Irfan Yusuf: Terrorism strikes at heart of Pakistan's democracy

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Muslims are frequently challenged with tough questions. Why aren't they speaking out enough against terrorism? Why are moderate Muslims so silent in the face of mindless violence? Why do they only protest about cartoons and papal speeches? Why aren't they taking to the streets to protest against terrorist attacks?

In the case of Iraq and now Pakistan, the answer is now clear. Muslims aren't taking to the streets protesting because they are either too afraid or too busy burying their dead.

Almost every week, Iraqis suffer a terrorist attack claiming at least as many lives as the July 7 bombings in London in 2005. The Coalition forces were supposed to restore order to Iraq after removing Saddam Hussein from power. Instead, Iraq has descended into virtual civil war.

Now terrorists seem to be striking in Pakistan. Once again, it is ordinary civilians being targeted. But some 48 hours ago, terrorists struck a far more influential target.

To understand why Benazir Bhutto's assassination is so significant, one must keep in mind Pakistan's troubled history.

Back in August, Pakistanis of all religious and political persuasions were celebrating the 60th anniversary of their nation's foundation.

After years of lobbying both the British Raj and India's large Muslim community, supporters of the Pakistan movement successfully carved out what was supposed to be a separate nation for Indian Muslims. In 1947, they were handed a nation of two land masses divided by thousands of kilometres of Indian territory.

Then in 1971, the eastern half broke away after a fiercely fought civil war and Indian intervention. Unlike its Western wing, Pakistan's eastern province of Bengal was linguistically and culturally homogenous.

Bengali-speaking Muslims, ironically the biggest supporters of the Pakistan movement during the 1940s, no longer wished to be part of a Pakistan in which they felt exploited and discriminated against.

Benazir's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, played a key role in those events. As leader of the leftist Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Bhutto refused to accept a plan by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of East Pakistan's leftist Awami League, enabling greater autonomy for Bengali-speaking Muslims of Pakistan's eastern wing. Some observers argue that Bhutto placed his wish for power before national unity.

After the establishment of Bangladesh, Bhutto became President of what remained of Pakistan. During his term, a new constitution was approved declaring Pakistan an Islamic republic. He later served as Prime Minister. Perhaps his most controversial decision was to appoint a relatively junior Army officer, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, as chief of Pakistan's Army.

Eventually, it was General Zia who took control of Pakistan, declaring martial law and executing Bhutto n 1978.

In 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, so beginning the Cold War triangular love affair between Pakistan's Army, Western conservative governments and jihadist volunteers. Conservative US governments and Western intelligence agencies pumped billions into the recruitment, training and arming of volunteers from across the Muslim world to fight a proxy war against the Soviets.

To her credit, Benazir (Pakistanis generally refer to her by first name) warned Western powers and Pakistanis of the dangers posed by having large bands of jihadist volunteers based in Pakistan. She warned Western governments that the radical ideologies which conservative Western politicians were bankrolling would one day come back to haunt them.

Sadly, Benazir herself played some role in furthering Pakistan's flirtation with Muslim extremism. She became Prime Minister in 1988, after the mysterious death of the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, the man who executed her father. At age 35, she was the first woman to govern a Muslim country.

Bhutto was elected twice as Pakistan's Prime Minister. On both occasions, she was driven from office after allegations of corruption. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, became known as Mr 10 per cent for his alleged practice of extorting 10 per cent off all government-run business enterprises.

Benazir's second term was also characterised by a mixed record on improving the status of Pakistani women. On the one hand, she established Pakistan's first all-female police stations where victims of sexual assault and domestic violence would feel more comfortable to report perpetrators. On the other hand, she refused to repeal the allegedly Islamic Hudood ordinances which were used as a tool against victims of sexual assault. In doing so, she encouraged the rise of Pakistan's religious right.

Benazir was removed from power again in a democratic election. Both she and her successor, Nawaz Sharif, were charged with corruption in early 2000 by an incoming military regime led by General Pervez Musharraf.

Now, on the eve of national elections, Benazir has fallen victim to a suicide bombing attack. Although members of her party and other opposition figures are blaming the Musharraf Government for failing to provide adequate security, it's clear that direct responsibility is with the forces of religious extremism that now want to hold democracy in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to ransom.

Terrorists have again struck. As usual, their targets are mainly innocent civilians. As usual, Muslims play a bigger role as victims than as perpetrators. Perhaps now, with their nation on the precipice of political disaster, Pakistan's majority should take control of both their religion and politics out of the hands of extremists.

Karachi-born Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and associate editor of

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