Benazir Bhutto’s Populist Legacy
December 30, 2011
I was visiting a dear friend that fateful evening in Islamabad. He had recently returned from Haj, and sharing the blessings of a pilgrim’s holy sojourn is one distinct expression of the rich Islamic creed. I sat in the living room, as my friend prayed. And then I receive the unexpected call from Al-Jazeera: “We are running breaking news from Pakistan…There is suicide bombing on Benazir Bhutto’s convoy in Rawalpindi…Unconfirmed reports suggest she is dead.” Totally stunned, I asked the Al-Jazeera producer to call me again after five minutes so that I could re-confirm the reports from former media colleagues. They responded: the great tragedy had, indeed, occurred.
Like so many people across Pakistan and beyond, it took a while to believe that BB was no more. Back in 1994, she had awarded me with a gold medal for reporting a harrowing instance of woman rights violation in the suburbs of our capital city. As prime minister during her second tenure, Ms Bhutto made sure that the victim, Zainab Noor, received reconstructive surgery of her sensitive parts in the UK. The culprit, her husband Qari Sharif, was later awarded life imprisonment. Zainab’s case became a precedent in terms of the then governmental leadership’s commitment to the protection of human rights in Pakistan. So, the terrorist assassination of Benazir Bhutto was personally quite a disheartening event—and it still is.
An equally demoralizing fact four years down the line is the mystery that continues to shroud surrounding Ms Bhutto’s death. The Scotland Yard completed its investigations and released the report. The United Nations Enquiry Commission completed its investigations and released the report. A couple of individuals have also been arrested and tried for her murder. Yet a host of questions about the circumstances and the manner of her killing remain unanswered. Senior government leaders have time and again promised to lift the veil from the great mystery. At least once in our sordid history, we could or should have been fair enough to do justice with a great dead soul, by revealing the truth behind the tragedy.
The only thing we can do is to commemorate her death anniversary, as tens of thousands of mourner did on Tuesday at her mausoleum in Garhi Khuda Baksh, which also hosts her parents. As I yearly argue on this sad occasion, Benazir Bhutto was not only a popular democratic leader of over 170 million Pakistanis, she was also a source of pride and strength for 1.3 billion Muslims of the world. She was a charismatic woman of world stature in her own right—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. She made a pioneering contribution to initiate a solutions-oriented global debate that has matured overtime. She was an advocate for reconciliation, between Islamic and non-Islamic societies, and outlined how that goal could be achieved.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. No one can fill the leadership vacuum in People’s Party created since her demise. 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.