The recent assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on December 27, 2007 has already brought many heartfelt commentaries on her courage, stature, and life. As Salim Mansur penned on December 28, 2007 in the Toronto Sun,
“She was gunned down by a suicide bomber for challenging the life-denying status quo of a society she sought to govern for the better….She was indeed flawed. But the circumstances of her death amply illustrate the one characteristic of her tempestuous life – her indomitable courage in confronting her foes – for which she will be greatly missed by her people and her nation.”
All those who seek the defeat of the militant Islamists by more moderate non-Islamist leaders should mourn. Those who seek the advancement of Pakistan closer to democracy and away from autocracy should mourn. While certainly she only represented a slow progress of what is a generational journey for Pakistan, it is impossible to finish a journey never begun. Those who dream of a semblance of the development of genuine women’s rights in Pakistan and the Muslim world should mourn. The world lost a courageous Muslim woman who could have been an agent of change despite all her obvious flaws.
As many have reviewed in the past week, Benzair and her family have a mixed history of everything from positive constitutional reforms to open support of the radical Islamist Taliban. While Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto completely changed her stance with the Islamists in her more recent vow to defeat radical Islamists, her family’s rule has always been plagued with charges of deep corruption. No doubt the Bhutto family exerted an influence in Pakistan which is pseudo-monarchical, tribal, and often simply rivaled other tribal leaders such as Musharraf. But as Bhutto noted in a recent November 2007 commentary for CNN, the future Pakistan of a returning Benazir would have been a significant step forward in the re-establishment of a more genuine rule of law (though far from perfect).
The challenge of the future will be to find hundreds, even thousands more courageous Muslim women –similar agents of change in Pakistan to follow her. They can assassinate one icon, but not hundreds or thousands. A freer Pakistani media and culture can produce them.
But the life expectancy of leading anti-Islamists today continues to shorten. What is most interesting is that the genuine anti-Islamists disappear far more quickly and effectively than the faux anti-Islamists like Musharraf and other supposedly secular “Muslim” leaders who seem to conveniently hang around as their more moderate political anti-Islamist rivals vanish. It’s time to not only cultivate genuine anti-Islamists but keep them safe from the Islamists and from their enemy of convenience – the ruling dictators. To the day of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, Musharraf had not allowed an international investigation of the October suicide bombing and assassination attempt against her.
Over the next generation, it should not be that difficult to empower hundreds, thousands of moderate young, pious anti-Islamist Muslim women in Pakistan to follow in Benazir’s new path against the two-headed snake of both the Islamists and the dictatorship of Musharraf. Such women and men may not hold majority views in current day Pakistan, but armed with the ideas which liberated the West from theocracy in the 18th Century and armed with the ideas which defeated fascism, socialism, and communism in the 20th Century, they will have a chance to win the hearts and minds of Muslims. Many Pakistani Muslims in the past 60 years have heard very little about liberty. They have instead had to choose between a so-called “benevolent dictatorship” which uses martial law to maintain power, and militant Islamists who seek to implement Taliban-like theocracy, fulfilling a grand Jihad. In the middle remain the untapped, oppressed, non-corrupted non-Islamists – and more importantly, the anti-Islamist Muslims of Pakistan waiting for the necessary resources to fulfill their own journey.
Such future icons of liberty-minded Pakistani Muslims cannot be created in a vacuum. They need institutions in which to learn about freedom and liberty. They need classically liberal institutions which will teach them about the price many have paid in history in the defense of individual liberty against theocracy and dictatorship; and how a spiritual Islam can thrive in a nation which is not Islamist and which honors the equality of all faiths in a pluralistic society. There is a great need for these seeds to be planted for the future generations. With the right resources, protection, and “light of day,” the West can help transition what today appears to be a haplessly violent culture into a vibrant and educated one grounded in economic free markets and the free market of ideas.
Andrew McCarthy recently (and appropriately) noted in National Review Online that in Pakistan, the problem runs even deeper than that of a thuggish military dictatorship of Musharraf or the violent chaos of Islamists. The biggest problem impeding change is popular opinion in which bin Ladenism is spreading as an ideology far more effectively than any other palpable counter ideologies. Thus, when the Islamists are able to associate anything outside political Islam as being about “America” and the evil image that they have instilled rather than ideas about freedom and liberty, the Islamists have won the debate. Thus, anti-Americanism also reigns as a winning idea, a religion if you will, in the Pakistani ether of Islamism and dictatorship. In an Islamist mindset, where conspiracy theories can take hold far quicker than any other more reasoned idea, the Islamist campaign will continue to spread like wildfire.
With illiteracy rates as high as 38% for men and 68% for women, the necessary change will happen over a few generations. This change can only come to the Pakistani people in their own form, and the change must come from within – not necessarily within Pakistan proper, but from within the Pakistani ethnicity and diaspora. The United States, for example has become home to over 500,000 Pakistani Americans over the past 50 years who have, for the most part, been living comfortably in a nation founded in liberty and the separation of religion and politics. There is no more effective asset to generate the seeds which will plant the ideas of genuine liberty, anti-corruption, gender equality, anti-Islamism, and real democracy than large numbers of Pakistani Americans demanding that their motherland reform its political system.
It is time for Pakistani Americans to step up and lead the charge for accountability for freedom in Pakistan. It is not enough to condemn terror incidents after they occur. It is not enough to mourn the assassination of a re-emerging icon of change. It’s not enough to maintain communications with family or just to be able to travel unfettered to their motherlands. At what point do immigrants take on the responsibility to give back to their motherlands the ideas they learned and benefit from in the nation which guarantees their freedom?
There has not been a more formidable lobby in Washington against Fidel Castro and for Cuban liberation than the American Cuban community. Where is the similar liberty-loving American Pakistani community? Certainly scattered examples of a vocal few exist. But this Pakistani problem needs a Pakistani solution in order for real change to be effected in Islamabad and beyond.
Just as only Muslims can lead the war against militant Islamism, so too it is that only Pakistanis can lead the contest for the hearts and minds of the Pakistani people away from Islamism and toward real freedom and universal liberty. With the shortening life expectancies of those leaders who choose to take on militant Islamists in the belly of the beast, now more than ever it is clear that this must be done by those with a Pakistani identity who are safer, educated, and experientially understand freedom. They should also be driven to want to help their families remaining in Pakistan realize change, education, free markets, democracy, and freedom. New, protected liberal Muslim institutions can do this. American Pakistani Muslims uniquely understand the history, the language, the cultural divide and tribalism of Pakistan, while also presumably understanding liberty. That is, as long as they haven’t remained bonded to Islamism and taken by anti-Americanism, conspiracy theories, and other Pakistani propaganda fed into many Muslim homes through satellite television.
With a palpable and considerable grass roots movement in the U.S. for constitutionally guaranteed liberty and against Musharraff, against the Islamists, and against corruptive forces in Pakistan, the Bush administration and those after will be forced to heed the pressure of the American Pakistani community and help the process of establishing new thought in Pakistan: new thought defending a spiritual Islam from the clutches of political Islam.
Sadly, what is most disheartening as we consider the viability and possibility of American Pakistani activism to change their motherland of Pakistan are the relatively high number of vocal Pakistani-Islamists active in the U.S., bolstered by Wahhabi sympathizing organizations. Rather than help to generate a resistance against Islamism in Pakistan and against the militant dictatorship of Musharraf, many prefer to simply advocate, establish, and spread Islamism in the United States. They prefer to live in denial about the endemic corruption in Pakistan and blame the ills of the region on America and the West.
Even when tragedy strikes, the Islamists who unfortunately control many of these pulpits dodge their responsibilities. Tarek Fatah and Salma Siddiqui pointed out last week that in some mosques in Toronto, Islamist imams refused to even say Benazir Bhutto’s name as they expressed what appeared to be a forced mourning. The Islamist political agenda obviously takes priority for those imams over the compassion, humanity, and responsibilities for reform which they have as religious scholars. Similarly in the U.S., many Islamic organizations like the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Islamic Circle of North America are havens for large numbers of American Pakistanis with an Islamist orientation and agenda.
The solution resides in the silent majority of the American Pakistani business community, who are thus far unaffiliated and have stayed away from Islamist controlled groups in the U.S. There are many tangible steps they can do over the next few years to lead positive change in Pakistan from the U.S.:
1. Form both a political governmental reform movement and think tanks within the American Pakistani community that can express ideas for export into Pakistan. This movement needs to go beyond social and cultural events.
2. Launch a global information campaign to counter the typical Pakistani Islamist campaign, rife with anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories and wanting for ideas supporting universal religious freedom.
3. Develop connections with local and national political representatives in the U.S. who can put real pressure on the U.S. government to partner with liberty-minded Muslims and protect forward thinking Pakistani leadership that is for the people, by the people and seeks stability of the country and the region.
4. Use their collective financial strength to develop a voice of political reform within Pakistan to manifest the liberal ideas of modernity and enlightenment within Pakistan itself. This can be done through non-profit think tanks, advocacy groups, and watch groups.
5. Anti-corruption movement within the Pakistani population based in spiritual moral Islam free of political agendas.
The current predominant expression of Islam in the public setting is the one of political Islam – Islamism. In fact that this domination of political Islam over spiritual Islam is built into Pakistan’s Constitution, regardless of how moderate the Prime Minister may be. Christopher Geisel aptly notes that the Pakistani Constitution “guarantees those rights” versus the American paradigm in which our Constitution prohibits the government form violating our inalienable rights which already exist and are not given to us by government. This is one of the core differences between Islamism, in which government is God, and constitutional republics, in which government provides a protection for individual liberty. This debate – a reasoned pro-Islamic, pro-freedom, anti-Islamist counter to political Islam, has yet to occur in Pakistan. Only the American Pakistani community has the resources and the setting in America to begin the debate.