Benazir Bhutto was my classmate at Oxford in the 1970s.

That is not the opening sentence of a feel-good encomium to cosmopolitanism. Nor is it the start of a personal reminiscence or statement of regret, though I am sad. It is a small note of personal connection to the growing political tragedy in Pakistan. What follows is a reflection on that tragedy. It is also a warning to those who would think their personal connections offer adequate bases for understanding an ever more integrated but deeply troubled world and a plea for pursuing necessary knowledge.

Bhutto’s assassination comes just three months after the 60th anniversary of Pakistan’s birth. The partition of what had been British India in August 1947 was in many ways itself a tragedy of epic proportions. Millions were uprooted and hundreds of thousands died. The Congress Party that led India to independence has had its share of problems, not least losing power for a time to Hindu nationalists. The nonviolence of Gandhi has remained a powerful legacy, but it is one too often honored in the breach, not least as India’s great religious communities clash. Just this past week the Bharatiya Janata Party won state elections in Gujarat. This will keep the notorious Narendra Modi in power, the chief minister who looked the other way as his fellow-Hindus killed Muslims by the hundreds or maybe thousands in 2002.

So too in Pakistan it has been hard to realize the founder’s vision. The most important of Pakistan’s founders was Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a lawyer who spent his early career fighting for Muslim-Hindu unity. Despairing of the prospects for peace and security for minority communities, he became in the 1940s a powerful and intransigent advocate for an independent Pakistan. Like Mohandas Gandhi, his internationally better-known comrade in the struggle against British rule, Jinnah was an eloquent British-trained lawyer. He was a charismatic speaker even though he addressed crowds in polished English, not their local languages. Also like Gandhi, Jinnah died before the state he helped to create took full form, leaving many to speculate on what institutions each might have nurtured. Not least, Jinnah had called for a secular government in the Islamic state of Pakistan. Indeed, advocates for a stricter Islamic state later complained that he and the Muslim League had merely used Islam to advance their secular agenda. He was not assassinated, but died in 1948 of the tuberculosis he had struggled to keep secret through the turbulent campaigns of the preceding decade.

And so for sixty years India has been wracked by communal violence and Pakistan has suffered recurrent collapses of democracy and periods of military rule. Benazir Bhutto’s father, once a popular president, was executed by one of the generals. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto tried to combine Islam with two of the great ideologies (and one of the great phrases) of modernity, proclaiming in 1966 that “Islam is our faith, democracy is our policy, socialism is our economy. All power to the people.” Developing a specifically Islamic modernity has been one of the great challenges of the last half century, not just in Pakistan but around the world.

There is a tendency in the West to misunderstand this issue by identifying Islam erroneously with tradition. This reflects the wider tendency to see religion always in retreat against inevitable secularization. But Islam in particular continues to be transformed by modernization. Islamists may resist American imperial power, the sexual mores of Hollywood movies, and European attempts to banish public religion. But this is hardly a rejection of everything modern. Islam has serially embraced taped and amplified muezzins, sermons circulated on cassettes, and the Internet. Islamists have modernized the architecture of mosques, studied engineering and computer science, and founded innumerable schools and universities. And in any case, so-called “Islamists” are not the only Muslims seeking to create a better version of modernity than the one they see around them. Nor, of course, are Muslims the only people who try to improve modernity.

This is not to say there are no advocates of tradition in the Pakistan story. Benazir Bhutto contended with Punjabi landlords claiming tradition as they protected their wealth and rural men claiming tradition as they dominated women. And these advocates for tradition have sometimes been mobilized by those claiming to speak on behalf of Islam. Indeed, Benazir struggled with right-wing Islamic parties that sought to preserve laws allowing discrimination against women. Ironically, given her status as one of the world’s most prominent women leaders, Benazir’s government was dogged by corruption allegations centered on her wealthy husband. But right-wing Islamist parties have no more monopoly on Islam than crooked businessmen have on capitalism.

To make sense of what is going on in Pakistan—or anywhere else in the world—requires more than application of labels like “Islamic” or “secular” or “modern” or even “democratic”. It requires more than casual contacts. This is where social science research and serious analysis become indispensible. For behind the big labels are a variety of issues and historical complexities that challenge every politician and every party—and which outsiders like the US government dismiss at their peril.

Pakistan was more disrupted by partition than India, more radically a new creation with the instabilities that implied. It underwent its own bloody and perhaps predictable civil war as its geographically separate and ethnically distinct eastern and western halves separated and Bangladesh was created in 1971. Poor response to a 1970 cyclone helped to precipitate the conflict. And the massive refugee crisis moved George Harrison and Ravi Shankar to organize the first of the now recurrent large-scale benefit concerts of the rock era. The Concert for Bangladesh reflected the Eastern interests of Western youth as well as the mobilizing power of TV and music. But those interests and that sort of mobilization have proved episodic. Americans and Europeans look at the Indian Subcontinent in general and Pakistan (or Bangladesh) in particular only occasionally. Too often crises provide the occasion.

Pakistan is still recovering from floods and mudslides that occurred at nearly the same time as Hurricane Katrina. There was much greater loss of life in Pakistan, much greater news coverage in New Orleans. Pakistan remains devastatingly poor, but with growing wealthy and middle classes. It is ethnically diverse, urbanizing, rent by deep divisions and held together by only relatively weak institutions. The military is politically significant partly because it is one of the strongest national institutions. But lawyers and judges who took to the streets and hunger strikes to demand that Musharraf honor the constitution revealed that legal institutions are also strong.

Nation-building in Pakistan has always had to contend with disputed borders and problematic neighbors. Tensions with India over Kashmir are longstanding. Perhaps more important but less famous are the problems related to the porous border with Afghanistan. That country, never very unified and always interwoven with northwestern Pakistan by tribe and kinship and trade, became an object of Cold War contention. The Soviet Union invaded in 1979 in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. War in Afghanistan had really already started and has continued ever since. The USSR fought Mujahideen rebels. The US supported the Islamists, famously relying on and arming such leaders as Osama bin Laden. But neither Islam nor political ideologies were ever separate from ethnic and tribal structures or contention over local power. And as the great powers fought over Afghanistan, Pakistan became a staging ground for military and aid operations and an asylum for refugees. Pakistanis also saw business opportunities and more than a little of the new wealth has roots in the conflict.

Seeing the current movie, Charlie Wilson’s War, will make many think they know more about Afghanistan than they do. Entertainment media are not under obligations to historical accuracy but the ways in which they represent history have enduring influence. If most Westerners have any image of Jinnah, for example, they probably got it from David Attenborough’s Gandhi which portrayed Jinnah as a cold and calculating villain seemingly bent on an independent Pakistan out of jealousy and careerism. And a million popular representations continue to frame the West’s image of Islam—most very problematically.

None of which suggests that Islamic zealotry isn’t a problem for the West—or perhaps even more for other Muslims. It is to suggest that neither seeing a movie nor having a chance biographical connection, like a classmate, is an adequate basis for comprehending what is going on in the world.

It is one of the jobs of social science to help people do better. Social scientists do this by filling in historical background and geopolitical connections. By analyzing demographic trends and structures. By reporting on economic development, gender relations, the state of government institutions, the options for education in villages. Emergencies offer a lens through which to see the interaction of many different factors of social life. But we can only make sense of emergencies if there are studies of these various factors on which we can rely.

Just a few weeks ago the SSRC began to mobilize some of the specialists who know Pakistan—and its region and the global issues affecting both—to offer essays on the current crisis. None of these is the last word, for the crisis continues to unfold. They focus on different dimensions of the crisis. But each brings forward necessary knowledge to aid in understanding.

The necessary knowledge needed to understand Pakistan comes in several kinds. It starts, perhaps, with the site-specific knowledge of the country itself, its history, its internal character, struggles over political leadership and cultural authority. It continues with knowledge of broader contexts, as events in Pakistan reflect shifting affairs in South Asia and Central Asia, and indeed the Islamic world. To such encompassing contexts should be added the connections forged by migrants, including Pakistanis in the US, Europe, and the Middle East—where Pakistanis are prominent among guest workers in the Persian Gulf—and of course by Afghans and Arabs in Pakistan. To migrants add students and scholars – recall that I met Benazir in Oxford, though neither of us was English. And add businesspeople, aid workers, journalists and diplomats. But connections are not just made personally by travelers of one kind or another. They are made by countries which often have agendas of their own, as with the US in relation to Pakistan. They are made by trade flows both licit and illicit (and much of Afghanistan’s opium production passes through Pakistan). They are made by diseases, and fighting AIDS is made harder by the fact that some of the opium is used in Pakistan in forms requiring needles.

At one level, to understand Benazir Bhutto’s assassination requires simply knowing who she was and who did it, perhaps asking which groups claimed credit and which condemned it. But this is merely a start. Understanding enough to respond in meaningful ways requires knowledge of the contexts and connections in which this event was embedded. And it requires more general knowledge of patterns and causal relationships in social life—of how markets and militaries and popular mobilizations work. Social scientists have long pursued a silly internal dispute that undermines effective public knowledge. Some have favored breaking social life into its most generalizable elements, abstracting from particular contexts. Others have favored studying contexts and connections, seeing the general mechanisms at work in particular situations. We all suffer when one pursuit is valued at the expense of the other.

And by “all” I mean not only professional social scientists but everyone. For when good social science knowledge is not available to policy-makers and the public, both effective planning and democratic judgment of the policies chosen are undermined. Thus we should all want knowledge pursued in depth and discussed among specialists. But we should also want this knowledge synthesized for effective communication—to a broad public, to students, and to policy-makers.

Benazir Bhutto studied social science but made her career in politics. She was an unusually well-educated politician as well as both a courageous and a flawed leader. And one of the virtues of democracy is that well-informed leaders can help to educate broader publics. This is not to say that they should be believed on all points, but that electoral campaigns and public political participation are educational processes. Citizens learn by getting involved. But while we hope that politicians will make use of knowledge and seek understanding, we cannot and usually do not rely on them to educate us fully about public issues. They call attention to crucial points but they also “spin” them. It is vital in a democracy that there also be sources of knowledge to which politicians can be held to account, and analyses by scholars who may not always manage to be neutral but whose commitments to the truth outweigh expediency. In Pakistan, as elsewhere, no political party has a monopoly on truth. But when parties and leaders allow open debate, they make it easier for the truth to be seen. And better understanding based on necessary knowledge can make it easier for opposing parties to find common ground on some issues.

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto brought one more death to a country—and a world—in which there is too much political violence. It is a personal blow to Benazir’s family and friends. But it is also a blow to democracy and the informed public discourse on which it depends.

[For more on the situation in Pakistan, go to the recently launched SSRC essay forum, Pakistan in Crisis.—ed.]