Today's date:
Spring 2009

Shari'a in Swat: A Dangerous Surrender to Islamists

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the former Dutch parliamentarian and author of Infidel, spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels about new deal between the Pakistan government and the insurgents in the Swat Valley on the border with Afghanistan.

NPQ | Pakistan has implemented a cease-fire with Islamist forces in the Swat Valley that would permit them to impose shari'a in place of the Pakistani legal code. If this is the alternative to accelerating military conflict and popular disaffection in the region, is it a good thing even if it sacrifices human rights, in particular women's rights?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali | Women's rights will evaporate as soon as shari'a law is implemented. The abuse of women that is now rampant in the Swat Valley, and, by the way, in the rest of Pakistan, will be institutionalized.

Pakistani women are forced into marriage, divorced on a whim with no rights, denied education, beaten, raped, acid is thrown in their faces.

Chilling reports of Pakistani prisons describe thousands of victims of rape who have been incarcerated because their testimonies are worth half of those of their rapists and because they can't produce the required—under shari'a law—four onlookers to the rape.

With the official introduction of shari'a law, these victims will no longer be imprisoned but flogged and stoned to death. The modest victories of Pakistani feminists and human rights activists in the past few years to improve the plight of women will be reversed. In fact, under shari'a law, feminists and human rights activists will be stigmatized as infidels and collaborators with infidels. They will be silenced or hunted out of the areas where shari'a law is implemented.

In the wider society, we shall see Taliban-like policies of banning all forms of entertainment, the demolition of historical sights, the destruction of liquor stores and the indoctrination of children and young people with radical Islam on a massive scale.

The implementation of shari'a law in certain regions of Pakistan will not minimize military conflict or disaffection. We seem to forget that the Taliban were not inhibited by "concessions" given to them in the past by the various Pakistani regimes or the passive attitude of the world to them.

In fact, military conflict will accelerate; disaffection will grow. This is because the first place a sharia-based government—local, regional or national—will not be able to deliver on the economy. They do not have oil like Saudi Arabia to oppress, bribe or placate the population in the Swat Valley. The mullahs will not be viable partners in regional and international trade. Imports will drop and they will export little more than misery, misogyny and terrorism.

Employment opportunities that are scarce now will vanish and crime will grow. Disaffection will rise when people go hungry, and they will probably break up into tribal factions, each claiming to have the divine law on their side.

To distract attention from their economic incompetence, they will seek military confrontation with a weak and divided Pakistan government; they will also reach out to their Taliban friends in Afghanistan, destabilizing that country. Military escalation, in turn, will give the shari'a-seeking tribes their legitimacy.

On a grander scale, Iran—the world's black sheep, even though Shia—and perhaps even Syria will court the Islamists in the Swat Valley, if they are not already doing that. Given Iran's active support of the Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaida in Iraq with the objective of frustrating American interests, this new "concession" will be welcomed with jubilation in the power corridors of Tehran.

NPQ | Is there a better way to try to secure women's rights—perhaps through a peaceful evolution—than sending in Pakistani troops or hitting suspected terrorists in the area with United States Predator drone strikes, which only cause more resentment and stir more militancy?

Hirsi Ali | I believe that that an agenda of human rights and the protection of the rights of women in that region, by whatever means is effective, serves the long-term national security of the US and the West generally.

Protecting women from the consequences of shari'a and educating them is not only a moral issue: It is the best guarantee against the spread of radical Islam in that and other regions that are vulnerable to the siren song of shari'a. To believe otherwise is a naive illusion.

NPQ | Though some in NATO worry Pakistan's new policy might create a safe haven for terrorists, in some ways it would also seem to foreshadow Obama's new pragmatism—and retreat from Bush's ideological campaign to liberate Muslim societies and bring them democracy—in the AFPAK Area.

Even though the US is sending 17,000 new troops, Gen. David Petraeus has talked of negotiating with the Taliban and local warlords, letting them rule their areas if they stop attacking US forces and the central government.

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said that America should abandon the idea of building "a Central Asian Valhalla"—meaning a democratic paradise —in Afghanistan and just focus on links to al-Qaida that might threaten America's security directly. From the perspective of the rights of women—and even of the consequences for US foreign policy—what does this new pragmatism mean?

Hirsi Ali | It does not mean much that has not been tried before. It is "pragmatic" only in the short term. It is an approach that views al-Qaida simply as a military menace and downplays its ideology rooted in Islam. The idea is to wear out al-Qaida like the IRA in Ireland and the Basque guerrillas in Spain until they die a natural death.

However, contemporary politicians forget that for that process of "wearing out" to work, the US must win the ideological battle and, yes (Bush got the diagnosis right), create viable, democratic societies that choose to reject the insurgent agenda.

The societies of Ireland and post-Franco Spain were inundated with state propaganda that the ideology of the separatists was wrong; their economies were boosted with EU monies, and democratic institutions in place were strengthened while others were set up.

Most of all, both the Spanish and British authorities invested in the hearts and minds of the young through quality education and employment opportunities, thus competing directly with the separatists and drying up the well of human resources that the insurgent factions used in the recruitment of new blood.

Giving up the Swat Valley to the shari'a fanatics gives unlimited access to fresh blood that in the time to come will become bigger as younger and younger girls are forced to become baby machines.

Pragmatism without principle and no vision (also called "containment" in foreign policy jargon) is not pragmatism but simply the everyday politics of muddling through.

NPQ | Is the new Pakistani cease-fire with the Swat insurgents then a "surrender" or a "concession" to Islamist forces? Maybe the West just needs to accept shari'a rule as the price for warding off those Islamists who would attack the West directly? That is really the key question..

Hirsi Ali | I have little doubt this "concession" will be interpreted by the mullahs as surrender (as Allah is always on their side).

Now here is the irony: "Concessions" in the past to Muslim radicals never stopped them from attacking the West directly. It also never stopped them from attacking such reprehensible regimes as the Saudi monarchy or the Algerian, Syrian and Egyptian dictatorships when they accommodated their ideology and invited them to share power.

Militant Muslims will, after a so-called "concession," bide their time, regroup, continue to proselytize, raise funds, expand their power base and then hit. There is a whole of body of Islamic theology that deals with gradualism as an effective route to power. The message is to persevere just like the prophet did in hard times—and make truces that last until you are strong enough to wage war again in the name of Allah.