Book Review: Benazir Bhutto’s Reconciliation

I realize I’m a little behind on this book (it came out last year), but my wife bought it for herself, started it and then put it down, and since Pakistan is one of the subjects I follow very closely, I thought I’d give it a go.

Bhutto is in the fuzzy parlance of our world a religious moderate.  Or she is both a fervently believing Muslim and someone who abides by the hallmarks of the modern world:  gender equity; non-tyrannical forms of governance (typically expressed through democratic and parliamentary mechanisms); co-existence and mutual connection both within a religious body (ecumenism) as well as between various religious groupings (inter-religious dialogue) as well as with those who are not religiously practicing/believing; belief in progress through wise-judicious application of scientific critical rationality and technological advance, etc. etc.

Her intended audience is a Westerner whose experience of the “Muslim world” is the hallmark one of swarthy, masked villainous characters, black robed  and faced obscured huddling women, and/or flag burning scream fests.  To that audience she (in the first chapter) clearly lays out her co-existing and non-problematic Western educated self, Pakistani self, and Muslim self.  As a woman. It’s effective on that front and I recommend it if anyone is looking for some basic background on these issues.

Of course as a religious liberal Bhutto time and time again elides her interpretive tradition with Islam as “it really is.”  This move of course is to parry and thrust against the fundamentalists she is out to deconstruct since they claim their understanding of Islam is in fact no understanding of Islam at all but rather how it really is.  The Truth, capital T.

I realize why she commits that error; I realize that she basically has to commit that error.  But it’s still an error.  It’s (partially) dishonest to not self-disclose in a religious debate that one’s view is in fact a view and not the view.  Of course when the other side (the fundamentalists) won’t make such an admission then for the religious liberals to do so can leave them vulnerable.

The one argument she makes I think very well is the following.

Bhutto writes:

“Let us first dispel a misconception that colors the entire discussion of Islam and democracy.  The misconception is that Islam is a unitary, rigid social system transcending religion.”   (p.62)

This is an absolutely crucial point.  While it makes sense to talk about Christendom or Christian Culture in the Medieval World, we know (at least the intelligent among us) this doesn’t work with the modern (and now postmodern) world.

Same with Islam.  It makes sense to talk about it as the guiding dominant socio-cultural institution during the Middle Ages basically up until the 19th century.  It’s not perfect to do it that way, but it makes some sense.  But it doesn’t work after the modern world.  After colonialism, globalization, the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of nationalism(s), it just doesn’t work.  But yet for some reason commentary in the West still approaches this topic through the lens of  TMW (The Muslim World).

For an analogy, think of how Ta-Nehisi Coates constantly points out in American racial discourse America means (implied and unexamined) white America and then to refer to others you say Black America.  As if Blacks weren’t American.  As if all Black Americans lived in some monolithic Black Culture.   As if Blackness were some Platonic ideal that existed up and above the actual lives of human beings who are constituted by all sorts of factors:  gender, age/generational, class, life experience, personality differences and interests, sexual preference, occupation, relationship status, religious beliefs (or not), on and on.  Race being but one–an important one but one nonetheless.

Same with our treatment of Islam in the contemporary world.  It is supremely unhelpful–and here Bhutto is absolutely correct–to treat Islam as if it existed as some supra-historical/cultural/social entity that just plops down on the heads of believers everywhere.

Define Islam rather by the concrete history, practice, beliefs, worldviews, and actions of the people who actually claim to be Muslim.  And see how those are related to and influenced by their culture, homeland, the history of their region, economic status, educational background (or lack thereof).  This way provides a much more complicated though remarkably clearer picture of things.

Of course some could (and someone probably will in the comments to this post) quote some random line from the Qu’ran as utter proof of what the Muslims really believe.

Something like “slay the unbeliever wherever you find him.”

And that would prove Islam is inherently anti-modern, intrinsically opposed to democracy, and forever on a Clash of Civilizations.  And therefore any peaceful Muslims are really not Muslims.  Quoting this is apparently self-justificatory and will even get you a really bad hairdo and a horrid documentary while prancing around as an ego-laden politician (the hair is optional I suppose).

Of course following the analogy above I could just as easily quote you the US Constitution which states black people constitute 3/5 of a human being.  Pow.  Deal with that.  Automatically proves US is inherently and forever oppressive to black people right?   Except er there’s that whole black First Family thing.

But I can hear the comeback now.  I can hear you saying (or is that the voices in my head?) but “Oh well we amended the Constitution.”  And then quote me back the 13th and 14th Amendments.  “No Amending the Quran” they would say.

Except that the question is always the interpretation and application of the whole.  Recall that in Islam the clergy (technically) as such do not exist.  Rather they are judges of the law.  They make prudential decisions.  They have legal schools.  They understand they have to highlight certain precedent and background other information.  Those hermeneutic circles (legally, theologically, morally, politically) work as the complement to the Constitutional Amendments in my analogy.

Or they did.  They use to back when (as I said before) it made sense to talk about a kind of one Islamic world/civilizational block.

But no longer.   The power of the clerical class (called ulema) has been broken since the rise of the modern world.  What has arisen in its place is a multitude of “Read the Quran and Interpret it For Yourself” ways of being.  What we might call The Protestantization of Islam.  Incidentally that is why calling for a Reformation in Islam is wrong.  1. It’s already happened.  2. What you need is the Liberal Turn in 19th century Protestant Theology (or Vatican II in Roman Catholicism).

Everyone is reading The Quran on their own–minus the classical humanistic context.  That context was usually liturgical in nature or meeting with a judge to get a religious ruling on some personal moral or religious matter.

With the imposition of modernity–which breaks this whole unitive synthesis apart–the modern world’s epistemology and definitions take over.  The text is no longer liturgical-poetical in nature, it has to be Doctrinal (Capital D).  It has to be precise, objective, and truthful.  Like a science.  Which is why we have the nonsense of Creationism (Bible as True Science) and the like.  Fundamentalism is a thoroughly modern phenomenon–right down the both the combination of intellectualism and the emotional romanticism of returning to some pure (and actually never historically existing) pristine state.  As well as with Islamism desiring to take over the power of the state as a means of leveraging power via nationalistic rhetoric.  A very traditonally modern move.

Or another example.  The dirty little secret of a Sayid Qutb (and his followers like bin Laden) with all his rantings about “Westoxification” and how nationalism as a political force is a Western (i.e. unbelieving) import, is that his reduction of the entirely of the Islamic tradition and the Qu’ran especially to one single abstract unitary focus is completely (modernly) Western.  And not particularly (traditionally) Islamic.  I mean for Allah’s sake, bin Laden and Zawahiri are reduced to quoting Noam Chomsky.  I think bin Laden and Zawahiri are the only people left reading Chomsky.  And Chomsky’s probably the only person left who reads Brs. Osama and Ayman.

It also means any group can claim “being true to Islam” while doing basically anything they want.  There is no longer a shared common worldview.  There’s no Pope or Curia to define what the right interpretation is.  All the while the person making said claim might have no clue what’s in the Quran.  Or just read it online in a de-historical framework.  What Baudrillard called simulacra–it’s real but then again it’s not.  It iterates and just floats across the world with people hybridically grafting all kinds of things on.  Say organized crime to use only an extreme (but particularly relevant example).

In other words, there’s a bug in Bhutto’s interpretive framework, one common to (classical) liberalism.  It assumes everyone is rational and therefore all that is needed is more freedom of expression, education, etc. then everything will be ducky.  One could argue (in reverse) the problem has been that too much information has been expanded.  Mohammad Atta was educated in a liberal world.  All trans-national terrorists come from that world.  That classical liberal myth doesn’t take into account the possibility that educated people will use their education for pre-modern or even regressive values and/or the alienating potential of its own liberal modern world.

In other words, Bhutto’s “all of Islam is divided into two parts”–i.e. those reconciled to the modern world (and true to the original vision of Islam) and those not (on either account)–starts to fell prey to the very disease she outlines.  That is, treating Islam as some supra-historical one entity.  She claims pluralism on one hand but then defines pluralism as her kind of pluralism, which is whatever else you or I may think of it, not particularly pluralistic.

This flaw becomes particularly acute when it comes to politics–specifically her homeland of Pakistan.  Bhutto was an extremely shrewd politician.  She understood–having been educated in the West–how to charm Westerners (politicians especially) and this is apparent throughout the text.

Her duality between the reconcilers and the hijackers of Islam on a theological level, at the level of worldview discourse, makes a certain degree of sense.  In that frame she can lump The Taliban in with al-Qaeda.

Politically however this is a different matter.  Yes the Afghan Taliban under Mullah Omar invited al-Qaeda in and the had a symbiotic (or was it parasitic?) relationship.  Al-Qaeda, what’s left of it anyway, has moved to Pakistan/FATA and has alliances with groups like The Pakistani Taliban.  But at the end of the day the two have radically different political objectives which Bhutto elides.  Obviously that was part of her sales pitch to then President Bush to let her come to power in Pakistan.  Our enemy is your enemy.  They are all part of some attempt to install some Caliphate as she says.  But The Taliban are not planning on attacking the US soil.  They have no desire for some worldwide conflict.  That’s Al-Qaeda’s baillywick.  The Taliban’s aims are a much more regional/local effort to maximize their power and spread their influence.  Through Taliban involvement in the drug trade, their reach (by indirect action) is global but as part of a larger global black market not as a political objective.

Given al-Qaeda’s caliphate dreams will never actually happen and are totally impractical in nature, AQ poses no (political) threat.  al-Qaeda terrorism does pose a nihilistic threat to life and limb certainly, but not a political one.

The Taliban–both the Afghan and Pakistani versions–have political goals.  Ones they could easily realize and in fact arguably are realizing.  They can (and have) destablizlied countries and could even (in Afghanistan) easily come back to power in the absence of a international force.  The Pakistani Taliban control the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and have reach across the country.

Given the time Bhutto’s manuscript was written–during her return from exile and backroom talks with the US political leadership in an effort to get the US to stop backing Musharraf–her chapter on Pakistan is heavily weighted to arguing that the history of that country is one of enlightened democracies (her father’s and presumably her’s to come) and crippling dictatorships (like Musharraf’s and before him Gen. Zia al Haq’s).  It does not unforunately go into much depth on the problems that would face the country if and when a corrupt and weak democratic government takes power.  As is the case now.

What happens if the country becomes exhausted of military coups (post-Musharraf) and democratic process (see her widower Zardari’s absymally low approval ratings)?  What if there is no vision for a Pakistani state that will actually listen to and in some way respond to the grievances of groups like the Balochis or the Pushtuns?  A vision that would include the major groupings of the country, argue for a smart and independent foreign policy instead of waffling between parish status (the 90s), playing a dangerous unstable double game (the Musharraf years), or being US pawns (2006 on).

Sadly, given the tragedy of her death, her ultimate faith in democracy has not borne out.  Or at least with faith in democracy needs to come competence and (decent levels of) non-corruption in the elected leadership.  Neither of which is in high supply currently.

She also does not at all discuss the marginalization of the Pushtun peoples in the history of Pakistan–a central point in the rise of the Pakistani Taliban.  In a passing remark, she mentions that Musharraf promoted hardline Islamist groups to power (including in the NorthWest Frontier Province) to up the threat level in society leading to him to come be the recuser and control power more directly.  Call that The Mubarak Option.  That part is true, but her analysis doesn’t go deeper than that which is unfortunate because The Taliban have been able in some quarters to become the standard bearers of Pushtun resistance/ethnic nationalism.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Benazir Bhutto’s Reconciliation

  1. Paul,

    Thanks. Just feel through I suppose. I find it very amusing that I’m never able to predict which posts gets lots of comments and which won’t. I’m interested to see what Obama says in Cairo.

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