Friday, 4 January 2008

Benazir Bhutto: a reality check

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Writing in Time magazine, the historian William Dalrymple offers an interesting contrast to some of the hagiography that has appeared in the wake of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto last week.

While acknowledging that the killing of a "secular, liberal, pro-Western leader" will lead to increased chaos in Pakistan, Dalrymple points out that in power Bhutto colluded in human-rights abuses, presided over an inept administration, allowed the secret service to arm jihadis in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and failed to deliver the liberal reforms she promised.

Above all Bhutto was an autocrat, "a feaudal landowner ... with the sense of entitlement this produced". This, says Dalrymple, is a major part of the problem in Pakistani democracy, which "is really a form of elective feudalism". Thus, while the industrial, military and landowning classes look out for one another's interests, they do not do much for the poor: "The government education system barely functions in Pakistan, and for the have-nots, justice is almost impossible to come by. This pushes the poor into the arms of fundamentalists."

Rather than seeing the struggle against the jihadists as a battle between the forces of secularism on the one hand, and the forces of an "irrational for of 'Islamo-fascism'" on the other, Western commentators need to realise that "much of the Islamists' success in Pakistan and elsewhere comes from their ability to portray themselves as champions of social justice, fighting Westernised elites – like Benazir Bhutto."

Thus, concludes Dalrymple, while "Bhutto was a brave, gutsy, secular and liberal woman", she was also "a central part of Pakistan's problems, not a solution to them".

An interesting take, and one worth bearing in mind when considering her legacy.