Ali Eteraz

The Assassination of Benazir Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto, a two time former Prime Minister of Pakistan, and one of the leading voices of democratization, was assassinated in a suicide bombing in Rawalpindi, a garrison city near the capital, Islamabad. She was departing a political rally with her closest political advisors, in preparation of the January elections. Approximately thirty other people were killed. Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the killing.

Details about the attack are slowly coming via Pakistani media. The bomber is described as a lone-individual who, before exploding himself, opened fire on Benazir's van. Pakistani officials have confirmed (to the BBC) that she was killed by a gun-shot to the neck. In fact, Pakistan's GEO-TV is currently panning to a picture of a handgun sitting (found quite miraculously) amidst the debris, presumably the one that killed Ms. Bhutto. However, some journalists are uncertain whether it was a gun shot, or pellets from the bomb, that killed her.

The jeep that Bhutto was traveling in, was armored and bullet-proof. However, tragically, at the moment of the attack, she had been standing with her head out of the sunroof, waving to supporters.

This was the second suicide bombing directly targeting Benazir since her return to Pakistan in October. The first, that targeted her at a rally in Karachi, killed more than 150 people. Prior to the first bombing, Pakistan's Daily Times wrote an editorial discussing Bhutto's fingering of people who had threatened her. This included Pakistan's highest Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud. The Daily Times editorial suggested there may be a connection between Mehsud and individuals in Pakistani military. In the aftermath of Bhutto's killing it would behoove international observers to see what kind of arrests and investigation, if any, President Musharraf engages in.

Bhutto was the leading democratic figure in Pakistan and head of Pakistan's People's Party. Her death, according to private intelligence agency, Stratfor, deals a crushing blow to the PPP's chances in the forthcoming elections. Her primary democratic opponent, Nawaz Sharif, himself a former Prime Minister (removed by Musharraf in 1999), had recently become on good terms with Bhutto. Together the two of them had signed a charter for democracy. The Washington Post has reported that a rally for Nawaz Sharif was targeted by a sniper, killing four. A quite frazzled looking Sharif called today the "saddest day in Pakistan's history." If the PPP suffers from disarray, the next two largest parties are the two different branches of Pakistan's Muslim League (Q & N). Q is affiliated with Musharraf, and N is affiliated with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Unrest has already begun across the country. I am told that a train has been put to fire and explosions have been heard around Karachi -- hundreds of cars are already on fire. Riots are spreading to the populous Punjab province. The Army Rangers have been deployed in various areas.

Irrespective of one's views on Bhutto -- mine were mostly negative -- she was the primary secular-minded democratic leader of Pakistan. She had made statements about hunting Bin Laden, eradicating the pernicious madrassa system, as well as apologizing for allowing the Taliban to acquire power during her watch in the mid 90's. Her killing is a huge blow to the anti-extremist movement in Pakistan. Frankly, as it stands now, there are no other anti-extremist democratic leaders in Pakistan.

If this assassination is indeed the doing of elements connected to Taliban or Al-Qaeda, it would be the most prominent political assassination by the group. Bhutto was the first woman to be elected leader of a Muslim country.

President Musharraf is now on TV and says that this attack is caused by "those terrorists with whom we're at war." He is asking for Pakistan to "uproot terrorism and toss it aside." He calls terrorism the biggest obstacle to our progress." Further, he is appealing to Pakistanis to remain calm.

The Making of the Muslim Reformist Movement

I went to a government school in the American south where I had constant interaction with religious supremacists. Such people believe that their moral mandate must be given preference, if not outright dominance. In the south, these people were Christian. Their imperative was to acquire converts who would eventually help make their political programme the law of the land.

Many times I put up with the noise of evangelical youth preaching on the steps with a megaphone. I was condemned to hell in class discussions. English teachers had to tread carefully through 19th century literature so as not to offend. I had to politely reject, and then oppose, Bible study groups.

My brother and I were the only Muslims in the school. We lamented the ceaseless invasion of our personal conscience by "these fundos."

After a couple of years, a number of Muslim students enrolled at the school. They were also upset with the endless Christian proselytising. Since many of them were family friends, they took me aside and urged me to help them set up an Islamic society. Its primary purpose would be to hold Quran study circles, correct anti-Muslim propaganda in textbooks, and - "just like the Christians do" - invite students to learn about their religion. All on school property. Their goal, just like the Christians, was evangelism (the Arabic term is da'wa). They presented two white boys with new Muslim names as proof of their success. As I left, my acquaintances couldn't understand why I wouldn't help them. "It's just da'wa!" they said. "It's a free country!"

There it was, in the microcosmic world of high school, staring at me in the face: the Muslim right. Or, as my brother pejoratively called them: "Falwell Muslims."

Today, it is undeniable that traditionalist clerical Islam - which is quietist, meek, and oriented towards the status quo - has lost its monopoly over Muslims. This is the result of multiple instances of internal dissent over a millenia (as well as colonialism). Led by a mixture of cleric-minded Muslims in the US, UK, and Jordan, traditionalist clerical Islam is trying to make a comeback and become more relevant - like by writing a letter of peace to the Pope. Though such efforts are good, it is a case of too little too late.

Instead, Islam is well on its way towards an individualist revolution; one that no amount of clerical effort can contain.

The most attention-grabbing child of this revolution has been jihadism. However, it is not the most successful. That (dis)honour lies, in my mind, with the Muslim evangelicals - also known as Islamism, the Muslim right, or political Islam. It is a great fallacy to think that jihadists and Islamists are one and the same.

The Muslim right is an ideological movement. Why not? When rationalism is rampant and clerics can't bind Muslims together, ideology is the best thing to obtain mass obedience.

Islamism's ideological aim is secular, ie political power. Yet, despite its secular ends, it makes its political base among a large swath of religious Muslims. With their religious supremacism - which convinces them that everyone else's life would be better off if they adopted the same values as them - these Muslims leave themselves wide open to be preyed upon by savvy propagandists. Thus, hateful tricks like invoking the dangers of homosexuality, attacking sexual liberation, demonising religious minorities and foreign cultures, and censoring anything that smacks of critical thinking, are all used to keep the ideological base stirring.

With that base in hand, Islamism then agitates for unfettered democracy. It purports to speak for the "common man" (even as it preys upon it) and acquires a populist mystique. Islamism doesn't fear elections because it is the best of the grassroots propagandists.

The Muslim right is international. It played off the Cold War and in a Machiavellian stroke made the US its benefactor. It ended up creating a decentralized international network. Jamat-e-Islami in Pakistan consulted with Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; the Brotherhood then, with "tacit support" from their self-professed enemies, created Hamas. Then the Sunni Islamists went and assisted Khomeini, pragmatically putting aside their doctrinal disagreement with the Shia for the sake of shared ideology. Taking inspiration from these successes, copycats rose up in Gulf and African states. For publicity and fund-raising purposes, the Muslim right brought its evangelism to the west. Muslim children coloured by this ideology ended up in school with me, asking me to help them set up an organisation that does exactly what Christian supremacists do.

So the dilemma for 21st century Islam is that there is a group of Muslims who with "activists" instead of "clerics" have reined in Muslim individualism, organized it into a system, injected it with illiberal values, and then invoked non-violence and freedom of speech as a shield to hide behind. If I had not seen Karl Rove do it with American Christianity I could have never realized how the Muslim right does it with Islam.

So what is to be done?

Well, secular tyrannies are inadequate. Monarchies are dictatorial. Outright Islamophobia and directly demonizing Islam gives fuel to Islamism. Military confrontation is out of the question for ethical and pragmatic reasons.

I recommend creating a viable and well organized Muslim left. It would be an intra-religious movement as opposed to a universalist one (though obviously it doesn't shun allies). It would be a cousin of the international left, but in a Muslim garb. Just as the Muslim right found Islamic means to justify the destructive ideas from the enlightenment (Fascism, Marxism, totalitarianism, evangelical religion), the Muslim left should find Islamic means to justify the positive ones (anti-foundationalism, pragmatism, autonomy, tolerance).

This Muslim left should also espouse the following basic ideas, without being limited to them:

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