Devils are in the details

1950701-at_a_village_in_swat-pakistanThe other day, I wrote the following about one of the major news reports on the events unfolding in Pakistan's Swat valley, where government leaders are trying to work out a compromise with the Taliban. News reports have been telling us that:

... (T)his compromise with extreme elements of Islam will bring sharia law to the region. This is very confusing to me, because Pakistan already has sharia law.

So clearly, we are talking about one of the complex realities at the heart of coverage of Islam today. There is no one Islam. There is no one system of sharia law. Reporters have to provide practical details that draw lines between Muslims who are, in some ways, practicing different religions or, at the very least, radically different versions of the same religion.

Now, the Los Angeles Times has published an update that gives us some more generalities, but one or two powerful details. Here is a key summary passage:

The agreement was unveiled early last week, when officials in the North-West Frontier Province said they would allow the imposition of Islamic law, or Sharia, in Swat and surrounding districts in exchange for a cease-fire by the insurgents. In the intervening days, however, both sides have repeatedly made contradictory statements about the nature of their accord.

Critics have described the pact as a dangerous capitulation to Islamic militants who began battling government forces in Swat more than a year ago, enforcing their dominance of the valley with beheadings, floggings, school burnings and abductions.

Once again, here is the same confusion that I cited earlier. Pakistan already has Sharia law, right? Are the Taliban leaders, in effect, being given the power to set up another level of Sharia law and, if so, what would that look like, other than "beheadings, floggings, school burnings and abductions"? Legal abductions?

Pakistani officials, you see, are trying to get the United States to back this compromise, which is being brokered by onetime Taliban commander Maulana Sufi Mohammed. Is that possible?

Late, late, late in the story we finally get to a symbolic detail about the actions of a key militant, Maulana Qazi Fazlullah.

As violence escalated in Swat during the last year, Fazlullah's followers sought to impose a social code similar to that mandated by the Taliban in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, after the Islamic movement seized power and forced women and girls to stay at home. More than 200 girls schools in Swat were burned down or bombed in the last year as militants seized control of town after town.

Over the weekend, provincial officials said girls schools would be allowed to reopen and that the students could sit for an upcoming round of exams. But Monday, a spokesman for Mohammed told journalists that the resumption of girls' schooling was only "under consideration," not agreed upon.

Right. There you have it. Try to forget that detail.

Photo: A tourist brochure photo of a village in the Swat region.

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