Benazir projects Islam as modern and not in conflict with democratic value
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Call to Peace

Benazir projects Islam as modern and not in conflict with democratic value

Ghazala Wahab
Whichever way history judges former prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, it cannot fault her on timing. Had fate not interrupted cruelly, Bhutto would have presented the Western world, specifically the US, with her manifesto in the form of her book which seeks to bridge the ever-widening rift between the West and Islam. As it turned out, her book, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West came out a few weeks after her assassination probably at the orders of the religious fanatics who she claimed to have fought all her life, to become part of her legacy. Eerily, she starts with the vivid description of her return to Pakistan on 18 October 2007. She describes the thronging crowd, cheering her with ‘Jeeay Bhutto’ (Long live Bhutto) as her cavalcade moved excruciatingly slowly. She describes her poignant farewell to her family before departing, not knowing whether she will live or not and how her husband had requested President Pervez Musharraf for additional security for her but was denied. And how it was her swollen feet (because of standing in the truck for many hours) that saved her from the suicide bomber who killed 179 people around her truck shortly after midnight, because moments before the attack she had gone inside the truck to rest. Two months later, luck deserted her as the second suicide bomber got her on 27 December 2007. The circumstances were nearly identical. Once again she was standing in the truck, waving to the crowd. Sadly, this time the feet didn’t hurt.

Reconciliation Reconciliation is an important book, as much for its content as for the authorship. Benazir Bhutto was not only the former prime minister of Pakistan, she was a Western-educated, moderate Muslim woman, who was the toast of the Western governments and given the present circumstances in Pakistan, perhaps the best hope for the country which the pessimists fear might implode. While the fears may be exaggerated, they are certainly not unfounded, and Benazir plays on those to drive home the fact that how only real democracy can save Pakistan, especially when the ‘military dictator Musharraf’ has already ‘abdicated control in parts of Federally Administered Tribal Areas and North West Frontier Provinces to the Talibans and Taliban-like militant Islamists’. Through Reconciliation, which is part theory of Islam, part history of independent Pakistan and part Bhutto’s exposition on both democracy and terrorism, Bhutto pleads to the world to not let Pakistan succumb to the primeval designs of Islamic extremists who are bent upon turning her fatherland into a battleground for the clash of civilisations.

Essentially addressed to the West, an omnibus term that includes both Europe and the US, Reconciliation projects Islam as a modern, liberal religion that is not in conflict with the democratic values. Bhutto’s running strain throughout the book is that the absence of democracy in most Muslim countries is not because of the absence of desire to have it. Even as she castigates the West for not allowing fledgling democracies in the Islamic world to survive, often subverting them at the altar of perceived and often misplaced national security considerations, she is equally scathing about the failure of the leaders in Muslim countries to sustain democratic processes; a failure that, she ominously points out, is now subjecting the world to terrorism and religious extremism. According to her, dictatorship in the absence of democracy allowed fringe extremists to flourish and propagate their absolutist and rejectionist theories. In her words,

“In several Muslim states, dictatorships tended to favour hard-line traditionalist interpretations of religion in return for the theocrats’ providing a fig leaf of religious legitimacy to autocracy. Secular dictators repressed religious debate altogether. This benefited the extremists because they organised underground, whereas the moderate reformers were unable to do so.”

Borrowing heavily from the early Islamic traditions and select Quranic verses she argues that more than any other religion in the world (here she focuses on Semitic faiths like Judaism, Christianity and Islam) Islam is most conducive to democracy because the religion has in-built democratic traditions. She writes,

“It is interesting that we even have to address the question of Islam and democracy. I am not aware of any substantial intellectual inquiry into ‘Judaism and democracy’ or ‘Christianity and democracy’ or ‘Hinduism and democracy’.”

In the same vein,

“If the texts of other religions were judged this way, I would guess that none would seem as open to democracy. For example, if we take the Christian Bible or the Jewish Torah… neither would appear to be particularly democratic or pluralistic. As an example, stoning is a form of capital punishment that is a product of the Old Testament.”

In contrast to the other Semitic faiths, she writes,

“Islam is committed not only to tolerance and equality but to the principles of democracy… Islam is not a caricature that is often portrayed in Western media… It is a religion built upon the democratic principles of consultation (shura), building consensus (ijma) and finally leading to independent judgement (ijtihad). These are also the elements and processes of democratic institutions and democratic governance.”

Ironically, even as she makes these assertions trying to find democratic strains in the religion, a few paragraphs later, she writes that “Islam is a religion, not a unitary social structure”, thereby making the case that it is unfair to expect the religion to give political and social direction. Not only is this assertion contradictory, it is also incorrect. Unlike other religions, with the exception of Judaism perhaps, which also has codified laws (Deuteronomy) to govern day-to-day living, dietary habits as well as crime and punishment, Islam has detailed and written laws for everything ranging from governance to economy. So much so, it has also laid down rules of engagement in an event of war, the need for retreat and treatment of prisoners of war. This is the reason why one hears of Islamic banking, a growing fad in the Muslim world. This is also the reason why politics cannot be detached from Islam because the two are intertwined. In matters of governance and business, people of other religious persuasions do not adhere to religion any longer, which is not the case with Muslim countries, who still seek guidance if not direct command from Islamic laws. Similarly, Bhutto’s example of stoning is not right because no country, whether secular democracies or Christian/Jewish state still punish people by stoning them to death. In that respect, even crime and punishment has evolved out of the religious texts, but not so for many Muslim countries.

Despite quoting a large number of scholars, as well as the Quran and the Hadith (which clearly shows a lot of research by her team, whom she graciously acknowledges) Bhutto’s approach is very simplistic. She expends a lot of effort in making the case that theologically there is nothing in Islam that would suggest autocracy or terrorism. This assertion is not only repetitive (hundreds of Eastern and Western scholars of greater merit has already written this, whom she quotes also), but side-steps the main issue. It is true that despite the availability of such literature, many Muslims as well as non-Muslims believe that Islam is not compatible with democracy and that there is indeed a religious sanction to wage a violent Jihad and kill infidels. Yet, the problem today that confounds the West, as well as the rest of the world is the Muslim rage which is taking the form of terrorism and the desire of increasing number of Muslims to adhere to the more conservative form of Islam. Not only the non-Muslims but liberal or less-conservative Muslim would like to understand why suddenly more women are opting for a veil than in the past or why younger men prefer growing beard and wearing a cap, especially outside India. Why instead of looking forward are they choosing to look backwards? Why young, educated and full of promise men and women suddenly decide to wear bomb-laden jackets in such disparate places as London, Casablanca and Bali? How has al Qaeda become a hydra, sprouting shoots in different places, drawing Muslims from different backgrounds? There is a school of thought in Washington that has been promoting the idea that the real purpose of al Qaeda and other such outfits is to consolidate the Muslim Ummah and re-establish Khilafat. To many, including this writer, this is a preposterous idea, because Muslims across the world are not a monolith body. But Bhutto ignores these issues. On terrorism, her explanation is simplistic to the extent of being naïve. She writes,

“Islam is now being used for purely political purposes by a group of people who are angry with the West. Religion is being exploited and manipulated for a political agenda, not a spiritual agenda. The militants seethe with anger, but their anger is always tied to their political agenda. First, they were angry that the West had abandoned three million Afghan refugees and stopped all assistance to them after the Soviets left Afghanistan. Second, they are angry that their offer to the government of Pakistan to send one hundred battle-hardened mujahideen to help in the Kashmir uprising of 1989 was rejected. Third, they wanted King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to turn to their ‘battle-hardened mujahideen’ to protect Saudi Arabia after Iraqi president Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990. He refused. Fourth, they went off to fight in Bosnia when the region was engulfed in war (from 1993 to 1996 I lobbied President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister John Major, and other European leaders to intervene to bring the conflict to an end). Fifth, they tried to exploit the Chechen nationalist movement. Sixth, with the fall of my government, they turned their attention to Kashmir and tried to take over the nationalist Kashmir movement from 1997 onward… After the United States invaded Iraq, these same extremists turned their attention to that country… Again they used religious propaganda to kill, maim, and effectively divide one of the richest Muslim countries, Iraq, into a land of carnage and bloodshed. Sunnis and Shias, who had lived peacefully side by side for centuries, began to kill each other, and Iraq began to fall apart.”

What can one say about this analysis by a former prime minister of a Muslim country which is today the closest ally of the US in its war on terror? Delusional? Or lack of understanding?

Because the book had to be written and because the pages had to be filled, Bhutto devotes the entire third chapter, nearly 70 pages, on examples of different countries, both Muslim and non-Muslim (from Iran to Greece to the Republic of Congo), where the West intervened against democracy, thereby making the case that despite its repeated professions, West (she never directly accuses the US, preferring the non-incriminating West) has not always supported fledgling democracies if they were perceived to be threatening its economic or political interests. Lest, the US abandon its support of her political ambitions in Pakistan, she concludes the chapter on a conciliatory note by writing:

“There is enough blame to go around for both the West and the Islamic world. It is shared responsibility and often shared failure.”

The following chapter on Pakistan is her view of history and is therefore interesting. She traces the early years of post-Partition Pakistan and how gradually over the years what was supposed to be a modern Islamic country slipped down the path of religious extremism. She laments the early death of Jinnah which gave the open field to mullahs to flourish and propagate their version of Islam. She castigates Gen. Zia ul Haq for ruining the social fabric of the country by wooing the extremists at the cost of development and democracy. She dwells on the nefarious dealings between Gen. Zia and the Reagan administration, especially over Afghanistan. She writes how ISI helped channel at least USD 8 billion from the US and untold billions from the Persian Gulf to the mujahideens fighting the Soviets. She writes that because of Zia’s close ties with Maulana Maududi, the Indian-born founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, it was the JeI’s vision that shaped Zia’s politics, including the promulgation of the Hudood laws. This dangerous trend continued under Nawaz Sharif’s premiership, which interspersed Benazir Bhutto’s two tenures, when buoyed by the success of the Taliban in Afghanistan he tried to declare the same in Pakistan and anoint himself as Amir. In her racy narrative, father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto comes across as the first democratic hope of the people of Pakistan who were united behind him and how after his assassination, that hope was pinned on her. Gen. Pervez Musharraf does not come out as badly as one would have expected, perhaps because of the US-brokered deal between the two sides which enabled her to return to Pakistan. In the same chapter when she talks of various challenges that the new country had to face post-Partition are the wars with India, in all of which the latter was the aggressor. For Indian readers, Bhutto’s attitude towards India is indeed amusing. She refers to the Indian Islamic scholars (Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Maulana Wahiduddin, and Asghar Ali Engineer among others) who are liberally quoted as South Asian and not Indian.

However, Bhutto’s stellar moment in the book comes towards the end, when she lays out her formula for reconciliation between the West and the Islamic world. Passionately disagreeing with Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisation theory, she says that terrorism can be defeated and democracy ushered in the Islamic world if both sides make concerted efforts. She proposes a new Marshall Plan for the Muslim countries. “Not a programme of writing checks to governments, but specific and tangible people-to-people projects that will directly improve the quality of life of ordinary people.” To harness petro-dollars, which get squandered by the elite in select Muslim countries, Bhutto proposes a Muslim Investment Fund on the lines of Alaska Permanent Fund, where rich Muslim states should put the surplus oil revenue and invest it in developmental projects across the Muslim world. To support fledgling democracies, she suggests resurrection of the concept of Community of Democratic Nations. And finally,

“…to restore communication, trust and dialogue between the Muslim world and the West would be the creation of a Reconciliation Corps. Modeled on the Peace Corps, it would be made up of Muslims from Western societies who have been economically, socially and political integrated into the life of their host countries while maintaining their Islamic character, culture, and religion. These Muslim youths could build bridges with their countries of origin.”

Though the book concludes on a note of earnestness, it also reinforces the author’s position as a Pakistani politician, despite often camouflaged as a scholar seeking to put Islam and the Islamic countries in the correct perspective. Overlooking one of the acutest violent problems in the world, the Palestine-Israel issue, which to a very large extent has shaped the worldview of the Muslims vis a vis the US, Bhutto betrays what can only be called lack of understanding or overcautiousness. And when she does mention the P word, it is in the same breath as Kashmir. In a 300-page plus book, surely these deserved more than a page and some honest reflection.

Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West
Benazir Bhutto
Simon & Schuster
Pg 318, GBP17.99


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