The first time I met Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, many years ago, I bought a new suit for the occasion. He was Prime Minister of Pakistan at the time and I was representing Berkeley in an attempt to launch a new Urdu language program for American students to be based in Lahore. We needed the government’s approval, and that meant a nod from Bhutto.
Being a young Californian, I was not used to wearing suits, but Bhutto was Bhutto, the very model of urbane sophistication, and I wanted to impress him. Besides, he was a Berkeley graduate himself, and in fact had been proclaimed the University’s “Alumnus of the Year” shortly before my trip. The meeting with Bhutto did not disappoint—he was a charming and intelligent man—and I was glad I bought the suit. I don’t know whether it impressed him, but it was the sort of thing he might have noticed, and, as it turned out, it outlived him.
Later when I met his daughter, Benazir, my first impression was that she was very much her father’s daughter: gracious, articulate, witty. In her case an American undergraduate experience—at Harvard rather than Berkeley—was capped by graduate work at Oxford, again following footsteps established by Zulfikar. She became head of Oxford’s debating society, opposing the Cambridge team, which was also headed by a foreigner, a Greek woman now known by her married name, Ariana Huffington.
Benazir was as cosmopolitan and sophisticated as they come, and it is easy to see why savvy members of the U.S. administration would see her as a useful prop for President Pervez Musharraf’s sagging reputation. Her approval ratings were well over sixty percent; Musharraf’s were in the teens. The Pakistan People’s Party that her father founded and that she continued to lead in exile could provide a democratic base for the odd couple of Musharraf as President and Benazir as Prime Minister in a shared power arrangement.
So when she was killed on Thursday before the New Year, it is understandable that one might wonder whether the fate of secular civility that she represented in Pakistan was also in peril. Like most societies, Pakistan has a range of popular leaders—from urbane statesmen like the Bhuttos and the man often described as the founder of the country, Muhammad Ali Jinnah—to rough tribals in the traditional societies near the Afghan border. It is in these areas that the Taliban has flourished, and, most likely, the places where Osama bin Laden has been able to maintain a secret hiding. It would be easy to conclude that in Benazir’s assassination, these crude, autocratic traditionals had won.
But the situation is not as simple as that. In an interview given last year, Benazir described the political situation in Pakistan as a contest between dictatorship and democracy. By “dictatorship,” she meant the military regime of Pervez Musharraf. But she then went on to say that that many Pakistanis presently see the only democratic option as the political parties of the religious right, and that she wanted to present a secular democratic option. Implicitly she was recognizing the force of religious politics in the democratic politics of the country.
Islamic parties have indeed had a significant following in recent Pakistani elections. Parties such as the Jamaat-i Islami (Islamic Party), Jami’at al’ Ulama-i-Islam (Party of the Community of Islam) and Jami’at al’ Ulama-i-Pakistan (Party of the Community of Pakistan). The supporters of these parties have been an interesting mixture of groups, including tribal traditionalists, the disaffected urban poor, and young urban intellectuals who found in the Islamic parties a voice for their anti-authoritarian responses to what they regarded as the government’s capitulation to Western modernity and the homogenous forces of globalization. These young radical intellectuals were among the leadership of some of the more extreme Islamic political groups, including a virulent coalition in Pakistan’s Punjab region, the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (Islamic Democratic Front), which opposed Benazir Bhutto’s brief rule and was a critical factor in her electoral defeat in 1990. Since then, the Islamization of politics in Pakistan has become a major theme. The Islamic legal code, the shari’a, has been proclaimed the law of the land; secular civil laws have been repealed.
Still, Pakistan is not yet the Islamic country envisioned by its most influential Islamic political theorist, Sayyid Abdul A’la Maududi, usually referred to as Maulana Maududi. Maududi was born in 1903 in what is now the state of Hyderabad in India. He was hardly a country bumpkin—his father was a lawyer and Maududi became a journalist and a political theorist. He became convinced that the very concept of the modern nation-state was a European invention that had no place in Islamic society. For this reason he opposed the creation of Pakistan. Maududi’s thinking has been an important part of the intellectual apparatus of the modern jihadi movement, including the ideas of the Egyptian thinker Sayyid Qutb, and activists such as Ayman al Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden.
Despite Maududi’s opposition to the idea of the Pakistani nation-state, when the country was created he joined it and his party, the Jamaat-i Islamiya, entered the democratic electoral process as a way of building a power base for the advocacy of an Islamic state. Over the years the Jamaat-i Islamiya (the JI) has remained the most influential Islamic party in Pakistan, but it did not remain the only one. Internal power struggles within the JI, compounded with ideological differences, resulted in the rise of many new parties, including the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, founded by radical Muslim students at the University of Karachi in 1978. It drew its support from the mohajir, immigrants from India. It was rumored that the movement was supported initially by Pakistan’s secretive Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) in order to undercut the political support for Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in the state of Sindh. Since its founding the movement has been accused of a number of terrorist incidents, including political assassinations in Sindh in 1992. In 1996 the government’s heavy-handed crackdown on the MQM resulted allegedly in hundreds of deaths. The revived version of the MQM has been more moderate, and in 2005 it captured the Karachi municipal elections.
After September 11, 2001, and the alliance of President Musharraf with the United States-supported war on terror, some Muslim groups, such as the MQM, supported Musharraf’s position on the war on terrorism. Others, including the JI, saw Musharraf’s position as a sell-out to US President George W. Bush. The JI took an uncompromising stand against the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, and enjoyed a revival of its popularity. The JI became the centerpiece in a coalition of Islamic parties aimed against Musharraf and what was regarded as his pro-American policies.
Opposition to Musharraf and what was perceived to be his pro-U.S. stance deepened in 2007 after a bloody confrontation between government security forces and radical Muslim clerics and students at Islamabad’s Red Mosque. The leading cleric at the mosque, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, had openly announced his support of the Taliban and Osama bin Ladin, and many of the students in the schools and seminaries located in the mosque compound came from Taliban-influenced Pashtun tribal areas of Waziristan along the Afghanistan border. Some preachers at the mosque had called for Musharraf’s assassination. After the end of the standoff in July 2007, which resulted in the death of Ghazi and scores of students and militants who were barricaded in the mosque, riots broke out throughout Pakistan. A series of suicide bombings were aimed at government installations and Shi’a religious sites. Some of the most deadly attacks were on Shi’a mosques and festivals in the Pashtun areas near the Afghanistan border.
The leaders of many of these Islamic movements have been urbane and sophisticated politicians. Even some of the most extreme are articulate and impressive defenders of what they regard as anti-Western but democratic movements. Videotapes of interviews with Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the slain clerical leader of Islamabad’s Red Mosque, show him to be conversant in sophisticated English. Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, one of the leading figures in the killing of Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, had been a student at the London School of Economics where—according to President Musharraf in his book, In the Line of Fire—he was recruited into the British intelligence agency to infiltrate jihadi organizations. At some time after that, Musharraf speculates, he presumably affiliated with the jihadi movements himself and acted as a double agent. But there was no question that he was a sophisticated, smart guy.
The modern, democratic nature of many of these Islamic opposition movements in Pakistan complicates our picture of the political situation there. It also clouds the images on the crystal ball as to what will happen next. It is easy to see why many of these religious politicians would dislike Benazir—a secular,Western-oriented, Shi’ite, powerful woman—but it is not clear what alternative they would accept in her place. It may be that the dictator, Musharraf, despite his incredibly low popularity ratings and being distrusted by both the radical religious right and the urban secular middle class, has had a better sense of how to deal with the Islamic radicals—playing a sort of role similar to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in first placating the Muslim political groups, then cracking down on them. It is a strategy, however, that only postpones a confrontation or an attempt at a more genuine synthesis between two forms of modernity, one of them religious and one of them secular.
Benazir may have understood this issue, and have acknowledged that many of the Islamic movements in her country were genuinely presenting a democratic voice for a non-Western non-secular form of modernity for Pakistan’s future. But her final moments—standing up in an open sunroof of her bullet-proof van—showed that she dangerously underestimated the unpredictability of their power.