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Benazir could have made a difference

Ashfaq Hussain Shah

“It is one thing to show a man that he is in error, and another to put him in possession of truth” – John Locke (1632-1704).

Truth has it own bitterness that makes it difficult to swallow. Nevertheless, bestowing truth on someone as a gift needs to be appreciated. In her forthcoming book, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West, Benazir Bhutto wrote that Islam was being interpreted in a way that “rejects pluralism and modernity”, thereby the clash of civilisations became a possibility. She did not leave the reader guessing a solution, rather she suggested one: an “enlightened renaissance” both in the Muslim community and in the relationship between Islam and the world.

Benazir’s thesis is that there is a glaring difference between Islam as a religion and the way it is being interpreted. Amongst Muslims, there is a group that is bent on causing an explosion between the values of the West and what they claim to be the values of Islam. In a way Islam has been hijacked by a group of people who are no doubt active and vocal, but in essence they do not represent the Muslim world. The self-acclaimed status of those saviours of Islam is causing more harm to the cause of Islam than yielding any fruit. The main virtue of Islam, a religion of peace, has been overwhelmed by extremism. That evil is so self-destructive that in the past eight years thousands of Muslims have died in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan at the hands of fellow Muslims. So, if Islam cannot instil peace in the Muslim community despite the ethnic, sectarian and political differences, how can this great religion guarantee peace in the world after encompassing its diversity? Ostensibly, the truth is that the problem is not with Islam, but the people who are interpreting Islam and its values in their own ways. Nevertheless, Muslims cannot exonerate themselves because they as a community are silent and inactive to edge out those who have hijacked this religion. Hence, there is a need for introduction of an internal reform process within the Muslim community, besides instigating a fresh reconciliation bid with the West.

Benazir firmly believed that Islam was not averse to democratic values, instead it was a proponent of them. Islam advocates equality and fairplay. She pleaded that in order to let the West comprehend the unadulterated message of Islam, interaction between the Muslim community with the West at different levels was required. For that Benazir assigned to herself a role of reconciliationist between Islam and the West to avert any clash between them. Her vision to abridge the gap was not only reliance on one instrument called dialogue, but also on doing trade and importing technology. The rationale was to build bonds and trust of mutual respect with the West. Benazir was of the view that the West was being misunderstood by the Muslim community, so instead of isolation more and diverse interaction at social, political, technological, and intellectual levels could act to avoid misunderstanding.

Benazir wrote that not force but political engagement could counter extremism in Pakistan. She advocated that undemocratic and unrepresentative governments by or at the behest of military dictators let extremists spawn under their umbrellas. Moreover, the state’s oppression added fuel to the fire. According to her, in a true people’s representative government, either discontent was not arisen or it was mild to readjust priorities as per local needs. The legacy of General Ziaul Haq is the ‘Muhajir-Sindhi’ divide in Karachi, as well as sectarian conflict ravaging the fabric of unity of society.

Benazir wrote that when the October 18 Karachi bomb blast took place near her truck, she was conveying her intentions to Naheed Khan to file a writ petition in the Supreme Court to allow the political parties to organise themselves in the tribal areas. She thought that political engagement of the tribal people could allow them to give vent to their pent up feelings. Further, by engaging them politically any help in the war on terror could be sought. Failure to do so had brought Pakistan on the verge of disintegration, consequently, Pakistan was a tinder box that could catch fire quickly, she wrote.

Benazir squarely singled out illiteracy as a reason for ills ubiquitous in Pakistan and the Muslim community. For Pakistan, she considered that expenditures in the military field were paid at the cost of the education of the common people. Illiteracy was keeping Pakistan behind India economically. She expounded that Pakistan was suffering from imbalance in its priorities – whether it was a choice between democracy and military dictatorship or it was between education and extremism. In each case, the end sufferers were the people of Pakistan, she elaborated.

Benazir wrote: “The [Karachi] carnage that accompanied the joyous celebration of my return was a horrific metaphor for the crisis that lies before us.” Benazir did not succumb to the fear of death. She had inherited not only leadership abilities of her great father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, but also his virtue to be fearless in the face of death. Benazir braved death indeed.

The world would certainly miss a leader who was about to attenuate the clash of civilisations. She had a vision to make the difference against all odds. But, as Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918) said, “Death is nothing at all, it does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room,” Benazir’s scent would be smelt through her message to the Pakistanis and the Muslim community, which is: practice democracy, seek education, and understand the West and be understood, if they want to be honoured. By so writing, Benazir not only identified errors, but also put Muslims in possession of a significant truth.

The writer is a worker of PPP. By profession he is a chartered accountant practising in Glasgow 

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