When black-turbaned Taliban fighters demanded in January that Islamic sharia law be imposed in Pakistan's Swat Valley, few alarm bells went off in this Muslim nation of about 170 million.
Sharia, after all, is the legal framework that guides the lives of all Muslims.
Officials said people in Swat were fed up with the slow and corrupt state courts, scholars said the sharia system would bring swift justice, and commentators said critics in the West had no right to interfere.
Today, with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Swat and Pakistani troops launching an offensive to drive out the Taliban forces, the pendulum of public opinion has swung dramatically. The threat of "Talibanization" is being denounced in Parliament and on opinion pages, and the original defenders of an agreement that authorized sharia in Swat are in sheepish retreat.
'Victims of ignorant cavemen'
The refugees are the "victims of ignorant cavemen masquerading as fighters of Islam," columnist Shafqat Mahmood charged in the News International newspaper Friday. He said that the "barbarian horde" that invaded Swat never intended to implement a sharia-based judicial system and that they just used it as cover. "This is a fight for power, not Islam," he wrote.
Such widely expressed views make a clear and careful distinction between the Taliban version of Islam -- often described as narrow-minded, intolerant and punitive -- and what might be called the mainstream Pakistani version of Islam, which is generally described as moderate and flexible.
Pakistan is a vast country with many sects and varieties of Islam, but experts here said most Pakistani Muslims agree that their religion has two complementary aspects. One is a set of unchangeable principles that guide their behavior, values, faith and relationships. The other is a practical application of these principles, which may adapt and evolve according to changing times and conditions, including war, weather, technology and taste.
"Islam is our identity and our system of life, but variety and choice are part of it. People should dress modestly, but women don't have to cover their faces and men don't have to grow long beards," said Khurshid Ahmad, an Islamic scholar and national legislator. "The Koran is very clear that there should be no coercion in religion. You cannot cram it down people's throats. This is where the Taliban destroyed their own case."
Yet the demand for sharia courts in Swat was not just a Taliban fiction. It was the result of deep public dissatisfaction with a secular state court system criticized across the country as slow and corrupt, with cases dragging on for decades and influential people often able to buy off police and win cases over their poor adversaries. Islamic courts are generally smaller, faster and cheaper.
Under Pakistan's constitution, both types of courts function, but sharia courts have limited jurisdiction over certain crimes such as extramarital sex and murder. Sharia court judges have legal as well as religious training, and their verdicts can be appealed to state superior courts; nowhere do they have the kind of absolute powers the Taliban sought in Swat.
Public whipping of a teenage girl
In March, many Pakistanis were horrified when a videotape surfaced that showed Taliban enforcers publicly whipping a teenage girl in Swat accused of having an affair. But experts here said this summary punishment without evidence or trial was un-Islamic and had nothing to do with sharia.
They said that if the girl had been brought before a real sharia court, the case would have been judged according to extremely high standards of proof, including testimony by four witnesses to the alleged illicit relations, and thus she might have gone free.
"When people talk about sharia law and punishments like cutting off a thief's hand, they don't realize there are 13 preconditions that have to be met before that punishment is ordered. That's why nobody's hand is ever cut off here," said Raja Zafar ul-Haq, an Islamic scholar and political activist.
No contradiction between Islam and democracy
In theory, he said, there is no contradiction between Islam and democracy in Pakistan. The constitution says no law may contradict the Koran or the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. But in practice, the state justice system is so slow and biased that people are fed up.
"Unless there are major reforms," he said, "the demand for sharia may spread all over the country."
There is a growing movement in mosques and seminaries throughout Pakistan today to abolish the modern justice system and make sharia the supreme law of the land. Radical Islamic clerics in major cities give emotional weekly sermons, urging their followers to turn from decadent Western ways and spread vigorous moral purity.
Yet Pakistan has had bitter experiences with the overzealous application of sharia, especially when it has been combined with force. During the military dictatorship of Mohammed Zia ul-Haq from 1977 to 1988, a system of "Islamization" was imposed that mandated extreme sharia punishments, including stoning and flogging, for committing adultery and drinking alcohol.
Laws particularly tough on women
These laws, which were known as the Hudood Ordinance and were finally amended and reformed in 2006, inflicted particular suffering on women. For one thing, if a woman tried to accuse a man of rape, she often ended up being found guilty of adultery and punished severely, while the man went free for lack of evidence.
Criticism of such draconian practices, which faded after Zia's death in 1988, has suddenly revived as horror stories of Taliban-style justice have filtered out of the Swat Valley. Newspapers are filled with letters from readers expressing outrage at the perversion of Islam being perpetrated there and warning that the Taliban is trying to force a modern country back to medieval times.
And yet some observers have noticed a subtler, more insidious trend. It is not only the fire-breathing sermons by radical mullahs calling for a "sharia nation" or the rantings of Taliban leaders who accuse the entire Muslim government of being "infidel."
These observers describe a creeping social and intellectual chill that several have called "the Talibanization of the mind."
It is a growing tendency for women to cover their faces, for hosts to cancel musical events, for journalists to use phrases that do not offend powerful Islamist groups, for strangers to demand that shopkeepers turn off their radios.
"With each passing month a deeper silence prevails," columnist Kamila Hyat recently wrote in a widely circulated article. The public is afraid, uncertain and retreating into religion because the country's leaders are failing to address its problems. "Just as we fight to regain territory" from the Taliban, Hyat wrote, "we must struggle to regain the liberties we are losing."