Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist specialising in South Asia. He works for the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide, serves as Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and was Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham in the 2005 General Election. In 2005 he visited Pakistan with Labour MP David Drew, and met then Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and other senior Pakistani political leaders.
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto is not only a tragedy for Pakistan – it is a significant crisis for the world. It cannot, and must not, be seen as simply an "internal" matter for Pakistan.
Benazir Bhutto’s murder plunges one of the most strategic and volatile countries in the world into deeper chaos. Pakistan is a country where terrorism, Islamist ideology, nuclear weapons, human rights and liberal democratic values meet at a crossroads. No one who believes in liberal values – of all shades – can be anything other than appalled by her death. And all of us need to take militant Islamism – both in its ideological and its violent forms – seriously.
I have just got off the phone with a close friend who is one of Pakistan’s leading human rights activists. He is expecting the worst. Although the streets in his city were calm when we spoke, he knows the situation will deteriorate rapidly as the news of Benazir’s killing spreads. I have also been in contact with another friend, a leader of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, who was with Benazir at the rally when she was killed. He, and members of his movement, had been invited to join her as representatives of Pakistan’s religious minorities – Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and others – in an effort to unite to build a Pakistan based on equal rights for all, religious freedom and tolerance, women’s rights and secular liberal democracy – a vision in keeping with that of the country’s founder, Mohammad ali Jinnah. I have written about the violations of human rights faced by minorities previously on this site.
Who killed Benazir? It is too early to say, but it has all the hallmarks of the militant Islamists – al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or their offspring. Their presence, and activity, in Pakistan has increased dramatically over the years. The rise in suicide bombings has been significant. On my first visit to Islamabad in 2004, I missed a bomb by five minutes. I had been meeting someone from Benazir’s party, the Pakistan People’s Party, in a hotel. I left – and learned that just five minutes later a bomb exploded in the lobby. I cannot say I was that surprised.
It is possible that Islamist-sympathisers within the military were responsible – either directly, or as facilitators. The fact that it occurred in Rawalpindi, the city dominated by the military, suggests that some military involvement is likely. Pakistan’s intelligence service has been riddled with extremists for years, although President Musharraf had tried to clean some of them out. It is unlikely that Musharraf himself was responsible. It cannot be in his interests to have another crisis – especially one of these proportions – on his hands. Whatever his personal ambitions, he was far closer politically and religiously to Benazir than to the Islamists.
Why was she killed? For the Islamists, there are a whole host of reasons. Her gender is one for a start. They have never liked the idea of a woman running the country. Her liberal values are another – she represents everything they oppose. Her perceived closeness to the "West" would be a third reason – she, like Musharraf, is seen as pro-American. And the fact that she would be perhaps the strongest opponent of Musharraf in a democratic election – and therefore stood the greatest chance of establishing, however fragile, a pluralistic democracy – is a fourth reason for the Islamists to kill her. They completely oppose efforts to establish a democratic system in Pakistan. With her out of the way, their chances of derailing the elections are much enhanced. And, of course, they had given plenty of warning.
Talk of martyrdom by her supporters is misplaced. Martyrdom implies sainthood, and Benazir’s record falls far short of that. She was never able to shake off the whiff of corruption. In power, she did not do what she should have done, in accordance with her natural instincts, to fight extremism. Indeed, there is some evidence that she – like her predecessors and successors – acted in ways that emboldened the Islamists. All that said, she symbolised more than anyone in Pakistani politics today a genuine belief in a tolerant, secular, liberal society – and her death is a significant setback to that goal.
What happens now? The situation will change by the hour and is completely unpredictable. The only forecast one can make is greater chaos and instability. There will be street protests, which will be highly volatile. There will almost certainly be violence – throughout the country. Musharraf will call for calm, but likely in vain.
What can the world do? For too long we have uncritically propped up Musharraf. He has failed to crack down on extremism. Under him, the Islamists have gained in strength. In recent months he committed the most stupid, bizarre and probably fatal act of focusing his efforts on locking up much of liberal society in Pakistan – lawyers, human rights activists and progressive politicians – while the militant Islamists roamed free. Today’s events are the fruit of his actions. But – and here is a big but – should we now turn full-circle against him? With Benazir gone, the alternatives to Musharraf are not appealing. Perhaps someone will emerge to take her place. Imran Khan is an attractive possibility, though he lacks the political base she had. It is hard to see a credible alternative to Musharraf. We may need to stick by him a bit longer, but insist on some significant reforms, a concrete effort against the terrorists instead of token initiatives and rhetoric, and help the other parties and the Government move forward towards a transition to democracy. We must insist on tough action against militant Islamism, both violent and ideological – which includes the repeal of Pakistan’s discriminatory blasphemy and hudood laws, and free and fair elections. But that cannot happen overnight – or even in the next few weeks. The flawed elections planned for January have surely been killed off, along with Benazir. It is impossible to see how the elections can go ahead in the current circumstances – and it is hard to see how Pakistan gets out of this mess. But it is in our interests to try to help it do so – for the consequences of Pakistan in flames are too serious to ignore.