Early this week, the Taliban in Swat issued summons to over forty politicians asking them to appear before the sharia courts they have set up in the valley. As the Taliban have entrenched their power in the area, their courts have been busy carrying out public floggings, executions and amputations.
Similarly, in Somalia, a group called Al Shabab recently took over the border town of Baidou and also announced the imposition of sharia. In an announcement made in a large football stadium, Shaikh Muktar, a spokesman for the group, told an audience of hundreds: “We will make changes in the town and will rule by Islamic law”.
The overt relationship to the establishment of sharia courts to the failure of either the Pakistani or the Somali state to provide justice has been much discussed. When state institutions entrusted with the provision of security and justice fail, groups such as the Tehreek-e Taliban and Al Shabab find a ready structural vacuum through which they can gain control over the area. Pliant populations ravaged by insecurity and war and plagued by poverty predictably welcome the provision of any semblance of order, even if it implicates a devastating curb on personal freedom.
In Marka, a southern Somali town already under Al Shabab control, public floggings of drug addicts drew large crowds that appeared overwhelmingly supportive of the punishments being meted out to the accused. Similarly, a recent report by Al Jazeera showed residents of Swat insisting that the Taliban not only provide justice but also protection from the corruption of local police officials.
Yet while state failure may be the central factor explaining the ease with which the Al Shabab and the Taliban have been able to establish these courts, it is not the only one. Consideration must also be given to the strategic and political advantages gained by both these groups in harnessing the power to define in a visible and horrendously spectacular way what justice is supposed to mean.
The establishment of a parallel justice system that issues summons and enacts punishments is not simply a challenge to the existing political order but also an open mockery of the existing religious order. Instrumental in this project is the selection and edification of those aspects of sharia that are convenient to their political aims.
True to this objective, sharia courts both in Somalia and in Swat relegate themselves almost exclusively to enforcing hudood punishments: floggings, amputations and public executions being the order of the day, all other aspects of Islamic law are conveniently forgotten. Sharia is thus removed from the scholarly ambit of classical jurisprudence where logic and the instruments of legal interpretation would determine outcomes and employed in the project of producing a crowd-pleasing spectacle.
Voracious in their appetite for watching human suffering, the crowd is empowered by identifying with those inflicting the violence than with the victims, and absolved from the guilt of their enjoyment by religious sanction. In a cruel perversion, the enjoyment inherent in this pantomime of justice is presented as an Islamic duty and thus used to produce a population that edifies violence and so remains uncritical of it. Justice thus is made visible and tangible, a populist consumer good denuded of the elitist inaccessibility of scholarly deliberation and an emblem of the anti-intellectual anti-education platforms of its purveyors.
This political recipe of sharia justice employed by the Taliban and Al Shabab succeeds also because it capitalises on the particular position of both Pakistan and Somalia in relation to the Muslim world. Located on the periphery rather than the centre of Islam, both nations and especially the rural regions where Al Shabab and the Taliban are consolidating power have always been insecure about their relationship to the faith and their authenticity as Muslims.
Given this, the presentation of “pure Islam” accompanied by the visible destruction of old forms of worship and practice gives tangibility to the process of becoming truly Muslim. In the destruction of shrines, the bombing of schools, and the burning of CD shops, the population is given a ritualistic “cleansing” where embracing austerity and hardship is attached to salvation.
This is particularly potent since the already existing poverty of these populations is suddenly given religious meaning so long as they reject the trappings of modernity. It can be argued thus that the populations are embracing drastic changes in their lives not despite the draconian nature of the Taliban’s or Al Shabab’s interpretation of sharia but rather because of it.
It is in their use of sharia justice as a political mechanism designed to invoke mass appeal that groups like the Taliban and Al Shabab have hit on a strategy that is difficult to counter by state mechanisms. Among populations that are largely illiterate, incredibly poor and routinely ignored, change is hard to deliver especially when it is means the investment of resources for which competition is tough and political wrangling rampant. Groups like the Taliban and Al Shabab have succeeded in defining change as destruction and justice as spectacle and have arrived at a populist recipe that is wildly successful since it requires nearly zero in terms of material investments.
By aping practices of states like Saudi Arabia that are invested with sanctity in the mind of the Somali peasant or the Swati shepherd, the Taliban and Al Shabab can deliver change by destroying graves and force compliance by promising grand rewards after death. Since the delivery on such promises is conveniently relegated to the afterlife, the risks of disappointment and the spectre of political accountability is conveniently eliminated.
The hijacking and effective recasting of sharia as a populist tool meant to convert the poor into accepting violence and barbarity as emblematic of Islamic justice is a tragedy. Viewing it as such also reveals how populations who have been plagued by sense of inferiority owing to their illiteracy and poverty present fertile grounds for exploitation by groups such as Al Shabab and the Taliban. Reducing justice to a crude pantomime devoid of equity and education to an expression of un-Islamic elitism, these groups rely on the most decrepit aspects of human nature to assure their own ascendancy.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reproduced by permission of the author & DT