lead to extremists spreading their attacks to the rest of Pakistan.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani dismissed the criticism, telling the country’s GEO television that the peace agreement was an internal matter.
“[Holbrooke] doesn’t have to worry too much,” he said. “It is our country. We know the ground realities better than him. We know much better what kind of strategy should be evolved.”
He also said the government had had “no alternative under the circumstances” but to negotiate with the militants.
Swat-based Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan told the Associated Press in an interview Friday that fugitive al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden would be welcomed and protected in Swat if he wished to settle there.
State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Monday in response to the comment that “violent extremists need to be confronted.”
“They’re a threat to democracy and stability in the region, and we call on all those who are interested in bringing about stability to that region to work with us to root out violent extremism,” he said.
The U.S., already the biggest bilateral donor to Pakistan, is set to provide more assistance.
At a donor conference in Tokyo on Friday, the U.S. pledged $1 billion in aid for Pakistan over the 2009-2010 period. The State Department described it as a “down payment” on President Obama’s commitment to support a bill in Congress that seeks to triple non-military aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year for five years.
Obama earlier linked the aid to Pakistan showing it was serious about “rooting out al-Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders.”