In Quest for Democracy, Former Pakistan Prime Minister Bhutto Addresses Oxonian Society
Urging an end to the “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islam, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, who served intermittently from 1988 to 1996 and was ultimately succeeded by the military regime of General Musharraf, called for a return to democracy in her country at the Oxonian Society last month.
“A democratic Pakistan, freed of the repression of the military dictatorship, would cease to be the petri dish of the pandemic of national terrorism,” said Bhutto to a capacity crowd at the Princeton Club. “The military dictator of today plays the west like a fiddle over the war of terror. He doles out one spoonful of cooperation, as needed, to keep America and Britain off his back, while the Taliban and Al Qaeda run wild through large tracts of Pakistan’s tribal border areas,” she added ominously. Bhutto credited Pakistan’s military regime with a rise in global terrorism (2001 shoe bomber Richard Reid, the 2005 London subway bombing, and the 2006 transatlantic bomb plot uncovered in London this past summer “all have footprints going back to my country,” revealed Bhutto.)
The former Prime Minister argued that military dictatorships in Pakistan have persuaded young men into believing that “power flows from the gun, rather than from the majesty of law.” Political “madrasas” (schools providing free religious education to the poor) are further exploiting indigent families by marketing militant literature and spreading a message of hate against all non-Muslims, she said. Religious parties that have publicly avowed their support of Bin Laden currently control the two states bordering Afghanistan: “Like the Hydra-headed monster, militant groups, when banned, reemerge under another name…Extremism has replaced moderation in an increasingly despotic Pakistan,” concluded Bhutto, urging the international community to tie forthcoming financial aid to a democratically run Pakistan.
The first woman ever to lead a modern Muslim nation, Prime Minister Bhutto also talked about her own path to leadership. As a student at Harvard in the seventies, she witnessed first-hand the feminist and civil rights movements in America as well as “the awesome power of the people…to change the direction of history” during the Watergate crisis. During her graduate studies at Oxford, she saw Britain’s conservative party choose Margaret Thatcher to be their first female Prime Minister. Bhutto herself became the first female foreigner to be elected president of the prestigious Oxford union (“I was told that as a woman I could not win…But I did run and I did win, and I gave up my fear of losing.”)
Despite being born into a political family, Bhutto never sought a political role. “It came to me through an accident of fate,” she recalled, describing how only a week after she returned to Pakistan in 1977 after her schooling abroad, the military seized power, ousting her father, the late Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and later executing him. “When he was murdered, my life changed forever,” explained Bhutto, who gave up her dream of joining the foreign service (“I had dreamt of becoming ambassador and serving in Washington and throwing better parties than any other ambassador”) and instead found herself in prison for almost six years. “But I never game up my struggle and my commitment for a democratic Pakistan,” she added, and in 1988 she was sworn in as Prime Minister in the first open election in more than a decade.
Coming back from behind to do the seemingly impossible is what Benazir Bhutto does best. She is awaiting a return to Pakistan to run yet again for Prime Minister in the upcoming general elections scheduled for November 2007, and she called upon the US to send official observers to insure that those elections are free and fair. “Democracy is important to the empowerment of the people in Pakistan,” summed up the indomitable Prime Minister Bhutto to the impassioned applause of the audience. “But democracy is also important to the message we want to send more than one million Muslims across the world who have to choose between the politics of the past and the politics of the future.”#