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Commentary: Bhutto failed to modernize Pakistan

  • Story Highlights
  • Manji says Bhutto disappointed some because she adhered to feudal politics
  • During Bhutto's time in office, writer says, she did not defy anti-rape laws
  • Pakistan must "transcend both trauma and tribalism," Manji says

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By Irshad Manji
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Irshad Manji is Muslim, a feminist and the controversial author of "The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith." You can read her blog at

NEW YORK (CNN) -- In the days after Benazir Bhutto's assassination, it will be tempting to reach two hasty conclusions: that she was Pakistan's last great hope and that her geo-politically crucial country has revealed itself to be inherently hopeless.

Irshad Manji is a controversial Muslim feminist and activist from Toronto, Canada.

On each front, I take a different view.

While far more liberal and democratic than Gen. Musharraf, Bhutto disappointed moderate, modern Pakistanis with her adherence to feudal politics.

Writing to me through my Web site, American feminists say they are "aching" over the loss of "our dear, sweet, brave Benazir."

I understand the sentiment. But "brave" is not the word used by Pakistani women from whom I've also heard. They're hurting more over Bhutto's "self-imposed" conformity.

"She never realized her potential," a woman from Karachi tells me. "And not because she was killed but because when she had the chance, she did not effectively challenge the backward mindset that has now led to her demise."

For example, during Bhutto's time in office, Pakistan didn't defy the anti-female rape and adultery laws. Those notorious ordinances, known as Hudood, took their inspiration from tribal politics masquerading as Islam. Video Watch Manji argue on CNN why Bhutto's legacy is mixed »

Imagine the opportunity: Bhutto could have championed a purer faith by tackling corrupt cultural practices.

In so doing, she might have created allies among conservatives, who can be persuaded that although Islam is God-given, culture is man-made.

Last year, a media campaign to strike down the Hudood Ordinances achieved this fine balance. But not because of her. And that, say many progressive Pakistanis, amputates Bhutto's legacy.

The fact that cruel laws against women can be publicly debated at all should suggest that Pakistan has hope anyway. An exceptional leader can tap into it. History tells us so.

There was a time when Pakistan's democratic politicians stuck it to the feudal fanatics. Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was once heckled by a religious fundamentalist.

"You drink alcohol!" shouted the critic.

"Yes," retorted the elder Bhutto, "but I don't drink the blood of the people!"

His response captured the spirit of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder. In 1947, Jinnah exuded high hopes for his people: "You are free. You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques, or to any other place of worship in the State of Pakistan.

"You may belong to any religion or caste or creed. That has nothing to do with the business of the state. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens of one state... You will find that in due course of time, Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims will cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense ... but in the political sense as citizens of the state."

Jinnah meant every word of his unconventional vision because he, himself, lived as a maverick. He adored his non-Muslim wife, and his sister often appeared with him on the campaign trail. Her visibility attested to Islam's embrace of women as partners of men.

In the months ahead, the people of Pakistan will need to recall Jinnah's vision. It may be of comfort know that they're not alone.

Countless Americans are now asking about their founders' intentions, desperate to re-discover the better angels of their country after eight years of George W. Bush.

Still, Pakistan must avoid America's enduring mistake. The United States lapsed into profound divisiveness following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

Many would argue that today's politics of polarization can be traced to the unresolved trauma of the King-Kennedy murders. For Pakistan, it's high time to transcend both trauma and tribalism.


I pray that in death, Benazir Bhutto will be the catalyst for a deeper democracy than she ever advocated in life.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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