COMMENTARY
 
Benazir’s Call for Reconciliation between ‘Islam and the West’
Weekly Pulse
February 22-28, 2008
Benazir Bhutto’s death is as big a national tragedy as the death of Jinnah, but with two main differences: she was assassinated, and her loss is not just that of Pakistanis but also to the entire Muslim world. With her as prime minister or even as opposition leader, we Pakistanis as well as Muslims all around the world could always proudly claim to be large-hearted enough, despite being largely conservative, to elect and re-elect a woman as our leader. This is something in stark contrast to most Western nations, including the United States of America, which, despite tall claims of gender equality, have failed to emulate Pakistanis.

For the past 14 years, I have always hanged a personal photo with Benazir in my office, which her critics often objected to. They would never understand the value of it as long as she was alive. Now they do, but only after she is no more around. The occasion was in June 1994, when I was awarded a Gold Medal by her as prime minister on a harrowing case of women rights abuse involving an Imam of a mosque in the suburbs of Islamabad, who had electrified lower abdominal parts of his wife, Zainab Noor. Benazir took personal interest in the case, saved her life, got the culprit punished, and set a national precedent.

A Great Loss

Pakistan People’s Party may have won the February 18 elections, and is likely to form the new government in partnership with other parties. However, Benazir Bhutto’s death has created a real leadership vacuum in the PPP. What the party’s new leadership does to overcome this challenge will determine the success of the PPP-led government.

As the nation mourns Benazir Bhutto’s unfortunate death and PPP supporters celebrate the poll results, I think there is no better way to pay tribute to than review some of her thoughts in her book that just came out. Titled Benazir Bhutto, and published by Simon and Schuster, the book, to use Mark Siegel’s words “is a positive statement of reconciliation among religions and nations; a bold assertion of the true nature of Islam; and a practical road map for bringing societies together.”

The publisher had to rush for printing after her death, but, thank God, Benazir had finished editing of the last manuscript and sent it via email to Mark, in the early morning of the fateful day of her assassination in Rawalpindi. I had pre-ordered the book, but the moment I got it, I felt very sad, realizing again and again what a great person we have lost. But, then, as Mark says in introductory remarks, “Why did Benazir write this book?” Her answer in the concluding section: “I have tried to trace the roots, causes, and potential solutions to the crisis within the Muslim world and the crisis between the Muslim world and the West. Theology, history, economics, democracy, and dictatorship have all played significant roles in bringing the world to this crossroads. My premise from the beginning has been that extremism thrives under dictatorship and is fueled by poverty, ignorance, and hopelessness. The extremist threat within the Islamic world and between the Islamic world and the West can be solved, but it will require addressing all the factors that breed it.”

In the last section, titled “Afterword,” written after her assassination, Asif Ali Zardari writes: “This book is about everything that those who killed her could never understand: democracy, tolerance, rationality, hope, and, above all, the true message of Islam. Or maybe they did understand these things and feared them, and thus feared her. She was the fanatics’ worst nightmare.”

Threat of Extremism

The book’s first chapter titled ‘The Pay Back’ lays the foundation of her substantive work. It starts from her October 2007 landing in Karachi, the unexpected public welcome she received, and the terrorist bombing. Benazir also highlights the extremist challenge to the Muslim world from within.

“Within the Muslim world there has been and continues to be an internal rift, an often violent confrontation among sects, ideologies, and interpretations of the message of Islam. This destructive tension has set brother against brother, a deadly fratricide that has tortured intra-Islamic relations for 1,300 years. This sectarian conflict stifled the brilliance of the Muslim renaissance that took place during the Dark Ages of Europe, when the great universities, scientists, doctors, and artists were all Muslim.”

Benazir castigates the Muslims for not being self-critical and mostly passing the buck on to the others for problems created largely by themselves: “Obviously (and embarrassingly), Muslim leaders, masses, and even intellectuals are quite comfortable criticizing outsiders for the harm inflicted on fellow Muslims, but there is deadly silence when they are confronted with Muslim-on-Muslim violence…Now we see Muslim pride always characterized in the negative, derived from notions of ‘destroying the enemy’ and ‘making the nation invulnerable to Western assault.’ Such toxic rhetoric sets the stage for the clash of civilizations between Islam and the West every bit as much as do Western military or political policies. It also serves as an opiate that keeps Muslims angry against external enemies and allows them to pay little attention to the internal causes of intellectual and economic decline. Reality and intellectual honesty demand that we look at both sides of the coin.”

She lays down her principal argument in this introductory chapter as follows: “The potential exists for the radicalization of Muslims around the world in a political environment of dictatorship and authoritarianism. If extremism and militancy thrive under dictatorship and cannot be contained by a one-man show relying on military might, the democratic world would have a strong rationale-if not for moral reasons then at least for reasons of self-interest-in helping to sustain democratic governance in the nations of the Muslim world.”

Battle within Islam

In Chapter Two, titled “The Battle within Islam,” Benazir concentrates on the inherently inclusive, tolerant, democratic spirit of Islam, discrediting Western notions to the contrary. She writes: “Islam is clearly not only tolerant of other religions and cultures but internally tolerant of dissent. Allah tells us over and over again, through the Quran, that he created people of different views and perspectives to see the world in different ways and that diversity is good. It is natural and part of God's plan. The Quran’s world in different ways and that diversity is good. It is natural and part of God's plan. The Quran's message is open to and tolerant of women's full participation in society, it encourages knowledge and scientific experimentation, and it prohibits violence against innocents and suicide, despite terrorists' claims to the contrary.”

Benazir continues, “Not only is Islam compatible with democracy, but the message of the Quran empowers the people with rights (democracy), demanding consultation between rulers and ruled (parliament), and requiring that leaders serve the interests of the people or be replaced by them (accountability).”

In Chapter 3, titled “Islam and Democracy,” Benazir discusses at length Islam’s compatibility with democracy, with practical examples. She simultaneously attacks in the West for promoting dictatorships in the Muslim world, and nurturing democracies in its own parts—for which case studies from Palestine and Iran to Greece and Iraq are described, respectively.

“The actions of the West in the second half of the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century often deliberately blocked any reasonable chance for democratic development in Muslim-majority countries. It is so discouraging to me that the actions of the West in the pursuit of its various short-term strategic goals have been counterproductive, often backfiring.”

Western Response

She continues: “Despite often grand rhetoric to the contrary, there has been little real Western support for indigenous democratic movements. Indeed, too often there has been outright support for dictatorships. Both during the Cold War and now in the current battle with international terrorism, the shadow between Western rhetoric and Western actions has sowed the seeds of Muslim public disillusionment and cynicism. The double standards have fueled extremism and fanaticism.”

Chapter 4 is a case study of Pakistan, focusing on the reasons behind the growth of dictatorship. According to her, in Pakistan’s “sixty year history, November 3, 2007, will be remembered as one of its blackest days. Pakistan is currently a military dictatorship. On that date, General Pervez Musharraf removed all pretenses of a transition to democracy by yet another extra-constitutional coup d’etat. He suspended the Constitution and arrested hundreds upon hundreds of party officials, human rights activists, lawyers, judges, and journalists. He suspended independent television. He banned print media that are critical of his military rule. He ordered the police and the military of my nation to baton-charge, beat, and tear-gas our own people.” In the chapter, she describes the history of Pakistani politics, and the explains the reasons behind her deal with Musharraf in 2007.

The second last chapter, titled “Is the Clash of Civilization Inevitable?” is an academic critique of Saumuel P Huntington’s thesis. In a very cogent way and while citing other critics of the American writer, Benazir rejects the thesis. She instead proposes a dialogue among civilization, while borrowing similar ideas from other Muslim leaders like former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami.

Grounds for Reconciliation

“We are dealing not with a clash between civilizations but rather with a clash within a civilization. The most critical battle for the hearts and souls of the successor generation of Muslim leaders, and for the passion of the Muslims around the world, is not a battle with the West. The debate is between different interpretations of Islam, different visions for the Muslim Ummah. It is about the lack of tolerance that some interpretations show for other interpretations within Islam or other religions outside Islam. In other words, the real clash within and outside Islam is a battle between the past and the future. It is the resolution of this battle that will determine the direction not only of the relationship between Islam and the West but of international relations in this century. Without further delay, to break the chains and cycle of poverty, extremism, dictatorship, and terrorism, we need to move on the path toward true reconciliation.”

In the final chapter, titled “Reconciliation”—which is the essence of her study—Benazir reiterates that the “Muslim world’s decline is not due simply to the injustices of colonialism or the global distribution of power. At some point Muslim societies must be responsible and accountable. There is an abundance of riches in Muslim countries. If organized properly, the Muslim countries could draw up an agenda to reduce poverty and rekindle Islamic nations as centers of knowledge and ideas. The clash within Islam is but a part of the problem threatening world stability. There is another potential element of international disruption that some might call "the global war on terror’ and others hyperventilate into ‘World War IV.’ Even if the Islamic nations were to do everything that I suggest, we would still be left with a significant chasm between the Islamic countries and the West…The question before the West is twofold. First, the West should look inside and determine to what extent Muslims' perceptions of the West are justified, or at least understandable.”

She continues, “Just as I urge my fellow Muslims not to blame others for problems that we are at least partially responsible for, I urge the West not to blame Muslims for problems that have arisen partially from the West’s culpability. And second, the West must open up in considering what steps can be taken to bridge the chasm between societies and cultures. Introspection is never easy and almost always uncomfortable. But in the current international environment, a period of introspection by the West is necessary. It is critical for the West-and, most important, the United States-to examine the extent to which Islamic concerns and criticisms are justified and then commit to addressing these concerns substantively. I am not condoning terrorism or hatred. But a problem existed before September 11, 2001, and that problem will continue to exist after Al Qaeda is but a painful memory.”

She further writes, “There is confusion between the West and the Islamic world, and there is, to some extent, distrust. The confusion can be clarified. The distrust can be overcome. But for that a plan is needed—and action.” It is this action plan with concrete recommendations to develop and democratize the Muslim world through internal reforms and external help that concludes Benazir’s historic work.

Access column at weeklypulse.org