Interview with Jochen Hippler

“‘Sharia’ has many meanings”

Last month, US President Barack Obama admitted that Western troops are currently not winning the war in Afghanistan. He said it would be necessary to negotiate with moderate Taliban. Moreover, he emphasised that Pakistan was crucial to making progress in Afghanistan. Fundamentalists, however, are gaining ground in Pakistan too. In Swat Valley, the government agreed to implement Islamic law (“sharia”) to violence. Shortly after, a broad popular movement prevailed in having Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry reinstated at the Supreme Court. Jochen Hippler, an expert on Pakistan, assesses the complex situation.

How can Western politicians tell good fundamentalists from bad ones?
In a country as complex as Pakistan, it is not a good idea to divide people up into good and bad in the first place. There are corrupt groups willing to resort to violence in both the secular and the religious camps. At the same time, there are also people who take the rule of law seriously in various camps. The question of “who are the bad guys, who are the good guys, and who are the moderates” really doesn’t make sense. There are fanatics and religious forces, of course, but that is not the crucial point.

Why not?
The Tribal Areas prove that it is pointless to want to speak to the “moderates”. You’ll have to talk to people who are there. Most of them identify with their “tribes”, and their politics vary depending on changing situations. If it seems beneficial to them, they will work with hard-core Taliban extremists. But they also have no problem to cooperate with the military or the state. They are neither moderate nor radical, but rather opportunistic – or, to word it more positively, pragmatic. First of all, they are guarding their autonomy.

Is it acceptable to introduce sharia law in return for peace in any given area?
Since the 1990s, Pakistan’s parliament has adopted the sharia several times, even with the consent of former secular Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The word “sharia” has many meanings in Pakistan. I remember situations in which people in remote regions demanded sharia law because the state’s judiciary was not working. People prefer any legal system to no rule enforcement at all.

In such situations, traditional structures are relied on.
Yes, and Islamic law also has the advantage of being above worldly rulers by definition. In this tradition, the state is not entitled to do whatever it wants, but must follow God’s will. On the other hand, extremists in the North West Frontier Province including the Swat Valley use sharia as a weapon to beat the state back and create “liberated zones”. That is indeed dangerous.

How does sharia relate to human rights?
That’s an interesting question. Benazir Bhutto did not support sharia with a view to worsen the human-rights situation. On the other hand, there are conservatives and religious forces in the North West Frontier Province and in southern Punjab that use sharia to do away with equal rights for men and women. In practical terms, Pakistan hardly knows such equal rights, of course, but the principles are mentioned in the constitution. Along the border with Afghanistan, sharia certainly means restriction of human rights, such as freedom of speech. In such places, barbershops are blown up because men are not supposed to shave off their beards. In terms of theology, such actions are ridiculous, but they are nonetheless considered “sharia”. The word is more a political slogan to mobilise the masses than a theological term.

The rule of law is a hot topic in Pakistan. Military ruler Pervez Musharraf had to step down partly because he had suspended Iftikhar Chaudhry as Chief Justice. Now President Asif Ali Zardari has reinstated this judge under pressure from a strong popular movement that included many lawyers. But Zardari dragged his feet on the matter for more than a year. What does that tell us?
Zardari is on the defensive. As part of the opposition against Musharraf, he always supported the judges in public, but after his party won the elections he went back on his word. He himself faces all kinds of court cases, with charges ranging from extreme corruption to murder. All of that puts pressure on him. At the same time, in the current crisis an overwhelming majority of the population is demanding the rule of law with a properly operational Supreme Court. Zardari has a bad reputation. At the moment, he is facing opposition from most of the people, major parties in parliament and probably the US government too. Criticism of him even has been voiced in the military. He only agreed to reinstate Chaudhry under duress. Zaradari’s political future is in danger.

What would secular rule of law with a properly functioning constitutional court mean for the Taliban and fundamentalists?
Over the past two years, everyone from the beggar on the street to the conservative mullah and the secular lawyer in a suit and tie has been calling for the rule of law and the constitution. Should the general public actually succeed in getting the rule of law established, acceptance of the political system would rise significantly. At the moment, most of the people resent the lawlessness of the persons in power and corruption. Extremists are taking advantage of those feelings. But the mass movement for the reinstatement of Chaudhry is a new phenomenon. If people’s desire for a sound legal system were fulfilled, that would erode the basis on which extremists operate in the midterm.

The international press has depicted the conflict surrounding Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry as a power struggle between President Asif Ali Zardari and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. Is that depiction correct? If so, what about the mass demonstrations supporting Chaudhry back when both the Bhutto clan and Sharif were still in exile?
The time up to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination was marred by power struggles between her and Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister. More precisely, the struggle was on between their families. Now, Zardari, Bhutto’s widower, is carrying on, trying to protect his own interests. Sharif’s current strength lies not so much in his party politics or personal character, but rather in the way he turned himself into a spokesperson for the rule of law and democracy. When Musharraf toppled him as prime minister ten years ago, people generally welcomed that.

At least a third of the Pakistani economy is shadow economy. Weapons and drugs play a major role. How important is the rule of law in these terms?
The black market is one of Pakistan’s great structural problems, and one of the things that keeps the state from performing well. But weapons and drugs are not the only problem; tax evasion is perhaps less spectacular, but also problematic. In some ways, the Pakistani state works well – its military’s secret service is an example. In other ways, the state doesn’t work at all, and tax revenue is one of the failures. For instance, agriculture practically does not pay any taxes at all.

What role does the secret services play?
Since the 1980s, the military’s ISI, the Inter Services Intelligence, has been an important player regarding Afghanistan, Kashmir and the nuclear question. I have the impression, however, that it has become more closely linked to top military command and has lost some of its former autonomy over the past few years. That is not surprising. Essentially, the ISI consists of military officers who are transferred to the secret service for two or three years. In past years, there were also several purges of fundamentalists inside the ISI.

How does the military see the situation?
That’s hard to say – after all, the military has just stepped down from power. I do not expect a coup in the next couple of years. Such action would weaken the military and not be accepted by society. It is interesting to witness, however, criticism of Musharraf expressed inside the military. Last year, a group of former high-ranking generals and secret service officers even demanded that he be taken to court for a breach of the constitution. At the moment, even the military is demanding the rule of law. That would probably change again if the country keeps sliding deeper into crisis.

What would be from the perspective of NATO?
Chaudhry is no guarantee that the rule of law will be comprehensively enforced. Ideologically, the governments of most NATO countries would like him to be that kind of guarantee, even though that would make it harder to control Pakistan from the outside. In the long term, however, the rule of law would make Pakistan more stable, which NATO would certainly like to see.

Hans Dembowski and Eleonore von Bothmer asked the questions.

Related Articles


Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals will require good governance – from the local to the global level.


The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.