The assassination of Benazir Bhutto:

After Bhutto

posted by John L. Esposito

The world will long remember Benazir Bhutto as a modern Muslim woman who served two terms as Pakistan’s first woman Prime Minister: bright, attractive, articulate, talented, courageous, charismatic, an astute politician and political leader who called for a secular democratic Pakistan. Benazir was all of these but – like her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and a number of other Pakistani political leaders – she also left a flawed political track record that both reflected and contributed to many of Pakistan’s problems.

Benazir Bhutto was an avowed reformer who in two terms as prime minister failed to bring major political or social change; a leader who did little for the overwhelming number of poor Pakistanis who live in a feudal society; a celebrated feminist who despite promises as Prime Minister did little to improve women’s status or reverse Zia ul-Haq’s so-called Islamization policies; a secular democrat whose leadership of the PPP and governance as Prime Minister reflected Pakistan’s feudal politics, with a record of widespread corruption and human rights violations that were severely criticized by international organizations. Like her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, she exerted power through an increasingly tough autocratic style, one-person dominance or rule. She declared herself head of the PPP for life, made no provision for leadership from among her many talented party leaders since the PPP was to remain a family legacy as witnessed by the “selection” of her son and husband (long-discredited by his earned reputation for corruption – reflected in his nickname “Mr. 10%” and his imprisonment in Pakistan for 11 years on charges of corruption – and currently under indictment in Europe).

The recent political responses to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination highlight the key problems or fault lines endemic to Pakistani politics today, problems that have been exacerbated exponentially in a post 9/11 world. Both President Bush and President Musharraf were quick to blame al-Qaeda and other Muslim extremists and to simply place the assassination within the context of the war on global terrorism and the forces opposed to democracy. But as dangerous as these forces are, especially with the growth of Pakistani rather than foreign fighters, this single-minded scenario ignores the long-standing conflicting currents in Pakistani politics: a deep seated and unresolved identity problem regarding the relationship of Islam to Pakistani national identity and politics; the role of Islamic parties and movements and their clashes with a westernized elite; and a strong military that has meant more years of military rather than democratic rule, and the role of feudal political leaders.

Although Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder and first leader, saw Pakistan as a Muslim homeland, his more socio-cultural understanding was not that of many other more “religiously-minded” leaders. Thus, while Pakistan adopted a Western political structure – as Ayub Khan, an early military ruler and modernist, learned when he had to back off his attempt to drop Pakistan’s title as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan – many Pakistanis took Pakistan’s Islamic identity quite literally and seriously. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a secular socialist, would himself turn to Islam after the Pakistan-Bangladesh civil war, in order to build bridges to Arab countries, counter the Jamaat-i-Islami and other religious parties, and reinforce his popular base. However, the appeal to Islam would prove to be a two-edged sword as the Bhutto appointed head of the Army, General Zia ul-Haq, would use Islam to legitimate his coup, the execution of Bhutto, and the “Islamization” of Pakistan. Ironically, years later, Nawaz Sharif would also play the religion card in his political struggles with Benazir Bhutto and the PPP.

Where do we go from here? The Pakistan-U.S. partnership under Pervez Musharraf and George W. Bush has proven a dysfunctional relationship of failed policies. Their joint war on terrorism and promotion of democracy have in fact resulted in a dangerous increase of the former and a threat to the latter. Religious extremism and terrorism have grown in Pakistan; extremists will only benefit from the current crisis. Islamist parties (mainstream and extremists) have increased their electoral clout both in the 2002 elections and subsequently nationally, including control of both the North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan. Musharraf’s promotion of democracy (as that of the U.S. in Pakistan as in Egypt) has at best been a fig leaf, both in terms of the manipulation of electoral politics and the role of the military. Though Musharraf took off his uniform, the generals remain a powerful and influential force capable of intervening at any moment. And regrettably, the tragic death of Benazir Bhutto has resulted in a new stage of Bhutto family feudal leadership of the PPP, only this time absent the charisma, talents and experience of Benazir.

Moving forward will require an enlightened leadership that is not apparent in terms of the chief players. At a time when widespread anti-Americanism (more accurately, opposition to the Bush administration) in Pakistan has become even more entrenched – as it has in many parts of the Muslim and non-Muslim world – one can at least hope for the laying of some groundwork for the emergence of future leaders. Musharraf should begin with the restoration of some semblance of democracy by reconstituting Pakistan’s Supreme Court, announce a more specific timetable for national elections, and seek to work more closely with mainstream and political leaders rather than exploit the current fluid situation and thereby contribute to greater instability. The U.S., given its political and military power, retains the ability and leverage to play a more constructive role in Pakistan – but that will require not simply looking for another “American candidate” to install as Pakistan’s leader.

Many years ago I was invited to a small dinner party given by General Zia ul-Haq at his residence for members of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee. Zia began by reassuring us that after a long day of conversations, he would not give a political speech. We were then treated to a long series of “reflections” on how, given the threat of the Soviet Union and China and the situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan was indeed an essential strategic partner for the U.S. After Zia finished, a member of the U.S. delegation caught up in the moment commented to the Foreign Minister, who was sitting at our table, that America valued Zia as it had and did its other great allies: Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, the Philippines’s Ferdinand Marcos and the Shah of Iran! The Foreign Minister smiled but looked incredulous. Pervez Musharraf can now be added to that list. However, today neither Pakistan nor the U.S. – nor global politics more broadly – can afford another iteration of the same flawed approach.

[Read the edited transcript of an interview with John Esposito that took place at the SSRC offices on May 11, 2007, and was conducted by Pakistani journalist Huma Mustafa Beg.—ed.]

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5 Responses to “After Bhutto”

  1. avatar Samuel C. Porter says:

    I’m acutely aware of my ignorance of the complexity of Middle East history, religion and politics so I’d like to respond to your “After Bhutto” post with a few queries, which seem linked to broader social and cultural changes that have been going on in the Middle East at least since the late 1970s.

    Please let me start by juxtaposing a few quotes:

    “… to an earlier [i.e., the early modern] age, the world of ‘full human personality,’ replete with diverse passions, appeared as a menace that needed to be exorcised to the greatest possible extent.”
    Albert O. Hirschman The Passions and the Interests 1977

    “Writers such as Clifford Geertz, Peter Berger, and Robert Bellah conceive of religion as a special kind of symbol system which evokes a sense of ultimate, transcendent, encompassing meaning. But what this concept does, in addition to drawing on the social sciences, is to save religion from the onslaught of post-Enlightenment positivism.”
    Robert Wuthnow The Restructuring of American Religion 1988

    The current film, “Charlie Wilson’s War,” a “comedy” and not a “history,” makes light of the irony of Israel’s role in securing weapons in the fight of the mujahidin against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

    But at the end of “Charlie Wilson’s War,” after pouring a billions dollars into weapons for the mujahidin, Congressman Wilson’s glib but ominous understatement that “we fucked up the endgame” by not providing money for “education” alludes to the importance of culture in social change.

    The transformation of the mujahidin into the Taliban is important in part because it implies broader, transcultural as well as social theoretical issues that have, I think, crucial relevance to what’s going on in Pakistan and that are important to understand if we are going to develop mutual understanding between the cultures of the West and the Middle East.

    After 9/11, there was some acknowledgment by U.S. administration officials of the U.S.’s lack of knowledge of Arabic as a language. Yet both religion and language are equally important keys to understanding any culture.

    A September 2004 British Chatham House briefing paper, “Iraq in Transition: Vortex or Catalyst?”, shows awareness of the ethnic and religious complexities of Iraq and the surrounding region. In 2004, however, it seemed there was not a lot of evidence of this kind of consciousness in the Bush administration or the national press.

    Even now, years after the shock of 9/11 and the fiasco of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq since 2003, there does not seem to be a lot of historical-critical knowledge of the history of humanity’s major religious traditions and their sacred texts, including Islam, as well as the complexities of international politics of the Middle East in the present administration, State Department and CIA.

    I may be wrong on this but what administration foreign policies, especially but certainly not only in the last eight years, seem to stress is a narrow political realism focused myopically national security, oil and national self-interest – culture be damned – which seems to me self-defeating.

    Decades ago, Fouad Ajami, in The Arab Predicament: Arab Political Thought and Practice Since 1967 (1981), said that the Iranian Revolution was sparked by, in addition to the Shah’s connections to the U.S., a kind of cultural imperialism from the West.

    You say the U.S. cannot afford to repeat the mistake of making Pakistan into another Iran. But hasn’t that already happened? Pakistan appears to be awfully close to being a U.S. vassal.

    But the problem may be even deeper.

    Consider, for example, what Max Weber said concerning what he called the problem of meaning and how the very conditions of modern societies tend to undermine moral and religious meaning.

    For example, in the “Sociology and Types of Salvation” Weber writes of a “malaise” specific to modern women and men the source of which is the loss of a framework of meaning in which moral actions such as forgiveness make sense. Although Weber was focused on Protestant Christianity (Weber, The Sociology of Religion, 1991 [1922]), it seems there might be parallels in various forms of Islam in terms of the tension between tradition and modernity Muslim cultures experience.

    I’d be interested if you find this sorts of considerations helpful in making sense of Pakistan, the transformation of the mujahidin into the Taliban and 9/11?

    If so, is it possible to communicate this kind of perspective to members of Congress, State Department diplomats and administration officials in the White House as well as to your students in the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service? And, if such a perspective, which recognizes the depth of culture, is not cultivated, how can we avoid, as you put it, “another iteration of the same flawed approach”?

    If not, what is the alternative?

    If it isn’t too general and abstract, do you think such a perspective – sensitive to 1) “culture” defined as the ways in which any group or society understands themselves and their situation and to 2) the tensions between tradition and modernity – could make a significant difference in how U.S. foreign policy is formulated and carried out – after Bhutto in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Middle East?

  2. avatar Humad Khan says:

    I have read Prof. John Esposito’s comments under “After Bhutto” with interest. I have to say that at least he has tried to print a balanced piture of Ms. Bhutto.

    As a Pakistani, I do not think that the assassination of Ms. Bhutto is a great loss for Pakistan. As you have pointed out, she failed to achieve any significant improvements in the lives of ordinary Pakistanis. In fact, she has used both of her terms as Prime Minister of this very poor nation for the embezzlement of millions of dollars and has encouraged her husband Asif Zardari to become the cancer for the Pakistani society.

    She may be the darling of the western media and the establishment because she was their puppet and was willing to forego the interests of her nation (Pakistan) to carry out the western agenda.

    The western media may portray her as a champion of democracy, but we all know that she did not practice any democratic norms in her own party. She had no elections in her own party and she declared herself as chairperson for life for her party. Even in her will, she wrote that after her the leadership of the party should remain with her spouse and descendants.

    I sincerely hope that the West will learn from the assassination of Ms. Bhutto. It should respect the will of Muslim countries to choose their own leaders without interference from the West and to not like unelected western puppets such as Pervez Musharraf, Mahmood Abbas or Mubarak.

    Dr. Humad Khan

  3. avatar Wijdan Al-Hashemi says:

    Thank you for one of the most (if not the most) intelligent and reasonable analyses on Benazir Bhutto that was published recently. Prof. Esposito’s profound knowledge of the compexities of Middle Eastern politics makes him a reliable and trustworthy source for all of us.

  4. avatar Salma M. Jafar says:

    Bhutto’s death will have irreparable consequences for Pakistan. Firstly because she was the leader of the people. What the elite of Pakistan had to say over their drinks and cozy drawing rooms was different from what the people of Pakistan had to say about her. She represented the voices of the poor and suppressed segment of the society. Her two governments were marred by conspiracies hatched against her, which she had to fight continuously — we all know that — therefore, allegations that she did little for women are unfounded. She supported Musharraf’s government against all odds for the Women’s Protection Bill. There is a time for everything; a government that lasted for 18 months and another for 24 months could of course not do what a government did after seven years in power, so let’s first be just and practical.

    Having said that, other allegations are also not based on evidence, hence, it is needless to argue over those.

    What needs to be argued is what Pakistan will be after her. Her political assassination to remove her from the political scene has rendered us hopeless as a nation! Indeed BB was a brave, courageous woman; we have no leader to compare with her. Muslim League is not grounded in people, the others are nationalist parties, Imran Khan types are going around asking people not to vote, they don’t even believe in the political process.

    Finally, her death has cast an ugly smear on us as a nation that is barbaric and intolerant of anything that represents modernity or opposition to the mainstream. I mourn the tragic demise of my country’s image too! Pakistan after Bhutto will be a society that won’t have modern face, as BB represented modernity in the true sense of the word. She has been correctly named as Shaheed –e- Jamooriat, i.e., Martyr for Democracy, by independent TV channels. Pakistanis have never faced such grief. We are ashamed for not protecting our daughter; it is culturally also a smear on us. She could have stayed abroad and run her political campaign as does Altaf Hussein, but despite threats to her life she came back to lead the nation and she raised new hopes in us. She inspired the Pakistani men and women, youth and even children (the majority of protestors are youth of Pakistan and even older children); this is significant that Bhutto’s ideology has once again been born. I was a young girl when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, BB’s father, was murdered. I supported his call for ending oppression, he remained my leader after death and then his Daughter gave us the hope no other elader could. So how naïve if anyone thinks BB’s removal from the scene won’t affect Pakistan. There will be the youth of Pakistan who will remember her for her leadership and sacrifice and will take her agenda forward.

    Though truly speaking, right now the PPP has been orphaned. Who will replace her we don’t know, but untill that time PPP will be struggling again and for many years to come. Even if it will come to power through a vote of revenge, without BB’s leadership it will face a lot of difficulties. And these difficulties will be reflected as difficulties for the people of Pakistan and for Pakistan as a country. It’s naïve to say such great leadership’s loss for Pakistan won’t matter because by saying this we are denying history, ZAB’s assassination and the result was extension of the military rule of Zia, a draconian period and irreparable harm to the nation which we are still suffering from, including suffering from his Jihadis.

    Leadership is so important for people, for masses. We as a nation can easily get used to not having one and laspse into nothingness and accept dictatorship as well as militancy. Wasn’t this the case during BB’s exile? So the aftermath of BB’s assassination will be a lifeless nation, hopeless nation, accepting without questioning, and our children won’t have any ideals to be inspired from. Who will they have, Chaudhry’s Musharraf and his cronies, hair transplanted Sharif brothers who relied on BB’s wisdom untill recently to take decisions, senseless Imran?

    The whole point is it will be a country without a leadership, which actually grew through a struggle against oppression. We will be a nation without a vision, without dreams and hopes. And this is worst than all other issues. What a shame we couldn’t protect our sister our daughter. I’m ashamed.

  5. A huge problem Pakistan is having is that they’re so poor over there. So because of that, residents have a lot of trouble making money or getting jobs, which drains the Pakistani government coffers. With that, that makes many people susceptible to terrorists and criminals who prey on these poor folk to do horrible things like kill a beloved leader or cause terrorism. One of the reasons why Musharref was able to stay in power so long was not just that he had military backing but people had no real choice to turn to.

    Then he hooked up with former President Bush and did as he saw fit as long as he did Washington’s bidding. All that would’ve changed if Bhutto had lived and won but the terrorists saw that they could keep Pakistan down if they took her out, which they did sadly.

    I’m hoping that now with Barack Obama as president maybe things will change between the U.S. and Pakistan. Hopefully some good can come out of this horrible tragedy.

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