The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, although it happened across the Gulf of Oman, feels remarkably close, for both personal and public reasons. On a personal level, the event strikes up sparks of memory. As a very young man I worked for The News, an English-language paper, on the Murree Road in Rawalpindi. I loved that office and all the great people in it, the long late chaotic nights through which we typed and laughed and drank tea. I remember Liaquat Bagh just a little down the road, the park named after Pakistan’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan, who was assassinated there, and where Benazir was killed last December 27th. I remember People’s Party supporters firing shots into the sky outside the office on the night when Benazir was appointed prime minister, for the second time, in 1993. When I read about bombs and sectarian mayhem in Karachi, Islamabad, Swat or Gilgit I remember the immense beauty and carnivalesque energy of Pakistan, the music I heard there, the Sufi festival I visited, the wealth and poverty I saw, and the intelligent, enthusiastic people I met.
The assassination feels close in a public sense because it contains ingredients which are present globally, and which are particularly apparent in the current Islamic world.
Firstly, the collapse of socialist politics and of any clear analytical approach to problems of wealth concentration and imperialism. The trajectory of the Bhutto-led Pakistan People’s Party illustrates this collapse. Tariq Ali writes: “The People’s party founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was built by the activists of the only popular mass movement the country has known: students, peasants and workers who fought for three months in 1968-69 to topple the country’s first military dictator. They saw it as their party, and that feeling persists in some parts of the country to this day, despite everything.” That ‘everything’ refers to the way the PPP in government became no more than a gang of thieves. The Bhutto family, landowning aristocrats from Sind, ruled for themselves and their hangers-on. Benazir’s husband Asif Ali Zardari, also known as Mr. 10 per cent, was the most notoriously corrupt pig at the public money trough. People’s Party administration led to precisely zero steps towards social justice, but to a good many extra-judicial executions – including, perhaps, that of Benazir’s brother Murtaza. As in so many countries, an initial surge of popular struggle was co-opted, and then fizzled out in a sea of gangsterism.
The second ingredient, facilitated by the first, is near-absolute military or family control over entire nations. The Bhutto dynasty, or that part of it loyal to Benazir’s will, has proved its arrogance by appointing her nineteen-year-old son Bilawal as leader of the PPP. The real power in Pakistan, however, is the army, which runs hotels, insurance companies and supermarkets as well as state violence. The struggle for social justice having failed, politics is merely a lucrative career for the successful. In Pakistan’s case, the big families send one son into the army, another into the Muslim League, and one into the People’s Party. Most of the rural poor vote for the candidate their feudal lord tells them to vote for. And why not? Voting isn’t going to change anything. If we replace the miltary and big families with corporations, the analogy of single-interest tyranny can be extended not just to Africa and the rest of Asia, but to the West as well.
The third ingredient, as a bitter response to the second and in the void of the first, is the rise of extremist nihilist ideologies. In Pakistan, that means variations on the Taliban and al-Qa’ida, probably the people who pulled the trigger on Benazir. Extreme Islamist-nihilists win only three to ten per cent in Pakistani elections, but provide a home to the desperate. More significantly, some high-up army officers sympathise with the Islamist-nihilist agenda, or at least have important contacts in these movements that they are not shy to use. Again, the nihilist trend is not limited to Pakistan. Everywhere around the world, some form or other of escapism or nihilism can be found as a false substitute for serious liberation politics. In America, right-wing Christian fundamentalism forms a huge vote bank and lobby group. In Europe, right wing anti-immigrant parties are increasingly popular and Islamophobia is going mainstream. In the West in general, there is hedonist consumerism, the cult of manufactured popular ‘culture’, celebrity, and so on.
The fourth ingredient, also common across the continents, is Western interference. The Pakistani army has always been an American client and its larger movements (leaving some small space for manoeuvre and deception) have always followed American orders. Zia ul-Haqq’s military regime helped run the so-called American-Saudi ‘jihad’ against the leftist Afghan government and its Soviet backers, flooding Afghanistan with weaponry and Wahhabi ideology. A lot of the weaponry and Wahhabism flowed back into Pakistani cities, along with rivers of processed heroin. (One of the most distinctive aspects of upper-middle class Pakistan, and of journalism, at the time I worked there was the number of hopeless smack addicts crashing through their lives and begging a few more rupees.) After the Soviet retreat and the failure of ‘mujahideen’ warlords to build a stable Afghan government, Benazir’s administration loyally followed Washington directives and supported the Taliban’s rise. Following the blowback attacks of September 11th, Musharraf led the army 180 degrees into its present role of enforcing imperial law against the Taliban and al-Qa’ida. (The change is total only in relation to the Taliban and al-Qa’ida; the army’s enforcement of imperial law is the same as ever.) But since the ‘War on Terror,’ Pakistan has effectively been at war with itself. The Pushto-speaking North West Frontier Province and the Tribal Areas are ethnically and culturally identical with most of south and east Afghanistan. According to tribal codes of honour, those seeking hospitality must be defended to the death. The process that unfolded was inevitable – refusal by the tribes to surrender Taliban or al-Qa’ida forces, followed by army bombing of civilians, followed by revenge attacks, leading to the present situation in which suicide bombing has become almost as common in Pakistani cities far from the tribal frontier as in Iraq or Afghanistan. Pakistani collaboration with the ‘War on Terror’ has been the crucial destabilising and terror-producing factor.
If elections are held in Pakistan the country will again be representative of global trends, in that it will epitomise false democracy. Democratic procedures will be in place, but they will be void of all democratic substance because they will be controlled by, and designed only to serve, vast inhuman interests.
Tariq Ali on Benazir’s assassination: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2232700,00.html
And William Dalrymple: