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From Custom to Shariat in Mohmand Agency

In the old days, amongst the tribes inhabiting the border areas, there used to be two ways of making decisions: shariat or rewaj. Shariat implied setting disputes according to the Book of God – the Quran – and the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet. Choosing the rewaj option meant that one was settling the matter according to local custom.

In fact, there was a third way of setting disputes. That was to put the matter before the political authorities of the tribal areas, who would settle it in accordance with the Frontier Crimes Regulation – commonly known as FCR. A law developed by the British authorities, who ruled in the Frontier at the beginning of the 20th century, FCR is based on collective responsibility. It represents a codification of tribal law or rewaj, as seen by the British authorities. Up till now, it has stood the test of time. Tribal elders would swear by the system that had been left to them by the British.

Up till now. The last decade have seen a period of ongoing uncertainty and change in the border regions. One recent change has seen the declining use of rewaj – also known as the traditional Pashtoon Jirga – to settle disputes and fights in the tribal areas. To use a popular term, this change has come about because of the Talibanisation of the tribal regions. As one resident of Ziarat, an area of the Mohmand tribal agency, Alif Jan notes, “These days people are turning to the system imposed by Taliban groups in the area.”

I spoke to local people in the Mohmand tribal agency to find out what they think about the change and settling disputes under Taliban groups. Akbar Khan who lives in the Anbaar area in the Mohmand agency says, “We used to previously settle any issues with the help of our traditional and cultural ways using the Jirga, but now that this change has occurred in FATA, people have lost many rights that were given to them in the Jirga.” He explained that many tribal elders who previously played a pivotal role in resolving conflicts were now no longer able to help in resolving disputes, “We now have no other option but to follow the law of these Taliban groups.”

Younas argues that people still want to use and firmly believe in the traditional Jirga, but because of the lack of tribal elders, this is no longer a viable option. “Members of the Jirga and our tribal elders have been facing several threats to their lives for many years now. The local peace committees do not always accept their decisions, so many of the elders have been discouraged and do not feel they can take part in the Jirgas anymore.”

In fact, is there a difference between the Islamic Shariat and the traditional tribal system? In the past, people have presumed that this is the case, but this has now changed. The Taliban system of justice, as described by local Darya Khan, involves making decisions under Islamic law, but in much the same way as decisions used to be made under the Jirga system. “With their system, there is a Shura (committee) of learned men, presided over by a Qazi (judge.) In our local area, the Shura is headed by Maulvi Yousaf, who was quite a prominent figure in the Jirgas also. If the Shura fails to come to a decision or find a solution to the dispute, the issue is sent to Waziristan where the main Shura looks into the issue.”

This represents a significant change from the tribal system practiced previously, in which such co-ordination between different tribes and tribal agencies was unthought of. In addition, some feel that the speed and efficiency of the Taliban system is an improvement on the previous system. Mohammad Ihsan, who lives in the Safi area of Mohmand Agency says, “People are very happy with the decisions made by the Taliban, because they are very quick to reach a verdict. Under previous systems, there have been delays in making a decision and this has been quite harmful for people.”

There was also corruption under the previous system. Mohammad Ihsan illustrated this with the example of a well-known tribal malik, who used money, along with other means to pressurize and intimidate people. “We were really suffering because of such corrupt maliks. But when the Taliban came, we took issues to the Shariat courts and the issues were resolved very quickly.”

However, some residents feel that with the Taliban’s system, there also comes pressure to follow their decisions. Speaking to another local resident, he described how in some cases decisions are imposed on people, often leaving them with no other choice but to follow them. He also said that some Taliban groups become involved in people’s own matters by force.

Although many people are following the Taliban system now, another local resident Shahid feels that this is temporary. Such decisions were made in the areas of Sooran, Daweezai and Shoonkray in the Mohmand agency. However, shortly after the Taliban lost power in other areas, such decisions can only be heard in Shoonkray, where the Taliban still hold power. “When the Taliban were in power in the area, people were happy to follow their decisions, but after they left many people had these decisions annulled. Shortly after the Taliban lost power, they went to the political offices, where they also felt that some of the decisions were made correctly.”

Although there are varying opinions on the Taliban system, one interesting point to note is that not only have local people been seeking decisions from the Taliban groups in Mohmand Agency, but people have also been travelling from Kunhar and Nooristan in Afghanistan, to settle their disputes under the Islamic law prescribed by them.

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