By now, Pakistanis are used not only to governments coming and going, but also to their using religion to shore up diminishing popularity. Benazir Bhutto's father did it, as did Zia-ul Haq. The trick did not work for either, but rather contributed to shattering Pakistan's structures of civil society. Now, Gen Zia's protege and political heir Mian Nawaz Sharif is following his mentor's footsteps. The latest "noisy brandishing of faith", as an American magazine put it, is Sharif's attempt to introduce Constitutional Amendment 15 ("CA 15"), which would ostensibly make the "Supremacy of the Quran and Sunnah" (Islamic traditions) the "supreme law" of Pakistan.

Sharif claimed in Parliament that he had taken the decision to introduce Islamic law by "the power vested in me by Almighty Allah". His contention that he has got where he is by Allah's blessings may be acceptable, but trying to project himself as a representative of the divine is taking it too far. "Islam is my faith, religion and belief. I have never used it for any political gain," the prime minister told a convention of religious scholars and activists in Islamabad last month. Ominously, at that same meeting, Sharif urged his audience to "counter the forces opposed to the proposed amendment", and added now that he had done his part, it was up to those in the audience to do theirs.

CA 15 places the Federal Government under "an obligation to take steps to enforce the Shariah". This includes, according to Article 2 of the bill, promoting the principle of "amar bil maroof and nahi anil munKar" (to prescribe what is right and forbid what is wrong). Thus, the government would be able to declare any action 'wrong' and ban it – or declare an act 'right' and enforce it. For example, wearing headscarves or growing beards, as the Taliban have done in Afghanistan.

The prime minister's protestations of honourable motives have failed to win converts even among the religious political parties, even though they can hardly oppose the introduction of the Shariat (Islamic law) openly. They suspect Sharif's political agenda and are loathe to give him credit for the Islamisation' of Pakistan. Meanwhile, despite an earlier constitutional amendment ("CA 14") bulldozed through by Sharif, which disallows dissent from the Treasury Benches in parliament, CA 15 has been privately opposed by many of his own party members. A few brave souls have even blasted it publicly and are attempting damage control by trying to make changes in the bill to make CA 15 more acceptable.

But a religious bill by any other name is still a religious bill. It will threaten women and it will threaten religious minorities, both groups already vulnerable under existing circumstances. As much in danger are the liberal-minded groups, which have opposed Sharif's ill-advised moves, such as last year's brinkmanship with the judiciary, his appointment of fellow Punjabis to key posts, and his arbitrariness in unilateral decisions on many major issues. The prime minister's open call to the religious parties to "launch a movement to force those opposing it [CA 15] to retreat and repent for their mistake" was nothing less than shocking.

Even more explosive than the impact on women or minorities is what the implementation of a rigid set of Islamic codes will mean in the inter-sect tussle that has become the hallmark of Pakistani society. The dangers of trying to define one straight and narrow path were well chalked out 45 years ago by a judicial commission set up to examine the anti-Ahmedia riots of 1953. "Keeping in view the several definitions of a Muslim given by the ulema (religious scholars), need we make any comment except that no two learned divines are agreed on this fundamental" reads one of the most quoted passages in the 387-page report of the Commission comprising Justices Munir and Kayani.

Since then divisions between Pakistan's sects have grown even deeper. Tensions have been aggravated by armed militancy, which today is the handmaiden of dogmatic belief systems. Sectarian rivalry has become so fierce that gunmen are posted outside mosques to try and prevent bomb-attacks or ambushes and targetted killings of religious militants by rival sects have become common.

In the middle of this flammable situation, the introduction of CA 15 has the potential to wreak havoc. In its application to the personal law of any Muslim sect, the proposed bill envisions the expression "Quran and Sunnah" as meaning the Quran and Sunnah as interpreted by each particular sect. But given the level of intolerance and militancy that is extant, and a situation where the interpretation of one sect is hardly likely to be accepted by another, there are possibilities of sectarian war being sparked by the most innocuous of events.

Before the Constituent Assembly on 11 August 1947, Mohammad Ali Jinnah had emphasised that everyone, "no matter what his colour, caste or creed is first, second and last a citizen of this state with equal rights, privileges and obligations". The application of CA 15 will take Pakistan further from this national aspiration as expressed by its founder. Meanwhile, it is a sign of the times that a report as bold and honest as the one brought out in 1954 by Justices Munir and Kayani can neither be commissioned, nor allowed to be made public, in today's Pakistan.

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