Benazir Bhutto’s last book…

I hadn’t mentioned it before, but a couple of weeks ago I picked up Benazir Bhutto’s last book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West at Borders.  I couldn’t resist it and had been looking forward to reading it.  You see, when I was but a wee high school girl, Benazir Bhutto, Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir were my three idols.  They continued to be my idols when I went off to college and I had to justify my idolatry of them even though I attended a women’s college and they were women leaders.  I’ve always been a little bitter about that.  Apparently only some mythical woman leader who will refuse to wage war and will wrap her citizens up in a blanket of state protection is worthy of the overused statement, “This ______ (fill in the blank with any complaint) wouldn’t be happening if women ran the world.”  Whatever…

A few years ago I read Margaret Thatcher’s brilliant book Statecraft and my admiration for the woman grew exponentially.  While reading it I had that experience that fiction readers sometimes have where they just don’t want the book to end.  Her writing and her ideas were firm, concise and I believe entirely correct though not popular.  But I don’t think she cares about popularity.

Anyway, before I opened the Benazir Bhutto book to begin reading (this is going to be corny, I apologize in advance) I held it in my hands and talked to it.  I practically begged the dead author not to disappoint me.  I begged her to allow me to still admire her when I finished the book.  I begged her to be as thoughtful, intelligent and concise as Thatcher.  I begged her not to prove my school girl admiration wrong.

Now, Benazir Bhutto is a touchy subject because so many people see her as a great democratic leader and many people see her as just another member of a corrupt political family.  If you read the book already having one of those perspectives, you will probably come away from reading it feeling smugly correct in your earlier opinion.  I admired her for being a female leader in a Muslim country.  I never fully bought into the corruption allegations because I see them leveled in this country on innocent people.  Political corruption exists, but there are some people we let get away with it and others whose heads we put on spikes in the public square.  And to be honest, I tend to like foreign leaders who were educated in the United States, like Bhutto and the King of Jordan.  I always hope their exposure to our people will give them a deeper perspective on us.  Although I am not all that sure that exposure to American college kids is putting our best foot forward…

That said, I jumped into the Bhutto book with all gusto.  It was my night stand reading but instead of taking a week or two, I read it all in about four nights.  It isn’t long and it isn’t a difficult read.  She starts off with her return to Pakistan from exile last fall and that is kind of hard to read because you know that she is going to be dead in less than a month.  She does a whole lot of Pervez Musharraf bashing which may or may not be called for.  I’m not in Pakistan and I only know what I see on the news and what I read in her book and that information has come through a very specific filter.  Jailing the lawyers and disbanding the Supreme Court are not things I approve of (well, except for the jailing the lawyers part, which I could totally get behind) and I probably buy into Bhutto’s argument that Musharraf didn’t do all the things he could have done to protect her.  But, it is clear from reading the book, that Bhutto took some chances on her own and that no protection in the world could have saved her.

Yeah, so the book…  Benazir Bhutto goes to great lengths, with many quotes from the Quran, to convey that Islam is a moderate religion that does not condone what fundamentalists are doing in its name.  Those who already believe that will welcome reading it.  I want to believe it and so I welcomed reading it.  She also gives a very fine, easy to read, history of Islam and the various descendants that make up the Sunnis and the Shiites.  It is informative and easier to understand than in other books that I have read.  There is also a section of the book where she gives detailed backgrounds to about 20 countries that have large Muslim populations.  She details their struggles between moderation and extremism.  She delves into what the West has done (colonialism) to create the hot zones in those countries and talks a bit about who is vying for power in those countries.  I think Bhutto wanted to convey hope that these countries, with democratic reforms and the right Western help, could become partners in peace, but I went away from the section with an even more bleak outlook on the world.

She also gives the reader a good history of Pakistan and all of its conflicts, both internal and external.  But again, this history is being written by a woman who has a major stake in its re-telling.  In her history of Pakistan, the true hero is her father, Zulfikar Bhutto, who created the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).  Her admiration of her father is touching.  And the history she tells of a man who wanted a democratic and equal Pakistani society in one that I really would love to believe is true.  But I would need some other verification of this history.

I don’t know what it is, really, that I think of this book.  It was, mostly, a good read.  There were parts where I felt like she was faulting me, the American voter, for electing people who ruined her country.  Didn’t care for that much.  And as much as she claims that Western views of Muslims is too simplistic, I think that her populism as cure for Pakistani ills was too simplistic.  I did not come away impressed with her writing or her thoughts.  Which doesn’t mean I can’t still admire her for what she was, but her pedestal isn’t all that high anymore.  I remember crying like a baby the day she was murdered.  It was tragic because I believed that she was the future of Pakistan.  But now, after reading this book, her death has become a tragedy because she was a human being but a little less tragic on the “what is going to happen to the world” scale.  Benazir Bhutto was no Margaret Thatcher.

I don’t know how to recommend this book.  It was good, but not great.  My life isn’t any better for having read it nor are my thoughts on the Muslim world any clearer for having read it.  But the history she gave of Islam is a good primer for those who want to know a little more than cursory knowledge but don’t want a Phd in Islam


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