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Ben Rogers: A manifesto for freedom from beyond the grave

Ben_rogers Benedict Rogers reviews Benazir Bhutto’s new book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West . Ben is a human rights activist specialising in South Asia, serves as Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, and was the Candidate for Durham in 2005.

Three months ago today, a light of freedom, moderation, tolerance and hope was snuffed out. By no means a pure, perfect light – indeed a light that sometimes flickered dimly – but nevertheless, a light of liberty and peace in a land of growing extremism, authoritarianism and violence. On the morning of her assassination, Benazir Bhutto had delivered the final edits of her book, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West, to her publisher. I can think of no more fitting tribute to her than to read her new book, published since her death, to reflect on the challenges she sets out, and to implement the ideas she proposes.

Benazir Bhutto’s book is essential reading for everyone interested in our world today, for it addresses three of the greatest challenges our generation faces: militant Islamism, dictatorship, and poverty.  While much of the book draws on the history of her own country, Pakistan, and her personal experiences, it goes much, much further. She plunges into theology, presenting an alternative interpretation of Islam from that preached by al-Qaeda, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and other such extremists. Drawing on the Quran, she argues forcefully that the extremists have hijacked a religion of peace. Indeed, she goes further, contending that Islam is not only compatible with democracy and human rights, but actually helped birth them. Contrary to popular perception, she claims, “Islam codified the rights of women. The Quran elevates the status of women to that of men. It guarantees women civil, economic and political rights.” In regard to other religions, she writes, “the Quran does not simply preach tolerance of other religions; it also acknowledges that salvation can be achieved in all monotheistic religions. Freedom of choice, especially in matters of faith, is a cornerstone of quranic values.”

She takes aim at extremists, expressing her horror at the highest cleric in Australia, Sheikh Taj el-Din, who compared uncovered women to meat left out for a cat to eat. She singles out radical British mullah Anjum Chaudhry too, quoting his words: “I must have hatred toward everything which is not Islam”. It is people like these, she argues, who have mis-read their Quran.

It is not for me to argue with her over what the Quran says. Certainly, her interpretation of Islam is at odds with the harsh realities in many Islamic states, where apostates risk death, religious minorities are treated at best with dhimmi or second-class status, and where women are veiled and their evidence in court is valued at half that of a man. If Islam gives freedom of choice in matters of faith, why are there no churches in Saudi Arabia? But I am no scholar of Islam, and so rather than debate her interpretation, it is much better for me urge Muslims to read her book and re-evaluate their interpretation. If all Muslims saw Islam as she did, the world would certainly be a happier place.

The Talibanisation of Pakistan

Militant Islamism has been growing in Pakistan since the military dictator General Zia ul-Haq seized power in 1979, executing Benazir’s father Zulfiqar ali Bhutto. Zia, Bhutto claims, was heavily influenced by the radical group Jamaat-i-Islami, whose leader, Maulana Maudoodi, was his “spiritual father”. Zia made Maulana Maudoodi’s writings compulsory reading in the armed forces, changed the motto of the army to “faith, piety and jihad for the sake of God”, introduced a “beard allowance” in the army to reward those who kept their beards, and purged secular professors in higher education, replacing them with Jamaat-i-Islami sympathisers. Zia was also responsible for the radicalisation of Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, which led to the creation of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the training of terrorists such as the Iraqi Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) has entered into a coalition with Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to form a new government in Pakistan, continued on Zia’s path. She describes Sharif as “a Zia protégé with Islamist leanings”, claiming as Prime Minister he undid her social and political reforms, and reinstated curbs on press freedom. According to Bhutto, he praised the Taliban as a model for Pakistan to follow, and attempted to introduce an “Islamisation bill”, which if passed would have incorporated Sharia law into the constitution, and given the Prime Minister, not the courts, power to enforce religious edicts. It was, she adds, an attempt “to turn Pakistan into a theocratic state”.

With that in mind, Bhutto issues a warning about Pakistan. “Pakistan today is the most dangerous place in the world,” she writes. “Pakistan faces the threat of both Talibanisation and Balkanisation, which are gaining in strength”. Earlier, she writes: “Iraq is not the only goal of the extremists. Pakistan too is in great danger …. They thrive on dictatorship; they thrive on terror; they provoke chaos to exploit chaos.”

Democracy and self-interest

And here begins perhaps the most interesting and important aspect of the book. In the mould of Natan Sharansky’s The Case for Democracy and Mark Palmer’s Breaking the Real Axis of Evil, Bhutto argues that tyranny and terror go together, and that a key part of the solution is the consistent promotion of democracy and human rights. It is, she suggests, not only morally right to promote freedom, but in our own self-interest. “Democracies do not go to war with democracies. Democracies do not become state sponsors of terrorism,” she states. “The greater the number of democratic countries that exist in the world, the less conflict there will be.” The West should promote and nurture democracy in the Islamic world “as a matter of national security policy,” to “isolate and marginalise the extremists and fanatics”.

Consistency needed

But the key word here is consistency, and she takes no prisoners in criticising the West’s inconsistency. Western statements about human rights in the past have been “more platitude than policy”, and in some instances the West has actively “undermined democratic institutions, democratic movements and democratically elected governments in countries that the West considered critical to other policy objectives”.  She is right.

If dictatorship is bad, Bhutto contends, “then dictators are bad” – full stop. At the very least, dictators “inevitably” lead to corruption. “Not just dictators who are impotent and irrelevant but also those who are powerful allies in fighting common enemies,” she writes. “The West makes human rights the centrepiece of its foreign policy selectively. The West also stands foursquare with struggling democracies selectively.” And this, she warns, is dangerous. “Selective application of democratic principles creates long-term dangers and consequences. If one believes, as I do, that liberty is a universal value to which all people aspire, acquiescence to autocracy is not acceptable.”

Citing the West’s uncritical support for the shah in Iran, Bhutto argues that “had democratic institutions been allowed to develop, they might well have insulated Iran from the Khomeini revolution”. A covert CIA operation in 1953 to stop democratic reforms in the country – reforms that included an elected parliament, independent judiciary, a free press and the development of civil society, “basic building blocks of democracy and pluralism” which “undermine religious extremism” – contributed, she implies, to the radicalisation of Iran, a country which had been “one of the least extremist of Muslim nations”.

The world, she suggests, “would be very different if the West had been more prudent in its actions, had adhered to its own democratic values, and had taken a long view of history rather than a myopic short-term view. If the West had realised that ‘the enemy of my enemy’ is not always my friend, repressive regimes in Iran, Iraq and Pakistan might have been forced to reform and democratize.”

“The building blocks” of democracy

But in all this talk of “democracy”, Bhutto emphasises that it is not simply about direct elections. The “building blocks” of free speech, free political opposition, free press, an independent judiciary and civil society are crucial, and too often ignored in the rush to elections. “Far too often in the developing world – including in the Islamic developing world – elections are viewed as zero-sum games. The electoral process is democratic, but that’s where democracy ends,” she writes. “We must think of a new democracy like a seedling that must be nourished, watered, fed and given time to develop into a mighty tree.” Democratic governance, she continues, “cannot come out of nowhere; it takes years of democratic institution building.”

The election of Hamas in Palestine is an example of this – not an argument against democracy in the Islamic world, but an argument for building it slowly and steadily. The Palestinians had no preparation, and the alternative to Hamas was a corrupt Fatah. “When democracy was suddenly thrust in front of them, most Palestinians chose a radical group that promised them freedom and dignity through violence. Impatient and discouraged, they voted for revolution instead of evolution.”

Islam needs “an intellectual renaissance”

Despite blaming the West for inconsistency, and for the legacies of colonialism, Bhutto emphasises that Muslims must take their share of the blame for the misuse of their religion and their failure to democratise. “At some point responsibility and accountability rest with us,” she notes. Countries like Pakistan must, for example, deal with the radical madrassas which train terrorists. In part, that requires more investment in mainstream education. Pakistan, she notes, spends $4.5 billion a year on the military, a staggering 1,400% more than is spent on education.

She proposes the creation of a Muslim Investment Fund, similar to the funds in Alaska and Norway, to combine oil revenues in order to stimulate growth in non-oil producing Islamic states, and to fight poverty and stimulate an “intellectual renaissance”.

The Islamic world was once a centre of learning, knowledge and innovation, but in the past century it has dramatically fallen behind the rest of the world. Bhutto lays out a few astonishing facts:

  • Almost half the world’s Muslims are illiterate;
  • The combined GDP of all 57 countries in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is equal to that of France;
  • In all 57 countries in the OIC, there is a total of 500 universities, whereas there are 5,000 universities in the USA and 8,000 in India;
  • In 2004, not a single university from the Islamic world made it into the top 500 universities in the world;
  • The Islamic world spends 02% of GDP on research and development, compared with 5% in Western nations;
  • More books are translated annually into Spanish than have been translated into Arabic in the past 100 years;
  • The 15 million citizens of Greece buy more books annually that all Arabs put together.

A programme of action

Towards the end of the book, Bhutto lays out an intriguing programme of action. In 1989, she claims, she proposed the creation of an Association of Democratic States – an idea which was taken up and called the Community of Democracies. She calls for this to be expanded or replaced. “We need either to empower the [Community of Democracies], or to start a new organisation necessary to help sustain fragile and vulnerable democracies,” she writes. Such an international organisation would provide skills and training for elections, and could speak out more on human rights in place of the UN. “The United Nations is constrained by the universality of its membership. When violators of human rights can sit on UN human rights commissions, the work of such bodies has no authority or legitimacy.”

She also advocates the creation of a “Civil Society International”, that would bring together major national and international human rights organisations, ranging from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to Reporters Without Borders and Physicians for Human Rights, to act as a watchdog on attacks against civil society around the world.

To counter anti-Western feeling and foster moderation in the Islamic world, Bhutto argues the West must examine its faults and correct them. In addition to adopting a more consistent approach to human rights, the West should more actively address poverty and lack of education among Muslims. A fund akin to the post-Second World War Marshall Plan, should be established to channel resources – grain, school books, writing materials, medicine, immunization and primary healthcare – into deprived Muslim communities. But interestingly, she is adamant that this must be done through “people-to-people” initiatives and NGOs, not through governments. “Direct engagement helps beneficiaries fully understand who the benefactors are,” she argues, pointing to the positive impression US aid created with tsunami relief in Indonesia and earthquake relief in Pakistan.

A Reconciliation Corps, modelled on the US Peace Corps, should be established to bring moderate Muslims living in the West to Islamic countries to share their experiences on living in free, secular societies. Exchange programmes should be expanded, and the Internet should be used more creatively. “What ultimately makes Western capitals the ‘shining cities on the hill’ to billions of people around the planet are their political and social values of tolerance and freedom. And that should be the key to public diplomacy today.”

“Staying within the box” has failed

The book is packed with stimulating analysis and ideas from a brave and clearly intelligent woman. This review has been packed with direct quotes from the book, because there is no better way of expressing the ideas she sets out. And so in that same vein, it is appropriate to sum up the book with the words she uses at the very end. She concludes: “Much of what is recommended is somewhat out of the box. But staying within the box has brought poverty, ignorance, hopelessness, violence and dictatorship to far too many Muslims around the world. Staying within the box has set Islam and the West on a dangerous and unnecessary collision course. It is time for new ideas. It is time for creativity. It is time for bold commitment. And it is time for honesty …. There has been enough pain. It is time for reconciliation.” But reconciliation Bhutto-style does not mean caving in to the extremists, nor does it mean fluffy inter-faith dialogue that goes nowhere. It means boldly supporting the values of human rights, democracy and freedom, combating poverty and illiteracy, and bolstering moderates. This is a manifesto for freedom and for peace, and one which we would all do well to heed. It offers lessons from errors of the past made by all types in the West – from George W Bush to Rowan Williams – and an exciting vision of a way forward. She is dead, but may her ideas live on.


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