Encountering Benazir Bhutto

Lahore, Pakistan.

I was a twenty-two year old graduate student in Boston when in 1980, a year after her father, the charismatic populist former prime minister of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had been hung by military dictator Zia ul Haque, Ms Bhutto arrived at Radcliffe, her former alma mater, to deliver a speech on Women and Islam as part of the annual Kenneth Galbraith Lecture Series. Like so many other Pakistani students who were studying at area institutions at the time, I arrived starry-eyed to hear her deliver her speech and to see up-close and personal a woman who, in her year in self-imposed exile from Pakistan since her father’s execution, had been slowly building a case for herself as the legitimate future ruler of Pakistan, a force for democracy in our benighted nation.

I recall being disappointed by her lectureone in which she claimed that Islam and women’s rights were not only not incompatible, but that as a woman who had risen to political heights of leadership herself, she could say that Islam proved no barrier for women as national and international leaders-a stance which at the time, given the backlash against women so visible in Khomeini’s recently post-Islamic revolution Iran, seemed highly dubious in the contemporary manifestations of Islamism in the world. Her personal charisma, however-enhanced by her somewhat disheveled or at least highly unfashionable appearance-shalwar worn high above the ankles, no make-up, none of the sophisticated sartorial gestures so much on display in the carefully coifed appearance of women of her elite class, added to the allure of a woman bent upon presenting herself to her largely academic audience of expatriate Pakistani students as the one to whom, above all others, we owed our allegiance as the rightful political heir to her father’s brand of populist socialism, the next truly democratic leader of a post-dictatorship Pakistan. And an intellectual to boot.

So the latter gesture rang hollow. But since most of us were more interested in her leadership credentials, we hung around after the formal lecture was over, to ask her questions in the more intimate, less formal structure of a post-lecture setting with its requisite wine and cheese, the “Islamic” title of the talk notwithstanding! I remember vividly the sycophants of her inner circle surrounding her as she sat at a table, gushing all over her, acting as a protective shield against possibly hostile outsiders. I also remember almost as if it were yesterday, the astonishment I felt at her own hostile response to what I thought then, and still do today, my fair and rather innocuous question: what was her election platform or manifesto by which one could gauge the sincerity and depth of her commitment to a truly democratic agenda? Oh boy. Wrong question. I thought she was about to have an epileptic seizure by the way her eyes glazed over, then started to turn bloodshot, and the foam began forming at the corners of her bright red lips (the only concession to “feminine fashion” she had made). She virtually spat out her answer, anger and arrogance on display in every word she uttered. “Do you know who I am?” incredulity at my naivete hissing through her words. “Cassettes of my speeches sell like hotcakes in every market in Pakistan,” and when my expression must have betrayed some level of incomprehension, she lashed out,” that means the people of Pakistan love me, they know how I have suffered for them when I was jailed following my father’s execution, just because as his daughter and the one groomed to be a future leader of Pakistan, the army just could not take the chance of my being free to assume that mantle.” Her final comment to me-which led to a young man standing next to me pulling me away and advising me to leave before things got really ugly-was something to the effect that she would “see me outside.” Was that a veiled threat, in the manner of a feudal lord to a servant who has spoken out of line, or an invitation to speak to her “outside” after the evening was over?

Today, the day after her assassination by a suicide bomber, as I sat in my mother’s home in Lahore, stunned like all other Pakistanis at the enormity of what had just happened in the country of my birth, I had reason to recall that one and only face-to-face meeting I had had with her before the first time she became an elected Prime Minister-the first ever and youngest female Muslim Head of State. I felt then-and do today, 25 years later-that Benazir was a product of her environment, a daughter to a feudal scion-but, and this was a position I had matured into over the intervening years-she was, despite that background, and inspite of all of the corruption charges against her and her husband, all probably true, though never proved in a court of law to this day-a personally brave woman, and the only one in our times of raging religious extremism and general political apathy of much of the chattering classes in the face of the entrenched military hegemony of the Musharraf regime in Pakistan over the past decade–to take a public political stance against both these dreadfully regressive aspects of the Pakistani state and society today. She also-like her father before her, and in line with the PPP manifesto-pointed unerringly to the class divide as the fundamental problem besetting Pakistani society, without addressing which, the politics of religious extremism will continue to hold sway over much of the disenfranchised electorate.

“The extremists need a dictatorship, and dictatorship needs extremists,” she stated to Sky News TV shortly after Musharraf declared Emergency Rule in Pakistan on Nov 3rd, a few weeks after her own arrival in Pakistan to contest military rule and participate in promised elections after having been in political exile for many years in London and Dubai, following the ouster of her government by Nawaz Sharif first in 1990 and then again 1996 both on the basis of massive corruption charges against her and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari. Even though her party, the Pakistan People’s Party, secured the highest number of votes and secured 80 percent of the seats in the National Assembly in the 2002 Oct general elections, military strongman Pervez Musharraf’s government amended Pakistan’s constitution to ban prime ministers from serving more than two terms in office effectively banning Bhutto-and Nawaz Sharif-from ever holding that office again (The News, Dec 28th, Section iv: Benazir Special). Under pressure from the US following the downward spiral in his popularity in the face of a deepening economic and political malaise in Pakistan since early this year-sparked off by the judicial crisis manhandled by Musharraf and the out-of-control behavior of Islamist extremist groups creating havoc in the country through the increase in suicide bombings and the state-within-a-state created by the Red Mosque militants with ties to Al Qaeda which also spiraled out of control and led to a showdown that cost hundreds of lives during a sensational showdown between the militants and the army on July 2007-America once again intervened in the political situation of Pakistan and insisted that Musharraf lift the Emergency rule he had imposed on the country on Nov 3rd and hold free and fair elections allowing Benazir and Nawaz Sharif to return from political exile to participate as leaders of their respective political parties, thus paving the way for a return to democratic rule.

Many Pakistanis felt then-and still do-that Benazir’s return was engineered by the US as a counter to what the US government now feared could backfire badly in their face-their over-reliance and overt backing of a military regime growing increasingly unpopular among the citizenry and leading to political unrest in this highly strategic and volatile part of the world. They had backed Musharraf’s illegitimate regime because he had portrayed himself as the face of an “Enlightened Moderation” philosophy-an Islam that could prove a counterweight to the extremism of the Taliban/Al Qaeda type running rampant in the tribal areas of NWFP and Baluchistan (and also ofcourse because he was their ally in the “war against Terror”). What became really frightening to the West, however-and to most Pakistanis as well over this past year-was that the extremist groups and their violent tactics of female beheadings, burning of CD and Video shops, suicide bombings, and so on had begun, in the past year, to encroach upon those areas of Pakistan which had previously seemed impregnable to this sort of madness, including the major modern urban cities like Karachi and more recently Islamabad, the capital.

Enter Benazir, the still charismatic face of the PPP, even with her maligned feudalistic behavior toward those in her party leadership she had much to fear from due to their increasing popularity among the rank and file, such as Aitzaz Ehsan, who recently distanced himself from the party and its policy of granting “lifetime chairmanship” to Benazir-understood by many in her own party like Aitzaz and by many politically active civil society and student groups to be an obstacle to genuine democracy in Pakistan. Yet-and this is the point I wish to underscore most strongly in this essay-one that I have been arguing vehemently for all day today in countless heated conversations with family and friends and other concerned citizens of the Pakistani polity-Benazir did what no one else in the Pakistani leadership has had the guts to do. She openly condemned Islamist extremism-and despite her earlier backing of the Taliban regime in 1996-now took an unequivocal stand against the Taliban and condemned terrorist acts committed by the Taliban and their supporters. She repeatedly stated both prior to and after her return to Pakistan in October that she and her party, if elected, would take a bold stance against these terrorist groups operating with seeming impunity most recently in the Swat area of Pakistan and encroaching upon the citizens’ civil and human rights to live their lives in peace and without threat of coercion to their own brand of a regressive Islamic code focused most particularly on curtailing the rights of women to education and freedom of movement and dress, as well as the civil liberties of religious minorities including Shiite Muslims and Christians.

This anti-Islamist stance cost her her life, as a suicide bomber finally succeeded in his mission to destroy what his ilk perceived as a woman preaching the secularist hedonism of the West, in cahoots with a Zionist and capitalist Imperialist plot to destroy the Muslim world-the dar-ul-Islam. Quoting Alfred Stepan and Aqil Shah, in “Pakistan’s Real Bulwark,” (Washington Post, 5 May 2004, A29), the well-known Islamic scholar Vali Nasr claims, “Finally, it is Muslim Democracy-and not the creaky and brittle authoritarianisms by which the Muslim world is so beset-that offers the whole world its best hope for an effective bulwark against radical and violent Islamism.” 1 While Nasr may be correct in blasting the “brittle authoritarianisms” under which so much of the Muslim world continues to suffer-particularly Pakistan which has rarely been free of such authoritarian, undemocratic rule in its 60-year history as a nation-state-he is quite misguided, I think, in his belief that what he is calling ” Muslim Democracy” is going to provide a solution to the problems that beset the Muslim world today-if not the world in general. Nasr’s contention that “Muslim Democracy offers the Muslim world the promise of moderation. As Islamists find themselves facing-or caught up in-the Muslim Democratic dynamic, they will find themselves increasingly facing the hard choice of changing or suffering marginalization,” has proved exactly the opposite as far as Pakistan is concerned. In trying to prove that the Pakistan Muslim League Party headed by Nawaz Sharif in the 1990s made a virtue of pragmatism in dealing with the threat of Islamist parties and their extremist agendas, by following and promoting a “moderate Islamic” agenda that would not alienate the Muslim vote bank (as opposed to a non-Muslim one-in a Muslim country???)-Nasr states that, “Between 1993 and 1999, the PML continued to push a mixture of business-friendly economic policies and nationalist-cum-Islamic appeals. Infrastructure development and globalization went hand-in-hand with a nuclear-weapons program, confrontations with India, and rhetorical support for Islamic legislation. Balancing the demands of the various constituencies at which these postures were severally aimed was the PML’s challenge. Business interests supported peace with India, for instance, while nationalists and Islamists wanted a tougher stance.

As the 1990s wore on, such tensions began to undermine the PML’s appeal to its Muslim-minded voter base and gave the military angles to play against the party in advance of the 1999 coup.” Here, Nasr seems to be saying that ultimately, the PML could not, in fact, balance its various constituencies and hence did not succeed in keeping its “Muslim-minded” voter base happy, despite its “rhetorical support for Islamic legislation.” Yet, in the very next paragraph of his essay, Nasr wants to make a case for the PML’s success in mobilizing what he calls, “a rough and ready version of Muslim democracy”-which worried the generals enough to make them engineer a coup against Sharif’s elected government. He writes, “there followed Musharraf’s 1999 coup against Sharif and the systematic dismantling, under military tutelage, of the PML.

When Musharraf allowed controlled elections to be held in 2002, Islamists did spectacularly well, rebounding all the way up to a best-ever 20 percent vote share. While Musharraf, especially since 9/11, has postured as Pakistan’s sole bulwark against radical Islamist rule, a more accurate statement of the facts would say that the military did full-bore Islamism a huge favor by yanking the PML from power and stopping the country’s uncertain yet real progress toward Muslim Democracy.”

These are bizarre claims indeed, and miss the obvious fact that neither Nawaz Sharif’s pandering, rhetorical or otherwise, “pragmatic” or not, to the Islamists, nor the military’s so-called philosophy of “Enlightened Moderation” which was remarkably similar to Sharif’s policy of pragmatic accomodationism to the “Muslim-minded voter bank,” have succeeded in reducing the threat of extremism in Pakistan. During her double-stint as Prime Minister of Pakistan, even Benazir and the PPP could not push through their election promises of repealing the Zina Ordinance promulgated against women’s fundamental human rights by the late Islamist dictator Zia ul Haque, due to immense pressure from the Opposition which was dominated by the presence of the Islamists and their political allies. And so, to claim that something called “Muslim Democracy” is the way forward out of the mess created by these extremist Islamist groups in Muslim countries is nothing short of assuming an ostrich-like posture in the face of the clear and present danger of fanaticism, no matter what its economic and political root causes may be. Yes, we must address the fundamental issue of economic disparity between the haves and have-nots which has spread like a cancer in the body politic of Pakistan over its 60 year history, and which surely has ots roots in the new imperialism of globalization-from-above–but we cannot, must not, acquiesce to Islamism, moderate or otherwise, as any sort of cure or even explanation for the “anger of the masses” which exhibits itself through these reprehensible violent acts.

Thus, despite whatever one may have thought of Benazir and her politically marred leadership stints in the short history of Pakistan-she did stand up toward the end of her life in clear , unequivocal defiance of the politics of pragmatism so admiringly espoused by Vali Nasr and other Muslim moderates wishing to rescue something out of the quagmire of radical political Islam. Hers is a choice I admire-without endorsing her shortcomings as a leader–and it is a choice all thinking Muslims should pay close attention to: one that articulates a resounding “NO” to the encroachment of religion in the business of state and governance. Despite the clear threat to her life by Islamist groups and those who would use them to secure their own political interests and power, Benazir told Time magazine last month, “I am ready to die for my country.”

Let us hope her death is not in vain.

Dr. FAWZIA AFZAL-KHAN is Professor of English at Montclair State University, New Jersey. She is currently on sabbatical in Pakistan, lecturing at Forman Christian College, working on a research project on a cultural gendered history of Pakistan via the iconic figure of the late great female singer Madame Noor Jehan, singing revolutionary songs and protesting against the Musharraf regime alongside student and civil society groups demanding a restoration of the judiciary and of the pre-Nov 3rd constitution. She can be reached at fak0912@yahoo.com


1 Nasr, Vali. “The Rise of Muslim Democracy.” Journal of Democracy. Vol. 16, no. 2, April 26, 2005. pp 13-27.



Fawzia Afzal-Khan is University Distinguished Scholar at Montclair State University in NJ. Her latest book is Siren Song:Understanding Pakistan Though it’s Women Singers. She can be reached at:  fak0912@yahoo.com