It has been a long time since I have voiced the following complaint about coverage of Islam in the mainstream media. However, I have been frustrated all week by the coverage -- just about everywhere -- about the Pakistani pact that is supposed to bring some kind of peace in the Swat Valley. The problem, of course, is that we are talking about a political deal with the Taliban.
Now, all week the headlines have said that this 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.
Here's a typical passage from a Washington Post story that was written, I must confess right up front, by one of my favorite writers on the planet, Pamela Constable:
Neither the Pakistani government nor the Islamist extremists were willing to formalize the accord, announced by Pakistani officials Monday. The proposed pact marks an unprecedented and risky attempt to disarm about 2,000 Taliban fighters, who have invaded and terrorized a once-bucolic area of 1.5 million people in northwestern Pakistan, by offering to install a strict system of Islamic law in the surrounding district.
Supporters see the offer as an urgently needed bid for peace and a potential model for other areas ravaged by Pakistan's growing Islamist militancy, which controls areas 80 miles from the capital of this nuclear-armed Muslim nation. Critics say it would make too many concessions to ruthless extremist forces and provide them with a launching pad to drive deeper into the settled areas of Pakistan from their safe haven in the rough tribal districts along the border with Afghanistan.
So what do we need to know?
At the very least, we need to know what the "many concessions" are all about. This is another way of stating the obvious. We need to know the practical and doctrinal issues between the "strict system of Islamic law" that the pact might allow, as opposed to the system of Islamic law that already controls Pakistan, a nation in which human rights are already under consistent assault, by blasphemy laws and laws forbidding apostasy among other things.
We need facts. We need to know human details, especially about how the pact would affect the lives of women and religious minorities. What, precisely, is being surrendered here?
Clearly, U.S. officials are concerned:
In Washington, where the Obama administration has been conspicuously silent about the agreement, officials said privately that they considered it a major setback for U.S. goals in the region. "It's a surrender disguised as a truce," one official said, describing it as an admission that the government lacks the capacity to defend the crucial western part of the country.
We also are told -- amid waves of detail about political developments -- that another Pakistani journalist has been killed, apparently by militants linked to the Taliban. We are also told that the Taliban has "ravaged the once-pristine, affluent area for months, burning schools, killing police and ordering women to remain home." That information helps.
We are also told that "followers of a nonviolent Islamist leader named Sufi Mohammad have been demanding the enforcement of Islamic law for years." This only raises the same question that I raised before. Pakistan already has a system of Islamic law. What are the changes that the pact would allow? Can we have a paragraph or two of examples of practical effects?
What is all of this violence about, at the level of streets, homes, schools and mosques? What are the changes that will take place and how will they affect basic human rights? I'd like to know.