By Elizabeth K. Brook
Elizabeth K. Brook ’10 attends Harvard College and is a Literature concentrator in Adams House.
BENAZIR BHUTTO, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West, New York: Harper/HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.
When Benazir Bhutto, the famous Radcliffe College graduate who twice served as Prime Minister of Pakistan, was assassinated last December, she left behind a recently written book about the main sources of conflict in the Islamic world. The book, Reconciliation, was published posthumously early this year. It will no doubt interest many New Society readers for its riveting accounts of Ms. Bhutto’s first-hand experiences and its bold discussion of a timely and controversial topic. The book does not fail the reader’s expectations.
Throughout the work, Bhutto presents historical examples, analysis, and opinion. She also offers a brave solution for breaking down the barriers to peaceful relations between Muslims, and between Muslims and the West. In the first chapter, Bhutto focuses on what she believes are the two main sources of tension in the Islamic world. The first is the internal conflict between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist Muslims. The second is the anger many Muslims feel toward the West based, in part, on its perceived inconsistency, unfairness, and meddling.
In the first chapter, Bhutto introduces the reader to her own life and in sharing several anecdotes and reflections, creates an intimate atmosphere and establishes a persuasive, authoritative voice. The fifth chapter is similarly impressive. It draws a clear and concise distinction between ‘clashers’ and ‘reconciliators’—people who think that a clash between Islamic and Western culture is inevitable, and those who think that the two must be reconciled. Bhutto then leads into her plan for the future in the sixth chapter, which I believe is the climax of the book. It presents a detailed outline for a step-by-step reconciliation between the East and the West. Bhutto first calls for the reconciliation of the internal tensions within Islamic culture and then outlines a plan to modernize the Islamic world. Her ambitious plan is superbly constructed and effectively articulated. It is certainly the highlight of her work, and this section alone makes the book a must-read for people who are interested in bringing equality, justice and harmony to the Islamic world.
The second, third, and fourth chapters are weaker, simply due to the volume of the material concerned, and the complexity of the issues she addresses. She attempts to offer a single, complete and correct reading of the Qur’an in Chapter Two, and Chapter Three tells the history of the intersection of Islamic culture and democratic governance across twenty-four countries in less than 80 pages. Chapter Four is devoted to an explanation of the political situation in Pakistan over the past 40 years. While these “fact-based” sections of the book are informative, they often appear over-simplified and are peppered with statistics that are un-referenced and evidently carefully selected. The reader cannot but question the partiality of the “facts” offered.
Worse, perhaps, than merely simplifying complicated historical episodes, Bhutto sometimes makes contradictory arguments. In Chapter Two Bhutto calls for relativism, while simultaneously presenting her reading of the passages of the Qur’an as authoritatively correct. The brevity of the discussion of the political climate of each country in Chapter Three lends those sections an anecdotal tone. Ironically these “summations” of historical events are, by their inherent nature, incomplete. Chapter Four provides a detailed, and purportedly distanced, account of the political situation in Pakistan, which is inevitably colored by loyalty to her family and defense of her own governance.
For all their flaws, however, these historical sections serve to ground Bhutto’s vision for a united, peaceful Middle East on an understanding of past failures. For the most part, these attempts are persuasive and ultimately, the book provides an interesting historical and political analysis of many of the tensions in the Islamic world. Bhutto comes across as heroic and unwavering in her belief in freedom and human rights. The after-word, written by her family, proclaims: “This book is about everything that those who killed her could never understand: democracy, tolerance, rationality, hope and above all, the true message of Islam…We commit our lives into making the message of this book into her legacy and the future of a democratic Pakistan. And ultimately we know we will succeed because, in her own words, ‘Time, justice and the forces of history are on our side.’”
Alas, as one reviewer, Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria, reminds us, “the idea of Benazir Bhutto has always been more powerful than the reality.” Bhutto presents herself as brave and committed democrat and liberal. But, as Zakaria notes, her leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party was profoundly undemocratic and plagued by charges of corruption. She allowed no internal party elections and bequeathed her party to her 19-year-old son, Bilawal—in keeping with the traditions of her feudal and exceedingly wealthy family. Bhutto herself inherited the leadership of the Party from her father and, as Zakaria uncompromisingly puts it, ran it “like a personal fiefdom.” The gap between the book’s bold message and Bhutto’s own political legacy will no doubt trouble the critical reader.