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Pakistan at a Crossroads

Oxford Islamic Studies Online brings together the best current scholarship in the field and promotes accurate and informed understanding of the Islamic world.  Editor-in-Chief John L. Esposito is University Professor of Religion and International Affairs and Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University. A past president of the Middle East Studies Association, he is editor-in-chief of the four-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, editor of The Oxford Illustrated History of Islam, and the author of numerous books, including What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam, Unholy War, Islam: The Straight Path and The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? He lives in Washington, D.C.  In the article below he reflects upon Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and what it means for Pakistan.

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto and its aftermath are an instructive lesson in the checkered history of Pakistan and its critical situation today. Both President Bush and President Musharraf were quick to blame al-Qaeda and other Muslim extremists and to simply place the assassination within the context of the war on global terrorism and the forces opposed to democracy. But as dangerous as these forces are, especially with the growth of Pakistani rather than foreign fighters, this facile single-minded scenario ignores the long-standing conflicting currents in Pakistani politics.

The world will long remember Benazir Bhutto as a modern Muslim woman who served two terms as Pakistan’s first woman Prime Minister: bright, attractive, articulate, talented, courageous, charismatic, an astute politician and political leader who called for a secular democratic Pakistan. Benazir was all of these but – like her father and former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and a number of other Pakistani political leaders – she also left a flawed political track record that both reflected and contributed to many of Pakistan’s problems.

Benazir Bhutto was an avowed reformer who in two terms as prime minister brought little substantive reform. She failed to bring major political or social change. Benazir did little for the overwhelming number of poor Pakistanis who live in a feudal society. Asecular Muslim democrat and celebrated feminist, despite election promises, she failed to significantly improve women’s status or reverse Zia ul-Haq’s so-called Islamization policies. Despite her democratic profile, Benazir’s leadership of the PPP and governance as Prime Minister reflected Pakistan’s feudal politics. Her rule was marred by a record of widespread corruption and human rights violations that were severely criticized by international organizations. Like her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, she exerted power through an increasingly tough autocratic style, one-person dominance or rule. She declared herself head of the PPP for life, made no provision for leadership from among her many talented party leaders since the PPP was to remain a family legacy as witnessed by the “selection” of her son and husband (long-discredited by his earned reputation for corruption – reflected in his nickname “Mr. 10%” and his imprisonment in Pakistan for 11 years on charges of corruption – and currently under indictment in Europe).

The circumstances surrounding Benazir Bhutto’s assassination highlight the key problems or fault lines of Pakistani politics, problems that have been exacerbated exponentially in a post 9/11 world: a deep seated and unresolved identity problem regarding the relationship of Islam to Pakistani national identity and politics; the role of Islamic parties and movements and their clashes with a westernized elite; and a strong military that has intervened throughout Pakistan’s political history and resulted in more years of military rather than democratic rule, and the role of feudal political leaders.

Although Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder and first leader, saw Pakistan as a Muslim homeland, his more socio-cultural understanding was not that of many other more “religiously-minded” leaders. Thus, while Pakistan adopted a Western political structure – as Ayub Khan, an early military ruler and modernist, learned when he had to back off his attempt to drop Pakistan’s title as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan – many Pakistanis took Pakistan’s Islamic identity quite literally and seriously. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a secular socialist, would himself turn to Islam after the Pakistan-Bangladesh civil war, in order to build bridges to Arab countries, counter the Jamaat-i-Islami and other religious parties, and reinforce his popular base. However, the appeal to Islam would prove to be a two-edged sword as the Bhutto appointed head of the Army, General Zia ul-Haq, would use Islam to legitimate his coup, the execution of Bhutto, and the “Islamization” of Pakistan. Ironically, years later, Nawaz Sharif would also play the religion card in his political struggles with Benazir Bhutto and the PPP.

Where do we go from here? The Pakistan-U.S. partnership under Parvez Musharraf and George W. Bush has proven a dysfunctional relationship of failed policies. Their joint war on terrorism and promotion of democracy have in fact resulted in a dangerous increase of the former and a threat to the latter. Religious extremism and terrorism have grown in Pakistan; extremists will only benefit from the current crisis. Islamist parties (mainstream and extremists) have increased their electoral clout both in the 2002 elections and subsequently nationally, including control of both the North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan. Musharraf’s promotion of democracy (as that of the U.S. in Pakistan as in Egypt) has at best been a fig leaf, both in terms of the manipulation of electoral politics and the role of the military. Though Musharraf took off his uniform, Pakistan’s generals remain a powerful and influential force capable of intervening at any moment And regrettably, the tragic death of Benazir Bhutto and the succession of her 19 year old son and father has resulted in a new stage of Bhutto family feudal leadership of the PPP, only this time absent the charisma, talents and experience of Benazir.

Moving forward will require an enlightened leadership that is not apparent in terms of Pakistan’s chief players. Musharraf’s approval ratings are dismal; the PPP is in disarray and lacks strong leadership; Nawaz Sharif, newly returned from eight years in exile, has generated little excitement. Imran Khan could prove to be a popular transitional national political leader but is unlikely to step forward unless Musharraf steps down.

At a time when widespread anti-Americanism (more accurately, opposition to the Bush administration) in Pakistan has become even more entrenched – as it has in many parts of the Muslim and non-Muslim world – one can at least hope for the laying of some groundwork for the emergence of future leaders. Musharraf should begin with the restoration of some semblance of democracy by reconstituting Pakistan’s Supreme Court, guarantee impartial parliamentary elections on February 8, and work more closely with mainstream and political leaders rather than to exploit the current fluid situation and thereby contribute to greater instability. Although unlikely, Musharraf’s credibility and effectiveness would be enhanced if he were to announce his own timetable for stepping down. Pakistan’s stability would be strengthened if Musharraf’s successor as Army head, the American-trained Ashfaq Kayani, were able to harness the leverage of the military not only in strengthening Pakistan’s domestic security but also assure that Musharraf does nothing to taint national elections. Equally important, the U.S., given its political and military power, retains the ability and leverage to play a more constructive role in Pakistan – but that will require not simply looking for another “American candidate” to install as Pakistan’s leader.

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