A Letter Misaddressed
Benazir Bhutto, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West (New York: Harper Collins, 2008).
Benazir Bhutto’s tragic death on December 27, 2007 has reopened long-sealed fissures in Pakistani society. Over the last several years, Pakistan has been represented as a place where increasingly belligerent Islamist radicals are pitched against an entrenched military ruler who seeks to make the country into a moderate Muslim state. Yet upon Bhutto’s assassination rioting and looting in the Sindh province, including in Karachi, the commercial heart of the country, made other, deeper conflicts evident. Obviously, people were showing their anger and sorrow at the sudden death of a beloved leader with this bout of destruction. Yet the extent of damage to private and public property also indicates a clear reaction to rising poverty, high unemployment and an increasing sense of deprivation among the populace after eight years of military rule. Bhutto, head of the largest non-religious political party in Pakistan, had begun tapping into this feeling of marginalization upon her return from eight years of exile in October 2007. Her connection to many of the Pakistani poor, which she somehow never lost, was part of her charisma in life and has only increased in death.
Bhutto’s posthumous missive Reconciliation seeks to build on this association, yet it is not addressed to the Pakistani people. Its intended recipient is rather in the West, where she aggressively cultivated a following that also remained enamored of her (to varying degrees) to the end. This book is the last in a series of overtures she made toward Western governments and peoples to assist her in reclaiming what she thought was taken from her through manipulation and treachery—her right to govern Pakistan. In this regard, Bhutto’s title is a bit misleading. Although her book does dwell on how Islam can be reconciled with the West, it falls short of reconciliation with her own past, in particular, her lost opportunities to make a difference while in elected office.
Reconciliation is a jumble of genres. It reads partly like an extended graduate student’s essay (as in a section on Samuel Huntington and “the clash of civilizations”) and partly like a political memoir bordering on hagiography of the self. The continuous quotations from various sources, repeated from chapter to chapter to prove that Bhutto’s understanding of Islam is compatible with modernity, democracy, tolerance, women’s rights and Western values, are unoriginal. So, too, is the familiar litany of complaints about Wahhabism. On the one hand, Bhutto is condemning her Islamist opponents in Pakistan, particularly the Jamaat-e Islami and its deceased founder Abu Ala Mawdudi; on the other hand, she is trying to expose the Musharraf government’s claims of moderation as false. But in tarring everyone and everything—Pakistani Islamist parties, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, intolerance of the West, terrorist attacks—with the same ahistorical brush, she misses how and why Islamist movements have held an appeal across the Muslim world. She may be partly correct in asserting that those who are angry at the West are exploiting religion, but she does not emphasize that these very groups—including the Jamaat-e Islami—were supported and, in some cases, created by the West during the Cold War as bulwarks against the Soviet Union and the communist threat. Even her hero, her father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, cynically turned toward the right in the mid-1970s to undermine challenges from the left of his own party, declaring Ahmadis to be non-Muslim, banning the sale and public consumption of alcohol, and naming Friday as the weekly day off.
Speaking of the elder Bhutto, remembering and reconciling are tricky things. Both father and daughter were in favor of a centralizing state. Zulfiqar stood against the Bengali struggle for self-determination, even when the major Bengali nationalist party won a majority of the popular vote in the 1970 elections. He dismissed the popularly elected government of Balochistan in 1973 and then crushed the subsequent Baloch nationalist resistance with military force. The result: Sixty years after Pakistan’s independence and over 30 years after the creation of Bangladesh, the state is unable to resolve the question of national integration of its many cultures and diverse linguistic groups. Benazir’s rendition of her father’s involvement in these processes is a whitewash, and she sidesteps the ongoing ethnic tensions and the pivotal issue of provincial autonomy in Pakistan today. Her solutions are again based on the image of a benevolent, yet centralizing Pakistani state.
Benazir Bhutto’s memory makes other somersaults, as when she explains away her own government’s hand in arming the initial formation of the Taliban in 1994 and encouraging the group’s eventual ascendancy in Afghanistan in 1996. Such maneuverings serve to solidify her anti-Islamist credentials, so crucial for convincing the West that she is the moderate Muslim leader who has imbibed Western values and who, better than the generals, can shepherd her strategic country into the fold of civilized nations. Bhutto pushes all the hot buttons—democracy, freedom, globalization, free trade, women’s rights, civil society—to show that she is one of us. It is a strange, one-sided conversation in which she is seeking to reconcile with the West without asking for any explanations from the other side.
In her eagerness to please, there is little criticism of Western liberalism’s own inherent contradictions. Liberalism’s general claim is to be politically inclusive and tolerant of difference. But a critical reading of liberal thought makes it evident that only those who adhere to certain kinds of subject positions are worthy of inclusion. And so, in the United States, the September 11, 2001 attacks led to increased surveillance of Muslim populations, wiretapping, profiling and other erasures of civil rights. Similarly, in the aftermath of the bombings in Madrid and London, the Danish cartoon controversy, riots in Paris suburbs and the murder of Theo Van Gogh, Europe is straining to retain its façade of tolerance and liberalism. The “other” within, whether Muslim immigrants or Turkey applying to the European Union, has exposed the fracture lines in the European rhetoric of civility and civil rights. The “Jewish Question,” as Marx put it succinctly a century and half ago, has been reformulated to haunt European secular thought.
Bhutto’s argument shies away from such critical engagement. She is reconciled with a set of values that, in her mind, are settled as global “truths,” and she seeks to dispense the same enlightenment to her people, if only given the chance. Yet when she was given the chance to be Pakistan’s prime minister, her performance was underwhelming, notwithstanding what she rightly claims was obstruction from the Pakistani “establishment.” Bhutto and her husband were charged (though never convicted) with corruption in national and international courts (to pressure and malign her, she says). She ended her second term seen universally as an extremely incompetent leader. Like others in Pakistani politics, she was a master of deal making, her latest being the understanding with President Pervez Musharraf that allowed her to come home without fear of prosecution. By entering into this arrangement with the general, Bhutto effectively betrayed and weakened the lawyers’ movement of the spring of 2007.
It is sad that Benazir Bhutto is not around to confront her critics. She garnered tremendous respect for her sacrifice and steadfastness when she was persecuted and jailed as a young woman by the dictator Zia ul Haq. She personified hope and promise for Pakistan when she returned triumphantly from abroad in 1986 to confront the junta. Yet her tenures in office and her political positions in exile were disappointing to many. Her mixed legacy is in some ways similar to her father’s. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto came to power in the early 1970s through the overwhelming support of the working class, students and radical left groups, but was instrumental in suppressing the workers’ struggle. He had democratic ideals, yet squashed the movements of national minorities. And, as his daughter may be, he is most revered for the manner of his death. He defied the military’s trumped-up charges and went to the gallows with his head held high.
In the final analysis, Benazir Bhutto will be remembered and admired for her bravery and commitment to a politics of the people. With all her flaws, she remained an assertive advocate for democratic civilian governance in a country that has mostly seen autocratic military rule. She was, above all, a politician who understood the art of the possible. The most generous interpretation of her deal with Musharraf can be narrated in terms of pragmatism: She came back, eerily prepared for her own death, to beat the status quo forces at their own game. The cards were stacked against her, and in the end she paid with her life. Reconciliation may not make it onto bestseller lists in the West, but Bhutto’s death has made an immense impact on the minds of many Pakistanis. They may now be truly reconciled to the fact that the only way out of the quagmire of military rule is continuous struggle.