Bhutto and the Future of Islam

RECONCILIATION: Islam, Democracy, and the West
By Benazir Bhutto. 328 pp. New York: Harper/Harper Collins. $27.95

Picture the moment. It is Dec. 2, 1988. A beautiful woman, 35 years old, walks into the presidential palace in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, flanked by liveried and turbaned honor guards. She is wearing a green silk tunic and a white gauzy shawl that barely covers her hair. She speaks flawless Urdu and English, her English perfected as an undergraduate at Radcliffe and then as a student at Oxford, where she was president of the Oxford Union. She is intelligent, erudite and intensely charismatic. And she is about to take the oath of office to become the first woman in history to lead a modern Muslim country.

The idea of Benazir Bhutto has always been more powerful than the reality. Bhutto, who was assassinated last December while campaigning in Rawalpindi, seemed to many of her admirers in the West to be the consummate liberal. But she was also the descendant of one of the oldest and most thoroughly feudal families in the Sind province. The size of her family's landholdings had stunned the British general Charles Napier, who conquered the province for Queen Victoria in 1843. She inherited the leadership of the Pakistan People's Party from her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's first elected prime minister, and ran it like a personal fiefdom. She was president-for-life, allowed no internal party elections and in her will bequeathed her party to her 19-year-old son, Bilawal, who has spent most of his life outside Pakistan.

Benazir Bhutto spent only 20 months as prime minister the first time she was elected. Pakistan's president dismissed her government over charges of dysfunction and corruption. She had few legislative accomplishments during those years, and her second term in office, from 1993 to 1996, was also largely unsuccessful. There are explanations for her lack of achievement—the military establishment gave her little room and maneuvered against her constantly—but still one cannot help but notice the gap between ambition and action that haunted Bhutto for most of her public life.

With the publication of "Reconciliation," Bhutto has—alas, posthumously—closed that gap. Written while she was preparing to re-enter political life, it is a book of enormous intelligence, courage and clarity. It contains the best-written and most persuasive modern interpretation of Islam I have read. Part of what makes it compelling, of course, is the identity of its author. People have often asked when respected Muslim leaders would denounce Islamic extremism and articulate a forward-looking and tolerant view of their religion. Well, Bhutto has done it in full measure. And as the most popular political figure in the world of Islam—for three decades she led the largest political party in the second largest Muslim country—she had much greater standing than the collection of reactionary mullahs, second-rate academics and unelected monarchs who opine on these topics routinely, and are accorded far too much attention in the West. In fact, Washington should arrange to have the portions of the book about Islam republished as a separate volume and translated into several languages. It would do more to win the battle of ideas within Islam than anything an American president could ever say.

In praising "Reconciliation," I am really recommending its largest part, which concerns the future of Islam. There is a second section, about Pakistan and Benazir Bhutto, which takes up about a fifth of the whole. Some of it is fascinating—one cannot help being riveted by the book's opening pages, in which she recounts arriving in Pakistan on Oct. 18, 2007, to tumultuous crowds and then being hit by a bomb blast, the first terrorist attack on her (the second would prove fatal). But beyond that, the sections on Pakistan are a mixture of potted history and justifications of her reign and that of her father. There is little introspection and much spin. For example, she implies that she was always opposed to the Taliban during her term in office and points out that it took over Kabul as her government was about to be dismissed. But the final takeover, in 1996, came after several years of battle during which Pakistan supported the movement—under Bhutto's second prime ministership. It is quite possible that she was not in charge of these matters—the military ran most of the foreign and defense policy during her years—but she chooses not to admit that either.

So these pages are neither fresh nor frank. In their lack of candor, these sections resemble the memoirs of most politicians. But never mind. The other, larger part of the book is stirring and important—and takes up most of the first three chapters. If the reader loses interest by the time he gets to Pakistan, that's just fine.

Bhutto begins the book by saying frankly and unhesitatingly that the Muslim world has many problems and that it has refused to look at them with much honesty. "It is so much easier to blame others,' she writes, 'than to accept responsibility ourselves." She takes on issues that most Muslim leaders have preferred to ignore or avoid, like the sectarian war within Islam. "One billion Muslims around the world seemed united in their outrage at the war in Iraq ... but there is deadly silence when they are confronted with Muslim-on-Muslim violence. ... Even regarding Darfur, where there is an actual genocide being committed against a Muslim population, there has been a remarkable absence of protests."

Bhutto addresses the most backward-seeming traditions in the Muslim world with a knowledge of both theology and history. She points out, for instance, that in many Muslim countries it is assumed that the Koran requires that women be wrapped head to foot in chadors. Actually, the key passage in the holy book merely states: "Say to the believing men that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts; that is purer for them. ... And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty." "The passage does call for modest dress," Bhutto concludes, "but for both sexes." It's a clever and progressive reading that achieves an equality between the sexes without denying the divinity of the text. It is a far more effective way to win over a religious community than to denounce the religion as sexist or backward.

Bhutto asks that Muslim societies learn to tolerate differences in faith. "It is my firm belief that until Muslims revert to the traditional interpretation of Islam—in which 'you shall have your religion, and I shall have mine' is respected and adhered to—the factional strife within Muslim countries will continue. ... Those who teach the killing of adherents of other sects or religions are damaging Muslim societies as well as threatening non-Muslim societies." Here again, Bhutto combines theological and practical smarts. She links the need for Sunni-Shiite harmony with the broader need for respect for other religions.

Considering that this book was written while Bhutto was hoping to return to office, perhaps its boldest sections are its accounts of other Muslim countries and their practices. She does not accept some of the conventional wisdom about the roots of Islamic terrorism. She discusses the Palestinian cause and acknowledges its importance but does not claim that it is the source of all Muslim ill will toward the West. She is unsparing in her description of Wahhabi Islam and its home, Saudi Arabia. She recounts the history of Wahhabism, with its repeated destruction of the mosques, monuments and lives of other Sunni sects, as well as its war on Shiites. Given that Saudi Arabia has been a generous patron to Pakistan, it is striking that Bhutto was willing to write things that would surely have caused her difficulty had she become prime minister.

Throughout, Bhutto is responding to the argument of Samuel P. Huntington's Foreign Affairs essay "The Clash of Civilizations?" that the Islamic and Western worlds are unalterably opposed to each other. She is extremely attentive to Huntington, marshals evidence against him and cites almost all the best critiques. In fact she has devoted her book in large part to dissuading Muslims from seeing the world as one in which a clash of civilizations is necessary or inevitable.

Bhutto is a child of both East and West, and it shows. She is imbued with rationalism, tolerance, progressivism. But she also writes persuasively about Iran, Algeria and, of course, Pakistan, from a non-Western point of view, accurately describing the corrosive role of the West in many of these countries and arguing that the pervasive interference, often to support unpopular dictatorships, has left bitter memories in these lands. Her discussion of Pakistan, however, is almost obsessive in its insistence that United States policy has been responsible for propping up dictatorship and undermining democracy there. While there is certainly some truth to these claims, it is worth bearing in mind that Pakistan has developed poorly along many dimensions—social, economic and political—from its birth, and that it usually lapsed into dictatorship without much prodding from Washington. General Pervez Musharraf's coup, for example, was neither engineered nor approved of by the Clinton administration. If Muslims must accept that they are the authors of their own fate and stop blaming outsiders, is it not fair to ask that of Pakistan's leaders, military and civilian?

On the most pressing issue at hand, the rise of terrorism in Pakistan, Bhutto is sure that it is a consequence of the country's military dictatorship. Democracy, she writes over and over again, will rescue Pakistan from its dangerous path. This is, of course, the argument that George W. Bush has often made to explain his support for democracy in the Muslim world. It is a matter of extreme irony—to say the least—that in the most important real-world application of the Bush doctrine, the president ignores his own words, siding with a military dictator rather than with the elected democrat.

Actually, life is more complex than Bhutto's or Bush's rhetoric. Pakistan's terrorism problem is not simply related to its lack of democracy. It has to do as well with recent history: the Afghan war against Soviet occupation, the American use of Pakistan as a conduit for arms to the Afghan insurgents, Pakistan's decision to train jihadis to destabilize both Afghanistan and India, and the broader rise of militant Islam throughout the Muslim world. It also has to do with Pakistan's more fundamental challenge of being, since inception, an Islamic state, and thus vulnerable to religious radicalism.

In any event, over the next few years, Bhutto's theory may well be given a chance to work. The new democratic government in Pakistan might endure and will then have to tackle its country's terrorism problem. One can only hope, for the sake of Pakistan, Islam and the world at large, that it succeeds, and that Benazir Bhutto will be vindicated in death in a way she was not in life.

By Fareed Zakaria

Fareed Zakaria is the editor of Newsweek International. His new book, "The Post-American World," will be published next month.

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