Benazir Bhutto's Answer to Al-Qaeda
- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
Nov 3, 2004
Benazir Bhutto's Answer to Al-Qaeda
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 mailto:saleem_shahzad2002@...
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