Benazir Bhutto's answer to al-Qaeda

Posted in Broader Middle East | 03-Nov-04 | Author: Syed Saleem Shahzad

Benazir Bhutto, daughter of former premier Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, as leader of the Pakistan People's Party, served as premier for two terms, 1988-90 and 1993-96, the first term making her the first female prime minister in the Muslim world. She currently lives in self-imposed exile. Asia Times Online's Syed Saleem Shahzad spoke to Mrs Bhutto on a wide range of topics.

Asia Times Online: Islamic extremists have called for "death to America", with no room for compromise. Why has this extremism emerged now, and not, for instance, during the Cold War?

Benazir Bhutto: The slogan "death to America" was, to my knowledge, raised before Islamic extremists took center stage in global politics. If I recall correctly, it was used way back in Latin America during the times of Che Guevara and Pancho Villa. The slogan is today considered more deadly because of the events of 9/11. In the past, it was more a manifestation of anger or resentment among those who raised such slogans. The events of 9/11 have given it a less rhetorical content.

During the Cold War the countries which felt aggrieved used superpower rivalry to promote their agendas. With the demise of the Soviet Union, and the rise of Islamic extremists during the fight against the Soviet occupation [of Afghanistan], Islamic extremists felt that they could take on the remaining superpower. It is unlikely that non-state actors can take on a superpower without being assisted by another superpower. However, they can cause random terror, spread insecurity and fear, give birth to a clash of cultures and religions and create more hatred and intolerance. This is the real danger. We need to counter such extremism by promoting unity, tolerance and respect to different races, religions and genders. In such moderation lies the harmony and well being of the world community. Moreover, we need to address unresolved political issues to prevent extremists from exploiting them for their own narrow and theocratic ends.

ATol: The US says "you are with us or against us" - all-out war with no compromise.

Bhutto: The impact of 9/11 was dramatic and led to a dramatic declaration that either you are with us or against us. The United States was struck in its financial and political center - while Pearl Harbor was on the periphery in comparison. Pearl Harbor drew the US into World War II. The attacks of 9/11 have drawn it into the war against terror. For some time, the events of 9/11 will continue to dominate the agenda of global politics, with the US in the lead.

ATol: The US is fighting a war against an invisible enemy called al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front (a loose coalition of pro-al-Qaeda organizations). What is al-Qaeda in the real sense? Is there an ideology behind its movement, or are they just a bunch of militants who are mindlessly in search of soft US targets to blow up?

Bhutto: Al-Qaeda has managed to unite disparate militant groups into an international confederate of terrorists, which is at times is called the Islamic Front. Often these groups exploit local tensions, for example the tensions in the Middle East, the nationalistic feelings of the Chechen people, the nationalistic opposition to foreign troops in Iraq or the Kashmir dispute. However, they do have an ideology. Their real agenda is to use regional political issues to bring about a theocratic dictatorship similar to the one that existed in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Gender discrimination, cultural intolerance, denial of representation, repression of freedom and subjugation of the masses to one-man clerical dictatorship is a negation of humanity's struggle to overcome suffering and to live in respect and dignity. It is important to separate the terrorists from the regional issue by defusing tensions where they exist through political action.

ATol:There is a theory that Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf was the biggest supporter of al-Qaeda before September 11, 2001. Why and how did he became the "most trusted" US partner in the "war on terror"? And does the Pakistani army fully support him?

Bhutto: It is a fact that the Musharraf regime was the biggest supporter of the Taliban, who harbored al-Qaeda, which was recruiting and training men for terrorism prior to 9/11. This policy was defended in the name of strategic depth. I called it "strategic threat" in a speech I gave in parliament calling for the breaking of ties with the Taliban in 1998. According to a book by Bob Woodward, the Bush administration asked Musharraf to stand up and be counted as friend or foe. Since he gave a positive answer in one telephone call, they decided to work with him. It was more convenient for Washington to work with someone stating he was prepared to play ball than bring about a change at a time of immense crisis. Washington has managed to squeeze concessions out of Musharraf. There is a US base in Pakistan, the FBI [US Federal Bureau of Investigation] are allowed to operate [in Pakistan] and through electronic "transepts" have captured some big fish. Musharraf in turn has been able to use the relationship to buy time during which the Taliban (either deliberately or inadvertently) have been able to regroup. He has also cleverly held out the promise of the capture of a high-value target - read Osama bin Laden or [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar - during the US presidential-election year.

The Pakistan army is a disciplined force. It may be unhappy having to kill civilians in search of terrorists in the tribal areas, but it does what it is ordered to do through its chain of command. There have been isolated incidents that demonstrate a lack of support, namely in the two assassination attempts [last year] against Musharraf, and some other incidents. However, this kind of isolated, junior-level activity is not new. It has occurred in the past during the Attock Conspiracy case of the 1970s [to overthrow Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's government] and the Islamic Brotherhood attempt to overthrow the democratic government in the 1990s.

By involving the military in civilian affairs and scandals ... as well as political persecution, the impartiality of the armed forces and its professionalism has been made subject to public controversy. It is this controversial political role that would make most professional officers uncomfortable.

ATol: The US invasion of Iraq, in the name of creating a civil society and a liberal democracy in the Middle East, has instead promoted fundamentalist trends, especially in Iraq itself, which had been a tolerant secular society but is now a fundamentalist hotbed where private Shi'ite and Sunni militias rule the roost.

Bhutto: There were two plans: one for the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime and the second for a postwar order. The first worked and the second did not. The consequences are before us. It's a tragedy to see Muslims divided on sectarian lines. It's important for Muslims to unite and dissent on political rather than religious issues.

ATol: Previously, Islamic fundamentalist parties could not make headway in elections, now they are emerging as a challenge in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Bhutto: Extremist and fundamentalist political parties have never been able to score any significant political victories in countries like Pakistan. In fact, if the past record is any guide, it is clear that the extremist parties were never voted into power or even brought close to it by the people. The extremists rose under the dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan. The religious parties [Muttahhida Majlis-e-Amal] formed a government for the first time [in North West Frontier Province] under General Musharraf's dictatorship.

It is dictatorship that leads to the rise of extremist groups. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc are all countries that share a background of long periods of military or authoritarian rule. The best defense against extremism and terrorism is the promotion of freedom, human dignity, rule of law, tolerance and pluralism. The present marginalization of moderate political parties in Pakistan can cause blow-back in time. There is a political vacuum in Pakistan which is dangerous to the future.

ATol: There is an extreme feeling of dissent within religious political parties, which is further giving birth to more extreme notions. Jihadi organizations are one manifestation, but there is a very strong opinion flourishing in the shape of Hizbut Tehrir-like organizations, which has taken strong roots in Central Asia and is silently taking root in Pakistan. Unlike religious-political parties, they do not believe in democracy at all. What is the perspective of these trends?

Bhutto: During the days of fighting the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan [1980s], a military dictator in Pakistan [Zia] used religious parties to recruit fighters. He used money to set up religious schools whose real purpose was to indoctrinate young men into becoming robots. Since he was associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, he used those links to bring together members of the Muslim Brotherhood from different parts of the world. They were brainwashed into believing that after defeating the Soviet Union, they could take on the other superpower, namely America. They were never told that the success against the Soviets was because it was a proxy war with international backing. These indoctrinated elements were patronized in the military, security, civilian and political structure of Pakistan. They believe that Islam came to Pakistan through the shores of Central Asia and can now be exported to Europe through Central Asia. Hence we see the cells operating in that area.

I believe that both my governments were destabilized by these forces. The Pakistan People's Party and I posed the most potent threat to them. We gave an alternative vision of freedom, human rights, modernity compatible with religion as well as progress and prosperity. Pakistan, under the PPP, was an example of a moderate, enlightened and modern democracy to 1 billion Muslims at the crossroads having to choose between the past and the future. These elements prefer Musharraf to the PPP. Musharraf is a military dictator and is not an ideological alternative to them. They have scuttled all attempts at rapprochement between the army led by Musharraf and the people led by the PPP. This is why some sections of the media have speculated that Islamabad could be seized by a combine of religio-political-military elements. I do not believe that this nightmare scenario is possible because I believe that the restoration of democracy can turn the wheel of disaster into one of opportunity for the people of Pakistan - and the wider world community.

Previously, the religious parties were used to help recruit militants. With the passage of two decades, the militant cells are becoming more independent of the religious parties. While they take their spiritual mentoring from the religious parties, their organizational structures are cellular and independent. But there is a real danger today. Disillusioned with military dictatorship and unable to express disillusionment through a fair electoral process, the danger is of the radicalization of the masses. This disillusionment provides a perfect breeding ground for extremist organizations. That was why in Pakistan, parties that are sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qaeda claim that neither democracy nor military dictatorship works and that theocratic rule should be given a chance. Thus, when people are denied the democratic model of development, they can choose a system that is even worse than military dictatorship.

ATol: Why have secular forces in Muslim societies failed to contain fundamentalism?

Bhutto: Most secular forces were kept out of government during the Cold War by military or authoritarian rulers lacking grass-root support and legitimacy. Since authoritarianism and dictatorship rested on force rather than on law, it gave birth to a culture of lawlessness and extremism. We need to have democracy in the Muslim world and we need to spend more on education and human development to contain the forces of extremism.

ATol: Where do liberation movements such as those in Palestine and Kashmir stand?

Bhutto: The armed struggle of the people of Palestine and Kashmir and others under occupation received a setback following the events of 9/11. Now there is zero tolerance for armed struggle. However, the causes of unrest are political and the search for a solution will continue through peaceful avenues.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Bureau Chief, Pakistan, Asia Times Online. He can be reached at