Friday, December 28, 2007

A tragic assassination

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto is likely to be a serious setback to democratization and secularization efforts in Pakistan. Bhutto's return to Pakistan was reportedly supported by the U.S. to conduce President Pervez Musharraf into a more civilian, legitimate rule and a power-sharing arrangement. Bhutto's party was likely to come out first in the upcoming elections in January. It is not clear whether these elections will still be held.

Many think radical Islamists are to blame. Al Qaeda has already assumed responsibility. The country has been fighting the Islamist militants in Waziristan, the northwest area bordering Afghanistan. During the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Taliban and Al Qaeda militants have reportedly crossed the border into Pakistan, starting an insurgency in the tribal area. The conflict in the region has escalated following the Lal Masjid siege in July.

Radical Islamist groups seem to have much to gain from the assassination: Not only would such an attack eliminate a secularist politician with a strong backing, but it would also put President Musharraf in a difficult position. Musharraf is already much disliked by radical Islamists for supporting the U.S. in the war against terror. Now he is also accused by Bhutto supporters for not doing enough to ensure her security. He will have difficulty controlling the resulting instability.

Al Qaeda, however, is not the only suspect. When Bhutto's bus and supporters were attacked in Karachi upon her return in October, Bhutto herself pointed to radical Islamist intelligence officials and politicians as suspects. Members of Pakistani intelligence agencies have long been suspected to frequent the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, known for its radical agenda and teachings, and home to the recent bloody siege.

One can draw parallels between Turkey and Pakistan, but there are also differences. Both countries have immature democracies influenced by the military, although the problem is more acute in Pakistan. In both cases, the state has rogue, criminal elements within. Both countries face continuous conflict between secularists and Islamists. The insurgencies have different justifications (ethnical in Turkey and religious in Pakistan), and although the instability in neighbouring countries contribute to them, the insurgencies actually reflect deeper divides within these countries.

American policies in Afghanistan and the Middle East are part of the reason of the clashes in the region today. Even Bhutto herself is said to initially view Taliban in a positive light, hoping that they will bring stability to Afghanistan.

The assassination is tragic for Pakistan and on a personal level. There is something naive, idealistic about Bhutto's decision to return to Pakistan. She could have well stayed in Dubai with her family, enjoying the riches she is claimed to have gained from corruption. Although her father and brothers were killed -maybe because of that- she returned. Maybe she liked the love and attention she received from her supporters, she liked her heroine status. Maybe she genuinely believed that she could make a difference, that it was her calling. In any case, I really respect and admire her decision to return under such risky circumstances, and it saddens me to see the story end like this, the evil triumph. (I started to sound like Bush but this is how I feel!)

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