Conservative days ahead with election of orthodox president

LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — The election of Pakistan’s most conservative president in a decade is the latest sign of the strengthening influence of religious fundamentalism in this Muslim country.
In a mosque in Lahore, a young boy says his big ambition in life is to kill non-believers. His friend says he wants to fight a “jihad,” or holy war.
In the nearby village of Raiwind, hundreds of bearded men carrying bed rolls arrive at a religious school to learn more about their Islamic faith before heading off to preach in Pakistan and abroad.
Here, in Punjab province, where 60 percent of Pakistan’s 140 million people live, segregation of the sexes is gaining momentum.
Television advertisements of pretty young women using facial soap have been pulled, not for what they show, but for what they don’t. As one government censor put it: “People may imagine that she is not wearing anything.”
Now, Rafiq Tarar, who was elected by legislators Wednesday, is taking office as the country’s most religiously orthodox president since military dictator Mohammed Zia-ul Haq died in 1988.
Zia resurrected public hangings, death by stoning and public beatings, all in keeping with Islamic dictates.
Tarar, a retired judge of the Lahore High Court, is a member of Pakistan’s orthodox Muslim Tableeqi movement, which is committed to spreading Islam worldwide.
Although Pakistan’s presidency is largely a ceremonial post, it is seen as a powerful institution able to delay legislation. The president also is commander in chief of the armed forces, considered the strongest institution in Pakistan.
Religious leaders welcomed Tarar’s election. Liberals and human-rights activists expressed worries.
“It’s natural for anybody to be frightened,” said Asma Jehangir, a lawyer who is Pakistan’s leading human rights activist. “It will be more difficult to fight human rights. … Already I am receiving threats and being told I am not a Muslim because I criticized Tarar’s nomination as president.”
She fears the growing influence of conservatives will translate into greater intimidation of human rights activists, particularly by students of religious schools.
Interior Minister Shujaat Hussein said the government will not let that happen and is trying to curb militancy at the schools.
Tarar told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that Pakistan’s liberals have nothing to fear from him and described himself as a “liberal Muslim.”
His critics question that description.
Tarar opposes family law legislation that gives women the right to divorce and to fight for custody of their children. The three-judge court he led upheld amputation of limbs as punishment for theft, although Pakistani physicians have refused to carry out such sentences.
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