Benazir Bhutto, a devoted mother, a loving wife, and a popular democratic leader of 170 million Pakistanis—but she was also a source of pride and strength for 1.3 billion Muslims of the world, and a beacon of hope and courage for the entire global humanity. Benazir Bhutto was a charismatic woman of world stature in her own right, and perceived as such across the frontiers of Pakistan—as she went about articulating the collective human desire for global peace and progress during her proactive political career from the 80’s through the 90’s until the fateful day of December 27, 2007.
As the Muslim world’s first woman prime minister, Benazir Bhutto was living proof of a Muslim nation’s willingness to be elected by a woman leader—a reality reflecting the highest form of democratic expression that is yet to be realized in much of the Democratic West. And, in contemporary times, when the Muslim world is blamed by a section of the very West for lagging behind 21st century standards of modernity, the populist leadership of Benazir Bhutto was a testimony to Islam’s inherent compatibility with democracy, liberty, human rights, gender equality, and much more.
Daughter of the East, the Daughter of Destiny—as she was known in the world through the titles of her autobiography—Benazir Bhutto was always conscious of not just the democratic destiny of her own nation but also of the value of democratic peace the world over. The gigantic challenges of democracy at home, therefore, never distracted her attention from articulating a realistic and pragmatic discourse on a host of global issues like globalization and poverty, extremism and terrorism, environment and sustainable development, clash of civilizations and conflict resolution.
In fact, on several of these issues, Benazir Bhutto made a pioneering contribution to initiate a solutions-oriented global debate that has matured overtime and produced positive outcomes bettering the lives of millions around the world. She possessed a remarkable optimism about the future, a belief in the power of dialogue, and a strong commitment to democracy. She was an advocate for reconciliation, between Islamic and non-Islamic societies, and outlined how that goal could be achieved. She not only had a vision, she had a plan on how it would be done.
A graduate of Harvard and Oxford, also elected as President of Oxford Union, Benazir Bhutto was destined to lead Pakistan’s democratic struggle for almost three decades after the judicial murder of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The proud daughter never disappointed her father, himself a populist leader of world stature. In 1988, she was elected Prime Minister, the first such instance in 14 centuries of Islamic history. In June 1989, Benazir Bhutto also got a distinction as being the first ever woman leader to address Joint Session of the US Congress.
Benazir Bhutto was Pakistan’s progressive face in the world—a far-sighted leader who could weather any storm confronting the nation, be it a crisis in the region or the souring of ties with allies of the past, and who spared no international opportunity in showing solidarity with the suffering Muslims in conflicts such as Kashmir and Bosnia.
As a leader of Pakistan during her second stint as prime minister, Benazir Bhutto’s fight for the right of subjugated Muslims in the world took her to Bosnia, where the Muslim people were facing the threat of extinction at the hands of Serbs. In February 1994, she accompanied Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller to the besieged Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, where they jointly called for the lifting of arms embargo that prevented Muslims from defending themselves. Two years later, when the digging of mass graves proved the genocide of Bosnian Muslims, Benazir Bhutto reminded the Europeans of the human cost of their appeasement of the Serbs. She wrote: “When leadership is abdicated and responsibility is renounced, we allow the likes of (Bosnian Serb leader) Radovan Karadzic to begin their massacres. That should be our enduring lesson.”
Benazir Bhutto did not stop there. Her government contributed one million dollars to the establishment of International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague, where Karadzic stands trial for war crimes today. It was Benazir Bhutto’s firm belief that, “If we are going to ever have lasting peace, justice must be served. Inaction in response to war crimes compounds the injury of the victims and only encourages future abuses.”
Benazir Bhutto’s practical approach to finding lasting solutions to humanitarian disasters aside, when it came to the issue of women emancipation at the global stage, she was always at the forefront of the world debate. The women of the world would never forget her pioneering role at the September 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in prioritizing issues of family values and gender equality in its Plan of Action.
The Action Plan of the Cairo Conference became the basis of subsequent UN initiatives, including the Millennium Development Goals for alleviating poverty in poor countries, achieving sustainable economic development, and saving the planet from ecological disaster.
Benazir Bhutto inspired billions of women all around the world. She was a very active member of the Council of Women World Leaders. In a chapter from the book, Women World Leaders, she offered the following advice to fellow women aspiring for political leadership:
Life is a great teacher. One always learns and I'm the sort of person who's always looking to learn and to pick up from the experiences of life. But I believe the most important thing is not to lose the perspective of where one is heading. So despite the hurly-burly of political life, I've never lost focus of the most important goal that a government has and ultimately when all the rhetoric dies down, and when history writes in a detached fashion, I believe that is the place which will get recognition.
With her innate leadership charisma, personal charm and global appeal, Benazir Bhutto was the best we, Pakistanis, could offer the world in terms of narrowing down the gap between the actual reality of Pakistan as a broadly tolerant nation and its largely misperceived external image of a dogmatic people. She was likewise the best of the voices that the Muslim world could offer in the post-Cold War global debate on the Clash of Civilizations, with her unique intellectual contribution to resolving the crisis within the world of Islam as well as the so-called clash between Islam and the West.
Quest for Reconciliation
It is for these very purposes that Benazir Bhutto spent the morning of her last day finishing the final draft of her last gift to the world, the book aptly titled Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West, an international best seller published two months after her tragic demise. The book is the story of a courageous woman and her struggle for democracy and moderation in Islam. It offers a bold new agenda for how to stem the tide of Islamic radicalism and to rediscover the values of tolerance and justice that lie at the heart of Islam.
Benazir Bhutto’s zest for spreading the true values of Islam as a peaceful and tolerant religion and dialogue instead of clash among civilizations was reinforced by the terrorist events of 9/11. She offered a pragmatic, balanced and visionary way to tackle terrorism and prevent clash within the Muslim world and its relationship with the West.
In Reconciliation, she mentions what the Muslim world and the West need to do respectively to overcome crisis within Islam, and clash between Islam and the West.
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….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 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. Second, the West must open up in considering what steps can be taken to bridge the chasm between societies and cultures. 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.
Commitment to Democracy
Benazir Bhutto’s quest for liberal democracy, religious tolerance and perpetual peace at home and at the global stage was a terrorists’ nightmare. She always believed that extremism and terrorism flourished under dictatorship, and therefore, castigated the West for supporting dictators in the Muslim world, including Pakistan. Democracy, to her, was the best antidote to terrorism. And her heroic struggle for the democratic ideal in Pakistan is what eventually cost her own life.
Now when we mourn Benazir Bhutto’s brutal assassination at the hands of obscurantist terrorists, perhaps the greatest tribute to her is to recall her glorious legacy in words and deeds, and to remind ourselves now and forever as to what she always stood for and finally died for.
Benazir Bhutto’s legacy will continue to inspire not just Pakistanis and Muslims but all other people who aspire to live in a more democratic, peaceful and prosperous world. It is this legacy that will eventually defeat the forces of darkness.
Even while she is no more with us, the global appreciation for her marvelous contribution to mankind will continue. On December 10, 2008, she joined the ranks of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, as the United Nations decorated her soul with a rare UN Prize in the Field of Human Rights. Worth-remembering are the remarks made by her son, Bilawal, while receiving the award in the UN General Assembly:
She realized returning to her homeland could cost her life but did so because democracy in Pakistan is not just important for Pakistanis it is important for the entire world.
PS: The above article is based on the script I wrote for a Pakistan Television documentary titled 'Benazir on the World Stage.’ Click for two other tributes to her: Tribute to Benazir Bhutto &
Tribute to a Great Leader
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