Friday, December 28, 2007

Benazir Bhutto's Martyrdom

Yesterday morning when I heard Amy Goodman’s voice saying, “We just received a news from Pakistan that Benazir Bhutto …” I stopped breathing for a second. I did not want her to finish her sentence, which she did after an eternity: “was murdered.”

Benazir, was one of my heroines, not for her being perfect, which she was not, but for her existence and for her dynamism. She was especially appealing to me for being from that part of the world, being half Iranian, being the daughter of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, being so shrewd, being so courageous that in such a male-dominated society even daring to dream of becoming what she became, her amazing strength, her exotic beauty, her conflicted personality, her passion for politics and, finally, her willingness to fight, her amazing drive for life, her freshness and ever-lasing youth, her originality and, finally, being the daughter of an Ali Bhutto, being proud of him and still refusing to be his relic. She was an engaging novel which I could not stop reading.

Of course, we all came to know her from her father, one of two democratically-elected premier in this turbulent part of the world. He did not finish his term. A military coup lead by Muhammad Zia ul-Haque ended him in an execution, and that was when Benazir made her debut in politics as the head of the Pakistan People’s Party.

I became interested in Pakistani politics since Ali Bhutto’s time. He was the "event" of our time in that part of the world, where everything was meant to stay in the status quo and where a heavy curtain had shielded it from the world’s events. Ali Bhutto came as a hope, a new voice, democracy vs. coup, campaign, election, people, votes, everything which was supposed to belong only to the West was now in our neighborhood. He made such a contrast with General Yahya Khan, who looked like a giant lobster. (He was always drunk, and the only person in the world who found him charming was Empress Farah!) In addition to all that, I also had a personal reason to think about Pakistan. My sister was a student in the University of Karachi, and so Pakistan was part of our daily conversation.

When Benazir was campaigning, I was in the United States, and my good friend Nafisa Hoodbhoy, a journalist in the Pakistani daily English language newspaper Dawn, with her annual trips to the New York, brought to us Pakistan’s news, front and center. I still possess a taped interview of Benazir right before her election. She was talking about democracy, about the people, about the judiciary, although not about the military. (I also recall how disappointed I was in her hasty marriage to a man who caused her downfall.)

Having a political father, Benazir was considered a Pakistani Indira Gandhi, though it was not to be so. While Indira Gandhi always remained the daughter of Nehru, and remained a conventional symbolic women politician who continues an existing tradition, Benazir’s inner zeal made her anything but another Ghandi. She was born as a genuine politician who incidentally had a politician as a father. She rightly admired her own father and wanted to follow his legacy. (Was there any other worthwhile legacy in Pakistan?)

Her passion for politics and public life was an avalanche, nothing could stop it, just as nothing could stop her from being a women. I recall that it was in the middle of the bloody protests between her two terms that it was discovered that she was five months into her second pregnancy. (She went through three pregnancies during her premiership or campaigning.)

Her voice became the voice of people, the voice of those of whose very existence we did not know. When she won the election, after Zia’s aircraft accident, when there was no time for the military to substitute another dictator in his place and when there was no time to intimidate the people, we noticed the masses participated and elected a young woman of only thirty-six years without any reluctance, as if it is the most natural thing. That was when we saw another face of Pakistan in the form of the premier they elected, modern, educated, active, and progressive, with an ideal which was the people’s ideal, democracy.

Politically, she was shrewd and sharp, though she made many mistakes. During her premiership she was not able to fulfill her promises; she was not able to bring about that much of the social justice and the rule of law to the country. During her trip to the United States, in one of her interviews, with Charlie Rose, she explained the kind of society she has to deal with. It was a society in which Islamic law permits an eighty years old man to marry a nine years old girl in return for unpaid debts her parents owe him; in which women have been pushed into the cruel laws of “marriage to the Koran” just to keep them out of actual marriage to prevent the ownership of land transfer to another family; in which you cannot even report rape in a newspaper, for it is considered obscene; in which rape victims are indeed punished as fornicators; in which she was not permitted to talk in public with her own people about these problems. And it was in this vicious circle that she was supposed to live, to govern, and to find a way out.

There is a song I like very much by my favorite singer, Rod Stewart, Forever Young. Whenever I hear it, only a few people come to my mind and Benazir is one of them. For over quarter of century in politics, dealing with sharks every day, she lived relentlessly, in the male-dominated politics of Pakistan and its military, which is indeed the country’s most corrupt institution; the country in which almost every premier is toppled or assassinated or hung; the country in which some part of it is not under any rule or law, and the other part is under harsh sharia law; the country which is surrounded by hostile forces; and the country which, in its short life, has been more involved in war than in peace. I heard part of her speech right before her assassination; the voice was as energetic and as fresh of the same young women who, with her stunning beauty, addressed a joint session of the American legislature. I do recall her speech very well “We are here to tell to the democratic nations of the world that yes we can be a democratic state, to the Islamic world, yes we can be a democratic Muslim nation, and to the women, yes, yes, we can be there too.” I will never forget her proud poise. Although speeches of this kind are written and are well-crafted by teams of speech writers, I think this particular statement was from the depth of Benazir’s personality, a striking personality, which struck us all with all her genius as well as all her mishaps and faults. She was the most unconventional, as a Muslim woman,  or as a Pakistani of her age. Her passion for politics transfixed  those of us interested in her as if we were watching a tight-rope walker. We followed her, holding our breath lest she fall. Ah, alas she fell!

While speculation on the identity of her murderers continues, while the parties who seemed to be interested in her elimination each try to divert attention to someone else, we feel acutely that a creature of legendary proportion has ceased to live with us and, like all her kind, she is more dangerous to her enemies as a martyr than when she lived amongst us. While my heart is with her family, particularly her children, still I have a hard time thinking of people like Benazir as dead. Such heroes are forever alive.

P.S. On a personal note, my deep condolences to my friends Nafisa and Javid and Nadia. I hope Benazir’s martyrdom represents is a new page on your country’s history, not as and bleak as Tariq Ali predicted this morning in his interview with Amy Goodman.


Anonymous said...

The words "martyr" and "martyrdom" make me become very uncomfortable. Using of these words in my view display some acceptance of backwardness, death surrender, savagery, revenge, blood, violence, and killing.

Why do we need to use these words in honoring a person and her ideals?

Mina said...

Point well taken.
In my defense, I would say,
1) This is probably how Binazir would have understood the event if she could have looked back on it and
2) Martyrdom also indicates a willingness to die for ones beliefs.
But given the use (and abuse?) of the term, I can understand what you mean and to some extent agree with you.

Amber said...

Mina, I read your Blog on Benazir Bhutto and while it is very well written and gets at a lot of wonderful things about her, it really overlooks the bad stuff. For example, the paragraph below is taken from Wikipedia free encyclopedia. I had heard this about her many times before in much worse terms and think, on the whole, she was an opportunist with a very large ego. The Taliban are not exactly for women's rights, but nevertheless she supported them and she shouldn't have regardless of the rationaliztion.

Sorry, Mike Delano

Policy on Taliban
The Taliban took power in Kabul in September 1996. It was during Bhutto's rule that the Taliban gained prominence in Afghanistan. She, like many leaders at the time, viewed the Taliban as a group that could stabilize Afghanistan and enable trade access to the Central Asian republics, according to author Stephen Coll.[12] He claims that like the U.S., her government provided military and financial support for the Taliban, even sending a small unit of the Pakistani army into Afghanistan.

More recently, she took an anti-Taliban stance, and condemned terrorist acts allegedly committed by the Taliban and their supporters.

fariba said...

Thank you for your post on Binazir. She was a brave woman.
Also thank you for your other comments and notes about Iran. I wonder if you have seen Persian Paradox:

Mina said...

Dear Mike,
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to address a few things which I thought was inappropriate to discuss in my article for Benazir.
First, I have mentioned at least in three places that I would not consider her an example of perfection. Sure she had as many faults as we all have. However, as we all judge everyone for what they are and what they claim to be, I found it fair to judge her for what she was, a superb and exceptionally talented politician, a class of people who are not generally saints.
As for her opportunism, regarding the Pakistani support of the Taliban in Afghanistan while she was Prime Minister, the Pakistani system of government is a little different from ours. The army is a government unto itself, and the tribes on the north where there is the biggest boarder with Afghanistan in another autonomous government. The Pakistani Army has nothing to do with the Office of Prime Minister except if the prime minister is their own man, i.e. has come to power through a military coup, like General Yahya Khan, General Zia and Musharaf of course. Benazir would have been toppled if she had not supported what army was supporting. See what happened this time, she did not even last long enough to be toppled. And of course, the army receives its order, we all know, where they get their arms from! Guess where?

Mina said...

I wrote an article on Benazir’s untimely catastrophic death as soon as I heard the news. Since then, I received many calls and emails form my friends and even relatives regarding my response to the event. Oddly enough, mostly concerned the use of word “martyr.” The objections ranging from the whole concept of martyrdom as an accepting of violence on one hand to not valuing life on the other. My brother in law argued that her death was a deliberated suicide aimed at making herself a martyr.
As a matter of fact, when I wrote the article, I did not title the article at all. It was my “techy guy,” my husband Evan, who titled the article, appealing to the dictionary definition, and I was convinced. Moreover, since he does have few published article on the theme, I accepted him as an authority to call it martyrdom rather than assassination.
Calling it a suicide would have sounded a bit cynical if it had not come from someone whom I know was extremely upset by this terror. My brother-in-law’s argument was rather simplistic. She could have been more useful for her country if she had stayed alive, she would have been alive if she had not stood up exposed to the crowed in a convertible car. He argued that her advisors and her body guards should not have let her risk her life. Indeed, he totally dismissed the presence of bombs and suicide bombers.
I can answer this objection and the arguments given for it simply by telling an anecdote I heard years ago. Once, at a preppy school, the teacher assigned the students to write a composition on poor people. One of the students, who had never known any poor people, wrote: “They were very poor, their house was poor, their garden was poor, their swimming pool was poor, their car was poor…” Though I heard this anecdote while still in Iran, I have no idea why I thought this story must have had happened somewhere in the United States.
It was much later that I noticed I was right in my assumption: in the United States, everything translates into American’s way of life, as if there is not other life anywhere else in the world. While it seems natural in the absence of information about the other parts of the world to use what is familiar to us, still I feel dismayed to know how far and alien the rest of the world is to us. I’m even more discouraged when I know with a few click on Google we can find out about almost everything we want to know.
Not knowing about Pakistan does not surprise me at all; but thinking that in Pakistan everything is exactly as it is here only a little less, is a little beyond me. Why on earth should we assume that Benazir Bhutto was equipped with all the crews and cameras and whole range of advisors and bodyguards and managers and so on? Why do we have such a hard time to understand that still many of our “friends” in the world cannot provide the most basic security for their citizens? These American friends in that part of the world have only one duty as the head of the State of their country: to be armed to teeth to exert their power to prevent what the United States considers dangerous. To tell the truth, the way Pakistan is, Benazir was not even safe in her own home. The only problem is, we do not know what Pakistan is like. In her political rally she was surrounded by guns and bombs and suicide bombers. Oddly enough, the scene of the crime was immediately cleaned of all the evidences, and no investigation is going on in spite of her family’s request. And as President Bush suggested, President Musharraf is “continuing his democratic progress!”
A journalist friend who was in Pakistan when Ali Bhutto was hung said that time there were no riots, no noise, no protests, though this time there was total unrest for a week. It seems that Pakistan and the Pakistanis have started a new page in their history. I hope that when it comes time to revolt and get rid of all this lawlessness, they would forgive us all for our ignorance and our lack of interest in their country. That is the way we are, if there is no oil, there is no American interest. But I promise that in some history book a child will read: Once upon a time there was a brave woman who was not a saint but loved her country and wanted to do good things for it, and someone killed her to stop her good plans. But in spite of her death, people did not abandoned her cause and it took upon themselves to fulfill her cause, and in fact her death gave them more reason to look after themselves and do something for their country. “Oh! A ‘martyr’,” the child might think.

Anonymous said...

Mina. I am afraid of your ending phrase "“Oh! A ‘martyr’,” the child might think."

I am afraid with its acceptance the suicide terrorism continues.

Evan said...

OK, let me weigh in on this.
The concept of martyrdom is Christian. The word comes from the Greek word for "witness." The members of the young church suffered and died as a way of bearing "witness" to the firmness of their faith.
In combat, a company of troops' esprit de corp can only be maintained if each of its members is firm, even in the face of death. Thus, at the Battle of Midway, American airmen flew their clunky old planes into a swarm of Japanese zeros knowing full well that they were going to die, because to disobey orders would have had the effect of demoralizing their comrades and this would have ended in defeat.

Even in everyday life, one makes sacrifices for the good of the group. This is a way of bearing witness to the seriousness with which one takes any group endeavor.

I do not hold Benazir in high esteem, and it is questionable whether she poked her head out of her vehicle out of a sense of bearing witness--They are not going to intimidate me!--or simple arrogance or foolishness, but assuming the former, she did indeed bear witness to her cause, and she could then be said to have died a martyr's death, whatever we could say about how she comported herself in life.