Who Trusts Tarar?

Even Joseph Heller, creator of the absurd illogic of Catch-22, would have been impressed by the convoluted reasoning. A retired Supreme Court justice, offering his opin­ion on the suitability of judges belonging to the Qadiani faith – an offshoot of Islam that believes in the teachings of Ahmed of Qadian and which has been disparaged as blasphemy by the hardline Sunni orthodoxy – argued that they could not be good judges because they could not be trusted to enforce the Constitution. And why would the Qadianis be unable to enforce Pakistan´s (considerably convoluted and reshaped) Constitution? Because, since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto changed the document to declare them non-Muslims, the judge reasoned, Qadianis could not be trusted to uphold such a provision.

When Rafiq Tarar offered such opinions as his personal "Catch-22" for Qadianis in Pakistan´s Khabrain daily last year, he had already established a reputation as a crusty, conservative Muslim, who, in the 1940s and 1950s, had served in the fundamentalist Majlis-e-Ahrar organisation, a group so fanatical that they dubbed Pakistan´s Western-educated and secular founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, "Kafir-e-Azam" (Unbeliever of the Nation) – in place of his traditional honorific, "Quaid-e-Azam" (Great Leader of the Nation).

Today, Rafiq Tarar is President of Pakistan, the result of one of the most peculiar decisions of Nawaz Sharif´s second premiership, and is eager to describe himself as a "liberal Muslim" willing to treat women and minorities fairly.   That is a claim few Pakistani human rights activists are willing to believe. "Before his elevation to the presidency, the former judge was not simply known for his orthodox views but was also seen as an activist reactionary," lawyer Asma Jehangir told The Herald magazine. Indeed, Tarar´s ascendancy to the presidency on the last day of 1997 was almost halted after he delivered a veiled insult clearly aimed at recently-ousted Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah, saying that the latter was a "judicial terrorist".

But the more puzzling problem for Islamabad´s political elite boiled down to a simple question: Why Tarar? The new president appalled many politicos with his homegrown Punjabi style; some of them reported derisively that his family dried their washing from the roof of the presidential estate. Others were confused that a political unknown, regarded only as a lover of Sikh jokes and a favourite of Nawaz Sharif´s father Mian Mohammed Sharif (or Abbaji, as he is known), could rise so high. What had happened to the presidential aspirations of Senate Chairman Wasim Sajjad, Finance Minister Sartaj Aziz and NWFP political veteran Fida Mohammed Khan?

In the weeks following Tarar´s rise from obscurity, some officials argued that his ascension – along with a recent, and equally bizarre, government stand against Westernised pop music – owed much to Abbaji´s clear influence over Sharif. Some senior Pakistani politicians, however, believe the selection demonstrates just how little the prime minister trusts even his most loyal aides, following a decade in which "trusted" presidents have regularly cashiered both him and his nemesis, Benazir Bhutto, with the military´s connivance.

It is a decision which even some loyalists of the Sharif family worry may have unintended fallouts. Pakistani society in recent months has begun to fray badly on religious questions; Sunni and Shia rivalry has repeatedly spilled over into violence, most recently with a spate of killings and cemetery attacks in Lahore. Meanwhile, Islamist groups, like the neo-fascist Anjuman Sipah-e-Saba, are feeding worries among some minority leaders of worse to come. "If you allow an Anjuman Sipah-e-Saba to exist, you pave the way for the day when each sect has its own militia and its own thugs," one Shia landowner warns.

In such an atmosphere, Tarar´s elevation may be seen as a symbol to Sunni hard-liners. After all, Tarar is accused by critics of battering a Qadiani legal clerk when he was practising in Gujranwala in the 1950s and of refusing, as a Lahore High Court judge, to al­low bail to a lawyer accused of wearing a Qadiani amulet; in short, of establishing a record as someone more likely to exacerbate communal tensions than to alleviate them. For a pragmatic prime minister who wants to be sure he will never be dismissed by the president, Tarar may seem the "safe" choice. Safety for the country as a whole may well prove to be another matter.

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