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A thinker on the world stage

A thinker on the world stage
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First Published: Fri, Feb 29 2008. 12 57 AM IST

In memoriam: (left) Bhutto addresses Lahore in 1986; son Bilawal and daughter Asifa by her grave in December 2007.
In memoriam: (left) Bhutto addresses Lahore in 1986; son Bilawal and daughter Asifa by her grave in December 2007.
Updated: Fri, Feb 29 2008. 12 57 AM IST
Benazir Bhutto’s book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West begins with the account of an assassination attempt — the one that greeted her return to Pakistan on 18 October 2007 after eight years in exile — and, in a way, it also ends with an attempt at assassination, for every reader will close this book and reflect upon its meanings thinking of the second attack that took her life on 27 December, weeks before Pakistan went to elections.
In memoriam: (left) Bhutto addresses Lahore in 1986; son Bilawal and daughter Asifa by her grave in December 2007.
It was the promise of those elections that prompted Bhutto’s return from exile as the self-proclaimed champion of Pakistani democracy. And, indeed, the bulk of her book is a relentlessly high-minded defence of democracy as the way forward for the Islamic world, and of the compatibility of Islam with the democratic way of life. Readers stimulated by the gunshots, intrigue and rhetoric of the early passages (in contrast to her own famous crowd-pulling powers, Pervez Musharraf’s party “couldn’t gather a hundred people voluntarily at a rally even at lunchtime”) will be disappointed to find Bhutto’s narrative falling away to a more abstract level.
Reconciliation gives us Benazir Bhutto, the thinker, on the world stage, applying her mind to the clash between the West and Islam, and to the internal conflict between liberal and fundamentalist Islam. One chapter is devoted to a country-by-country analysis of developing nations in the Islamic world and Western — particularly, American — skulduggery in their internal affairs. Another takes up the task of refutation, somewhat belatedly, of Samuel Huntington’s theory of the clash of civilizations.
Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West: Simon & Schuster, 382 pages, Rs795
Perhaps this is just as well, for the one chapter in Reconciliationdevoted explicitly to Pakistani history and politics is a mass of partisan opinion and selective memory. It parcels out the responsibility for all the crises in Pakistan’s recent history between Zia-ul-Haq, a series of other generals, culminating with Pervez Musharraf, and her opponent in electoral politics, Nawaz Sharif, even as Benazir and her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, are presented as democratic modernizers hemmed in on all sides by hostile parties. When compared with these facile and self-serving passages, Bhutto’s thoughts on religion, politics and social justice—while probably aided by a team of researchers—demonstrate a combativeness and intellectual heft that to a great extent redeem her book.
A combination of factors — Bhutto’s own position as the first Muslim woman to head a state and her struggles against a patriarchal establishment; the Islamic world’s poor record on economic development, education and gender rights; and the widespread perceptual connect in the West and around the world after 9/11 between terrorism and Islam—inform Bhutto’s highly engaged attempt to interpret and rehabilitate the Quran as a document whose essential principles are far more liberal and flexible than is conventionally accepted.
In this, her work is dramatically at odds with—in some ways, it is an explicit response to — Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, which argued that the Quran was a text irredeemably rooted in a seventh-century tribal mindset and served as a tool for the suffocation of free thought and gender rights. For Bhutto, many of the backward-looking practices found across Islamic societies have no sanction in the Quran which, as a vision of social, political and gender relations, was well ahead of its time. Further, though rooted in a certain world view as with other religious texts such as the Old Testament and the New Testament, the Quran is not a collection of obscurantist laws and injunctions set in stone as many literal-minded followers would have us believe. Rather, the prophet himself stressed the power of reason and the search for knowledge, and an idea that is often ignored in discussions of the Quran is that of ijtihad, or interpretation of the text based on reason. “All Muslims are guaranteed the right to interpret the Quran,” writes Bhutto. “Thus, even the approach to interpretation of the Quran is embedded with democratic values.” Bhutto does persuasively claim that right in Reconciliation.
She scoffs at the idea that democracy cannot take root in the Islamic world, arguing that “the principles of equality, justice and law, which are the underlying foundations of democracy, are repeatedly stressed in the Quran”, as are the principles of “consultation and consensus among the people”. The abiding virtue of her text is that it brings together the ideas of a widely scattered group of Islamic scholars—Abdolkarim Soroush, Nurcholish Madjid, Abdulaziz Sachedina, Muhammad Iqbal—who are engaged in a liberal and progressive reading of Islamic scripture. It is to be hoped that these arguments will now be widely disseminated.
So Islam is clearly more compatible with democracy than is commonly thought. But the question that may be more provocatively asked of Reconciliation is whether the word “Bhutto” is as compatible with democracy as the owner of that name believed. As the emergence of Bhutto’s will entrusting the chairmanship of the Pakistan People’s Party to her teenaged son Bilawal showed, if Bhutto was a democrat, she was a strangely feudal one. Among her legacies to Pakistani politics is the idea of politics as a family business passed on from generation to generation, which is the very antithesis of democracy.
It is hard to reconcile the principled, articulate and feisty thinker on these pages with the charismatic but deeply flawed and capricious politician now no longer in our midst.
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First Published: Fri, Feb 29 2008. 12 57 AM IST