An assassin’s bullets and suicide bomb have ended the life of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Tragically, she followed in the footsteps of her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s Prime Minister [1973–1977], who was brutally hanged by political rival and subsequent military dictator General Zia al Haq nearly thirty years ago. The legacy of this family elucidates the political instability and schizophrenic personality of modern-day Pakistan: a complex, volatile and multifaceted nation whose diverse features have increasingly and frequently become accentuated by violence.
Bhutto and nearly 20 civilian supporters were killed while stumping for the upcoming January Pakistan parliamentary elections in the army stronghold of Rawalpindi. As of Friday morning, Bhutto’s death catalyzed widespread riots, vandalism, and civilian unrest directly resulting in 15 reported deaths. President Musharraf, who recently lifted November’s State of Emergency that temporarily suspended the Constitution and implemented a “mini Martial law,” officially declared 3 days of “mourning” and vowed to continue his resolve against extremists and terrorists.
Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif, the once exiled former Prime Minister of Pakistan and potential rival to Musharraf, promised, “We will avenge [Bhutto’s] death,” and has boycotted the upcoming elections. World leaders and dignitaries, specifically Republican and Democratic Presidential candidates, quickly issued press releases and television interviews admonishing the assassination, pledging their vow to root out “Islamic terrorism,” and supporting Musharraf and Pakistan’s “move towards democracy.” [Presidential candidate Huckabee had to be reminded, embarrassingly, that Pakistan was no longer under martial law – an auspicious sign of our future leaders’ knowledge and understanding of foreign policy and world affairs.]
The vast majority of Pakistani citizens, according to my friends and family who live there, lament the tragic actions of an extremist minority that continues to pollute and threaten the spirit, character, and personal safety of the nation. To the ears of “Westerners,” whose only exposure to Pakistan by the US media has been a simplistic, cartoon-like depiction of angry extremism [“Rage Boy”] and enlightened “moderation” of a military dictatorship [Musharaff], this sentiment rings false and hollow. Indeed, “Rage Boy” has become the ubiquitous image of not only Pakistani politics, but also 160 million Pakistani citizens; “Rage Boy” is a bearded, irrationally angry, frothing, anti-American extremist whose occupation consists of three full time jobs: burning American flags, studying at an Islamic fundamentalist madrassas, and engaging in anti-American terrorist activities. Any proper student of history or anthropology with even a modicum of knowledge regarding Pakistan’s diverse socio-cultural identity would scoff at that simplistic depiction. Sadly, nuances and complexity are not afforded media air-time amidst Pakistan’s continuing and repeated, albeit isolated, acts of sensationalistic violence.
This dualistic and Manichean representation of Pakistan manifests itself with the description of the personality at the center of this recent, contagious conflagration: Bhutto. Mere hours after her assassination, Bhutto was both praised as a “shaheed” [a martyr], “a beacon for democracy,” “a model of progress,” “a loyal friend to democracy,” and condemned as “a traitor,” “a US puppet,” and everything in between. When extremism, political fervor, and selfish interests marry, the resulting progeny is usually instability, uncertainty and violence; common sense, rationality, and moderation are generally aborted.
Prime Minister Bhutto
Before outlining the possible motives and culprits of this dreadful assassination, a cursory look at Bhutto and her political career is needed. Following in the dynastic footsteps of her father, the Harvard and Oxford educated Bhutto became the head of the PPP [Pakistan’s People Party] and was elected as the country’s first female Prime Minister in 1988. In a stunning twist of fate, irony, or cunning (depending on whom you ask), she succeeded the assassinated General Zia al Haq, the same man responsible for hanging her father in 1977. Although plaudits and adulations have been heaped on the recently deceased Bhutto, her political tenure in Pakistan was marred by ineffectuality and widespread charges of corruption, which effectively ended both of her terms as Prime Minister. [It should be noted that Nawaz Sharif’s first term was dismissed for corruption charges as well.]
Specifically, Bhutto was accused of stealing more than $1 billion from Pakistan’s treasury, and Switzlerand convicted Bhutto of laundering nearly $11 million. Furthermore, Bhutto’s husband, Asif Zardari, is affectionately known in Pakistan as “Mr. Ten Percent,” an honorable title he earnestly earned for receiving a “10%” commission from all government contracts.
Also, it is worth noting that Bhutto, who in the past few hours has been hailed as “Pakistan’s last hope for democracy and reform,” financially and militarily supported and strengthened Afghanistan’s repressive, extremist and misogynist Taliban government that came to power in 1996. The Taliban’s disastrous and archaic human rights policy, hardly democratic or progressive, was conveniently swept under the rug in lieu of pacifying the Afghan region to ensure beneficial and lucrative trade routes to Central Asia. Like a scene from King Lear or Godfather 2 – if Bhutto’s own niece and political critics are to be believed – Bhutto engineered the still unsolved assassination of her estranged brother, Murtaza, in 1996 to consolidate political leadership of the PPP. Bhutto’s political history, thus, is marred by several questionable controversies, rank corruption and abuse. Why, then, was she promoted by the United States as a harbinger of peace and democracy?
The fateful triangle
Reports indicate that the United States, Musharraf and Bhutto recently agreed to a brokered power sharing deal, whereby Musharraf would retain his Presidency, Bhutto would be named Prime Minster and her numerous corruption charges would bypass the courts and be “dropped” due to the creation of a “National Reconciliation Ordinance.” The deal was suspect from the beginning and only further deteriorated with Bhutto’s return from exile to Pakistan in October, when a devastating assassination attempt on her life, still unsolved, left nearly 140 people dead.
The nail in the coffin was hammered by Musharraf, who unilaterally implemented a State of Emergency in November. Experts state his action was motivated by the Supreme Court’s adverse ruling regarding his eligibility to lead Pakistan, thereby denying him a right to lead as both President and Chief of Army Staff, a title he relinquished only recently. As a result, The United States’ erstwhile democratic ally, Musharraf, undemocratically suspended the Constitution, ousted and jailed Supreme Court judges and lawyers critical of his policies and leadership, detained nearly 2,000 human rights activists, and silenced independent media and news stations. Although publicly reprimanding Musharraf’s “questionable” (one could say “undemocratic”) actions, the White House remained loyal to their dictator-of- choice, because the US has provided Pakistan with nearly $10 billion in aid as “good will currency” in its support to hunt al-Qaeda and extremists within Pakistan’s borders. Specifically, President Bush said he wants democracy in Pakistan, but “at the same time, we want to continue working with [Musharraf] to fight these terrorists and extremists.”
A grand irony results from observing this alliance. The United States wants to support democracy in Pakistan by allowing Musharraf to implement undemocratic measures and dictatorial practices to ensure Pakistan’s future democracy. That is akin to endorsing an avowed pacifist who feels forced to purge his enemies through murder and violence in order to bring peace.
Precisely due to Musharraf’s recent array of dictatorial and undemocratic suppressions of dissent – specifically the sacking and arrests of Supreme Court justices and attorneys – and extreme unpopularity amongst his own people, the US hoped Bhutto would serve as an ameliorative and reliable presence for their interests. Her political presence, it was argued, could act as a counterbalance to Musharraf, thus ensuring some semblance of stability in Pakistan. Specifically, before returning to Pakistan in October, Bhutto had publicly stated she would allow the United States within Pakistan’s borders to assist in hunting Al-Qaeda operatives and terror cells. Bhutto said,
“I would hope that I would be able to take Osama bin Laden myself without depending on the Americans. But if I couldn’t do it, of course we [Pakistan and US] are fighting this war together and [I] would seek their co-operation in eliminating him.”
Her critics questioned her sincerity and motives in potentially allowing Pakistan’s sovereignty to be threatened by inviting America to strike within Pakistani soil. The critics responded by calling her America’s “stooge” and “puppet,” a woman willing to appease Western nations by any means to ensure her political power.
This charge and allegation of “servitude to the United States” arguably ensured her assassination or, at the very least, cemented her unpopularity amongst an extremist political segment of Pakistan. However, with the January parliamentary elections around the corner and the power sharing deal all but quashed by Musharraf, Bhutto changed her tune. In her final speech on the day of her assassination, she passionately declared, “Why should foreign troops come in? We can take care of this [referring to resurgent Al Qaeda extremists in Pakistan], I can take care of this, you [Pakistani citizens] can take care of this.” Did this duplicitous, flip flop statement make Bhutto a Janus – a two headed Roman God – or was this a sincere change of conviction? Sadly, Pakistan will never know the answer.
The smoking gun?
What is known, however, is that Bhutto foreshadowed her death, or at the very least was extremely cognizant of potential attempts on her life. In October, she informed her spokesman, Mark Siegel, via email to make public the following statement if she was to be killed in Pakistan: “I [Bhutto] would hold Musharraf responsible.” Bhutto’s aides told CNN that she accused Musharraf of “deliberately failing to provide adequate security measures” in Rawalpindi, which included failing to provide her a four-car police escort and jamming devices against bombs. After the devastating October assassination attempt on her life, Bhutto accused Pakistan’s intelligence services [the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI] in having a hand in the suicide attack on her convoy. Although it is premature to conclusively determine who masterminded the assassination attempt, Bhutto’s supporters place the blame firmly on Musharraf’s shoulders, whom they believe either engineered the attack or acted negligently in failing to deter it.
From one angle, Musharraf’s recent actions portray a consistent pattern of unilateral power grabs by stifling opposition and criticism. His state of emergency and declaration of temporary “martial law” serve as prime evidence of that argument. This recent tragedy has further destabilized the country prompting mass protests and vandalism thereby giving Musharraf a rationalization and excuse, according to his critics, to impose martial law yet again if he so chooses and curb the democratic process.
Since the United States has no political allies in Pakistan that it feels it can remotely trust, one can argue they will be forced, out of necessity and desperation, to tacitly endorse Musharraf and promote him as an “ally against terrorism” and “hope for democracy.” The West fears that the nuclear weapons and technology of Pakistan will fall in the hands of an extremist minority that will align itself with Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces, thus endangering US presence not only in the Middle East but South Asia as well. However, it is imperative to note that the extremist element of Pakistan (aka “Rage Boy”) is but a despised minority that doesn’t even have enough legitimacy to secure a political majority in even the most fundamentalist regions of the North Western Frontier Province and Punjab.
Yet, this miniscule fraction of the population, when united with ideologically like-minded sympathizers within the ISI, could have orchestrated this latest round of violence according to Pakistani intellectuals and pundits. As of now, no group has claimed responsibility. However, many believe rogue elements of Pakistan’s highly secretive and powerful ISI in association with al-Qaeda sympathizers bear scrutiny. When asked who engineered the October assassination attempt on Bhutto, Muneer Malik simply stated, “the intelligence agencies.” When I asked him about the July “Red Mosque” tragedy, and specifically who armed the radical students [in July, the military raided the Red Mosque that was besieged by heavily armed radical Muslim students resulting in nearly 173 deaths], Malik replied, “It was a scam of the intelligence agencies. How could arms have been smuggled in the Masjid [Mosque] that is located less than a kilometer from the ISI headquarters?” In fact, Bhutto’s husband, Asif Zardari, pointed his finger at the ISI for the October assassination attempt as well: “I blame the government for these blasts,” he said. “It is the work of the intelligence agencies.” Many share this belief.
A Pakistani requiem
Perhaps the identity of the real culprits may never be known. One can only hope that they are found soon. Regardless, Benazir Bhutto has now been buried next to her father in their family’s ancestral village on the day of juma (Friday), a holy day for Muslims. As her mourners ascribed to the rituals of the Islamic funeral procession, many have taken turns supporting her casket on their shoulders, eventually guiding the deceased to her burial grounds. For some, they will literally carry their last vestige of hope for a democratic Pakistan. Others will carry the last of a dynamic and volatile political dynasty. Most will carry a tragic but common reminder of violence that has claimed too many of Pakistan’s icons and leaders. The Namaaze-I-Janaza, the Islamic requiem as it is known in Urdu, requires Muslims attending the funeral to supplicate Allah asking His forgiveness and blessings for the recently deceased. Perhaps they can pray for Pakistan as well.
Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, law school graduate, and regular contributor to altmuslim.com whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is the first major play about Muslim Pakistani Americans living in a post 9-11 America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org