An interworking of maturity and experience | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 17, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, May 17, 2008

An interworking of maturity and experience

Syed Mahbubur Rashid extols a work by a dead politician

Islam, Democracy and the West
Benazir Bhutto

The book is Benazir Bhutto's posthumous publication. The manuscript was carried by her when she landed in Karachi on 18 October 2007 after a long exile abroad. In her own language, “Within hours of my reaching Pakistan some of the pages of this book would be symbolically charred by fire and splattered with the blood and flesh of dismembered innocents thrown up by devastating terrorist bombs.” She had to reconstruct those chapters in spite of her heavy schedule. She could not see the final publication but left behind a masterpiece on the most contemporary issues, such as the rise of so-called Islamic radicalism and rediscovering the values of tolerance and Islam. The book ends with an epilogue from her family.
The most outstanding feature of this book is that hardly any sermon or prescient remark of the author is to be found in it. She has put forward suggestions, either remedial or preventive, after thoroughly analysing various opinions. The book contains innumerable quotations from the Holy Quran, the Prophet's sayings and various outstanding books on the issues concerned. Regarding the tenets of Islam to be followed, she narrates a very interesting incident. On one occasion, while the Prophet of Islam bowed in prayer, Imam Hossain, his younger grandson, climbed on his back. He did not at once throw him down but allowed sometime for the boy to remain in that position. Does it not give an indication that our religious tenets can be observed with a human touch? And the occasion was Friday prayers.
In the very first chapter, Bhutto asks for self-criticism on the part of Muslims, a very difficult proposition to be followed but invaluable in any move toward reconciliation. She states, “Obviously, and embarrassingly, Muslim leaders and even intellectuals are quite comfortable criticizing outsiders for the harm inflicted on fellow Muslims, but there is deadly silence when they are confronted with Muslim-on-Muslim violence.” She has bitterly criticised the Shia-Sunni violence continuing almost from the beginning of Islam. The basic pillars of faith for both the sects are the same. Even so, why can they not reconcile to each other and live in peace? It is owing to the greed for political power that this issue has been exploited by the greedy and narcissistic political and religious leaders of the two sects. Benazir Bhutto's parents are a classic example of how reconciliation can be effected: her father was a Sunni, while her mother is a Shia Muslim.
Bhutto places the argument that Islam is a progressive religion with tolerance of other faiths. Every revelation of the Holy Quran is to be interpreted against the background and occasion for such revelation. The issue of Jihad, holy war, along with the question of suicidal acts has been dealt with in full in chapter 2. Many quotations from the Quran and Muslim scholars have been mentioned. She has observed that Jihad is not one of the five pillars of Islam. It is not always required. Its need is to be determined in a proper perspective. The relationship between Islam and democracy has been beautifully narrated in chapter 3. The so-called incompatibility of Islam and democratic governance is used to divert attention from the sad history of western political intervention in the Muslim world, which has been a major impediment to the growth of democracy in Islamic nations. She is bitterly critical of the way the United States helped the Afghan Mujahideen through Pakistan's inter-services intelligence. During the course of the war the US helped channel $8 billion and untold billions from the Persian Gulf states and Gulf religious organisations to the Mujahideen. Benazir Bhutto's comment here is more than the truth: “The US policy achieved its short term goals but with horrific long term consequences, not only for Pakistan but for the entire world.” While discussing political issues countrywise, she terms the Egyptian government a non-democratic one which rigs elections and victimises the opposition. Still the West supports Hosni Mubarak. For the West, once again democracy is selectively applied.
Bhutto makes it clear that terrorism thrives on poverty and democracy can ensure economic freedom. She states that history shows democracies do not make war against other democracies. If democracies can be nurtured and sustained in the Islamic world, the possibility of conflict can be reduced. Mere elections cannot ensure democracy.
Regarding the role and position of women in society, Benazir Bhutto does not have any ambiguity in her thoughts. She believes that democracy cannot work properly without the participation of women. She notes: “My parents had taught me that men and women are equal in the eyes of God, that the first convert to Islam was a woman, that the Prophet of Islam married a career woman, that the line of the Prophet was carried through his beloved daughter Fatima, and that on the Day of Judgement all souls would be called in the name of the mother.” The above are the weapons with which women are to fight for their rights against the clerics.
Bhutto elaborately discusses the activities of the two organisations in Pakistan which have not only destroyed the democratic aspirations of the country but also patronised the emergence of thousands of terrorists through militant madrasahs. According to her, the ISI has always worked independently of the government, having links with foreign agencies. While prime minister of Pakistan, she tried to bring the ISI back into mainstream administration but could not succeed. The move backfired. The other organisation is Maudoodi's Jamaat-e-Islami, a body of fundamentalists masquerading as a political party. It believes in a physical elimination of its rivals. General Zia, says Bhutto, gave the Jamaat carte blanche to eliminate progressives and PPP workers. Zia's military predecessor Yahya Khan gave a similar licence to the Jamaat to do away with Bengali intellectuals in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971 and successfully implemented plans drawn to this effect by General Rao Farman Ali. In Pakistan, the Jamaat has not done well in any election. In Bangladesh, it has shared power with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
Individuals are not above committing follies. The same holds true of Benazir Bhutto. Her comments and observations about Bangladesh's war of liberation and Bangabandhu lack objectivity as she remains under the influence of her father's political philosophy. In 1972, she travelled to Simla with Z.A. Bhutto for the latter's summit with Indira Gandhi. This was the conference where Bangladesh was deprived of its right to try the Pakistani war criminals. It must be said, though, that Benazir Bhutto's comment on Bangladesh is apolitical.
The work is highly thought provoking. Benazir Bhutto's deep love for democracy comes through in it. She urges reconciliation between Islam and the West without leaning to any side. The book promises to be invaluable for those who love democracy, who are progressive and secular.
Syed Mahbubur Rashid is a retired EPCS official and columnist.

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