VIEW: Benazir and the Islamists —Saleem H Ali
Benazir appeared to be personally grieved by the fact that despite her attempts to build bridges with all elements of the political spectrum, radical forces within the Islamist camp were still disdainful of her
More than a week has passed since the tragic assassination of Benazir Bhutto and much has already been written about this charismatic and controversial leader. As I sat down to write my column for this fortnight, I wondered what might be added to the narrative of commendations and condemnations emanating from all sides of the political spectrum.
We had the expected outpouring of grief from many of her party loyalists, her Oxford and Harvard friends, the women for whom she was a role model and the domestic secular establishment who saw in her the potential for salvation from theocracy. On the other hand we also had a cavalcade of revisionist obituaries. BBC commentator Owen Bennett-Jones compared the Bhutto home in Larkana to the sixteenth century cliquish court of Queen Elizabeth I. The famed Scottish writer William Dalrymple, who relishes provocative comparisons between India and Pakistan, called her “Pakistan’s flawed and feudal princess”.
Novelist and film producer Tariq Ali revisited his essay on Benazir from last month titled Daughter of the West, and added a postscript, condoling her death but also commenting that the PPP’s decision to have Asif Zardari and Bilawal lead the party was a “disgusting, medieval charade”. Equally controversial feminist writer Irshad Manji questioned Benazir’s commitment to women’s rights by her reluctance to work against the Hudood Ordinance and concluded with a prayer “that in death, Benazir Bhutto will be the catalyst for a deeper democracy than she ever advocated in life”.
Calamitous political assassinations have unfortunately scourged societies across the world from the Kennedys in America to the Gandhis in India and sadly also the Bhuttos in Pakistan. We should thus keep things in perspective about the long-term impact of this tragedy. However, there are important lessons to be learned from this horrendous act of violence that have not been discussed as clearly as they ought to be in most of the commemorative essays. Regardless of where blame may be ultimately placed for the act, the underpinnings of Islamic opposition to Benazir’s return were an ingredient in the suicide bombings of Karachi and Rawalpindi that targeted her. No other political force in Pakistan has the will to relinquish life so violently for such a cause and hence we need to first analyse why the Islamist forces were so opposed to her.
Benazir had never modelled herself as a secularist and from all biographical accounts she was a deeply religious individual. Indeed, her posthumous book that will be published in February 2008 is tentatively titled ‘Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West’. Unlike President Musharraf, who at one time heaped adulations on ardent secularist Mustafa Kamal as a potential role model, Benazir was always very conscious of working with the Islamic establishment. During her days as prime minister, she had even been willing to talk to Mullah Umar, leader of the Taliban and was the first leader to recognise their government in 1994, as she saw herself as a bridge-builder in many ways. Her niece and political rival Fatima Bhutto noted this connection with the Taliban in an article she wrote for the Los Angeles Times titled “Aunt Benazir’s false promises”, only a month before this tragedy .
Yet despite Benazir’s efforts at placating theocracy, the Islamists still considered her a foe, partly because of the entrenched misogynistic tendencies in traditional Pakistani society and partly because she was still associated with the West. No doubt her English was far more fluent than her Urdu or Sindhi and she was a close friend of many Western leaders, but she always identified herself as a Muslim woman leader in all international gatherings.
Nevertheless, her views on reconciliation with some of the radical Islamists changed over the past few years, especially following the Lal Masjid episode in July 2007 and the Karachi bombing upon her arrival. In her public comments she seemed to have become less willing to negotiate with the religious establishment and dispensed with ambivalence about her views on the matter. In an article for the New York Times, published on November 7, 2007, Benazir stated that the political parties should “unite in a coalition of moderation to marginalise both the dictators and the extremists, to restore civilian rule to the presidency and to shut down political madrassas, the Islamic schools that stock weapons and preach violence”.
Benazir appeared to be personally grieved by the fact that despite her attempts to build bridges with all elements of the political spectrum, radical forces within the Islamist camp were still disdainful of her. She realised perhaps too late that absolutist ideologies can seldom be persuaded into compromise. In this regard her critics should also give her some benefit of doubt about why she could not accomplish more in her tenure as prime minister. Whether for love of power or love of family, she had embraced the shackles of tradition to enter politics and her ability to make lasting change was severely curtailed as a result of the patriarchal structures that surrounded her.
As the first Muslim woman to become a head of state, Benazir Bhutto will remain an icon for generations to come. The fact that even a privileged woman could reach her level, in a society where traditional tribal elders are still debating whether or not it is permissible to beat your wife with a slap or a miswak, makes her story particularly inspirational. Her acquiescence in ostensibly benign traditions was matched with her astonishing ability to move masses in a male-dominated society. She knew that her white dupatta was like an umbilical cord for political survival in an embryonic Islamic democracy. Benazir clung to that cord with dignity but at a cost to her efficacy as a potential revolutionary.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and on the adjunct faculty of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. Email: email@example.com