A pro-Taliban provincial government passed legislation Monday that will make the area along the border with Afghanistan the first in Pakistan to be run based upon the teachings of the Quran, Islam's holy book.
The bill, passed unanimously by voice vote in the North West Frontier Province assembly, must still be signed by Gov. Sayed Iftikhar Hussain Shah to become law, but that is considered a formality.
``God is Great! God is Great!'' shouted the governing party legislators after the vote.
Pakistan, a deeply conservative Muslim nation, has nonetheless resisted adopting a legal system based on a strict interpretation of Shariah, or Islamic law.
The six-party Islamic coalition of the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, or United Action Forum, gained a majority in the North West Frontier Assembly in October elections, on the power of a strong anti-American platform. Bringing Shariah to the deeply conservative province was the cornerstone of the coalition's election platform.
Pakistan is a crucial U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism. The government of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has arrested hundreds of al-Qaida suspects and turned them over to the United States.
But the rise of the Islamic hard-liners in places like the North West Frontier province is sure to worry Washington. Intelligence officials believe Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders are likely hiding in the mountainous region between the province and neighboring Afghanistan.
Opposition legislators had tried without success to amend the bill to water down its power, including over women's rights. But with little hope of standing in the way, they ultimately withdrew the amendments and voted in favor.
Pervez Rafiq, a senior official of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, an activist group of Christian, Hindu and Sikh minorities, condemned the vote.
He said Sharia has been used in the past to persecute minorities accused of blasphemy against Islam. ``Religion should not interfere with the political affairs of the country,'' he said from Lahore, where the group is based.
The bill approved by the assembly binds local courts to interpret provincial law based upon the teachings of Shariah. It also calls for the creation of committees to bring the province's education and financial systems in line with the Quran, requires that Islamic law be taught in law schools, and prohibits the display of firearms.
The package contains few specifics, but it comes with promises by Islamic hard-liners to ban obscenity and vulgarity, and to set up in a second piece of legislation an ``Accountability Force'' to monitor corruption and fight ``social evil.''
The second bill, which the Islamic coalition says it will present in the coming days, would create a parallel legal system whose decisions could not be challenged by any court. The bill is expected to face fierce resistance in parliament.
The federal government can still challenge any measure of the Shariah bill passed Monday that is considered contrary to national laws, which govern the penal system and other federal areas. But the provincial legislature has wide authority to make and change local laws.
Federal Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed has said the government is studying the legislation to see if any of it conflicts with national laws.
Even before passage of the bill, the hard-line government has begun cracking down on what it considers un-Islamic activities.
Several movie houses have been shut and the remainder have been forced to paint over posters of women in Western clothes.
Earlier this month, authorities banned male coaches from training female athletes in the province and barred men from watching women's sports events. In addition, they have called for compulsory reading of the Quran in schools, and passed a resolution that only women doctors should carry out medical tests on female patients.
After Monday's vote, Akram Khan Durrani, the chief minister of the assembly, thanked the legislators for creating ``a historic moment in the country's history.''
He said the new law will not compromise the rights of anyone, but he also said that ``there will be no room for any official who will not act according to Sharia.''
Many of the lawmakers cheered and hugged and congratulated each other. Most of them had beards and wore turbans or white caps, in keeping with Muslim tradition