Kamila Shamsie on the murdered Benazir Bhutto’s posthumous call for democracy and tolerance, Reconciliation
Saturday February 16, 2008
Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West by Benazir Bhutto
336pp, Simon & Schuster, £17.99
There can be few experiences more disquieting than that of reading the opening pages of Benazir Bhutto’s Reconciliation, with its description of her homecoming on October 18 2007 – the jubilation followed by carnage. The details of the suicide attack are horrific enough within their own context, but when read as precursor to the attack that killed Bhutto 10 weeks later they acquire an even more chilling resonance. There is the sense of reading two texts: the first might well have been published during the early months of Bhutto’s premiership, its words a yardstick against which we would measure the effectiveness of her government; the second stands as the final testament of an extraordinary woman whose death added urgency to the already-urgent arguments of the book.
After the first chapter, with its heartstopping description of October 18, we move into a more scholarly tone in which Bhutto defends Islam from those outside who view it as a religion of violence and fear, and from those within who want to cast it in such terms. In a vigorous riposte to both those groups, she discusses verses of the Qur’an that enshrine peace, plurality and the democratic traditions of consensus and debate, as well as making a strong case for verses which forbid the very actions that extremists claim as necessary or justifiable acts of “jihad”. In furtherance of her thesis, she quotes at length a number of Muslim scholars. For those who have spent the better part of the past decade making the same argument, this chapter is a very useful storehouse of ammunition with which to defend the point; for those who believe the opposite to be true, there may be much that is revelatory in her assertions.
But while Bhutto defends Islam itself, she does not waver in the constancy of her message that there is much need for criticism and change in the Muslim world. On several occasions she mentions the speed with which Muslims berate the west for its acts of injustice, yet when it comes to Muslim-on-Muslim violence – in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Darfur – there is silence from the Ummah, the global community of Muslims.
She follows with a chapter devoted to the contested issue of democracy and Islam. With a succinctness that sometimes borders on patchiness but is more often swiftly efficient, she lays out the political histories of a large number of Muslim-majority nations, effectively arguing that the failure of democracies in most of those countries has political rather than religious roots – and in almost all cases, the west (either a colonial European power or the US) has played a shoddy role in undermining democracy and propping up dictators.
Disappointingly, the least convincing chapter is the one entitled “The Case of Pakistan”. Here, too often, the scholar and humanist of earlier chapters gives way to a political campaigner intent on her own family’s hagiography. When it comes to the tenures of the Bhuttos – father and daughter – as prime ministers of Pakistan, she admits no fault. One of the most telling omissions is her refusal to acknowledge that she was prime minister from 1994 to 1996 while the Taliban, with support from Pakistan, were extending their control through Afghanistan. Instead, she only mentions that the Taliban took Kabul right after the fall of her government in 1996 – neatly placing all the blame for Pakistan’s Taliban policy on her successor, Nawaz Sharif.
The bind she’s in is clear: admit her government aided the Taliban and she undercuts the position she’s laid out for herself as an opponent of all forces of obscurantism; on the other hand, admit that even while in power she was not allowed by the ISI-military nexus to have a say in Afghan policy and she opens herself up to the question, “Why should this time be any different?” It is easier to sidestep the matter.
But she returns to firmer ground with the next chapter, which doesn’t merely take on the phrase “clash of civilisations” but beats it to a bloody pulp – again with the aid of a number of Muslim theologians whose presence in the pages doubles as reminder of the many voices of reason and tolerance within the Muslim world. How to strengthen those voices and give them space to be heard is one of her chief concerns – for the real clash, she repeatedly points out, is not of Islam versus the west, but within Islam itself. She has much to say on the subject, but the point that she makes repeatedly and compellingly is that for the moderates to claim victory dictatorships must end and democracy must be given every assistance.
Bhutto lays out her own blueprint for the defeat of extremism by concerted efforts involving both Muslims and the west. Some of those ideas seem unrealistic. In particular, her suggestion that the oil-producing Gulf states “jump-start economic and intellectual development” in the rest of the Muslim world via a Muslim Investment Fund contradicts her own argument that states act in self-interest rather than as part of a pan-national religious community, and also ignores the dismal record of many oil-producing nations in promoting intellectual development within their own borders. She ends the book by acknowledging that her proposals “may seem daunting and even impossible. I make these recommendations because the times demand something more than business as usual . . . It is a time for creativity. It is a time for bold commitment. . . There has been enough pain. It is time for reconciliation.”
It may be tempting to think her death undermines her belief in what was yet possible, but it seems more in keeping with the spirit of Reconciliation to say that there are ways to counter those who use violence to further their ends. We just can’t wait until tomorrow to do it.