Returning to news reporting after two weeks off feels like you’ve been away for two weeks. Returning to blogging after a holiday break feels like you’ve been away for an eternity. So much going on! My colleague Ed Stoddard in Dallas was minding the shop, but he was unexpectedly sent off to report the news from the campaign trail. That gave FaithWorld a very American accent, which was a timely twist given the role of religion in the Iowa vote. It’s back to the view from Paris now — here are some inital comments on recent events concerning religion around the world:
Benazir Bhutto — The assassinated Pakistani leader will speak from beyond the grave next month when her book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West is published. HarperCollins has announced it has brought forward to Feb. 12 the release of the book that Bhutto worked on before returning to Pakistan in October. In a statement, it called the book “a bold, uncompromising vision of hope for the future of not only Pakistan but the Islamic world. Bhutto presents a powerful argument for a reconciliation of Islam with democratic principles, in the face of opposition from Islamic extremists and Western skeptics.”
It will be interesting to see what she has to say about the role of Islam in Pakistani politics, especially after all the praise for her as a modern, secularist Muslim leader in comments after her assassination. Bhutto’s party is politically secularist and she pledged to fight against Islamist militants now challenging the Islamabad government. But let’s not forget that the Taliban emerged during her second stint as prime minister in 1993-1996 and were a key element in Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan at the time. She worked with an Islamist politician close to the Taliban then and now. It was also on her watch that, as historian William Dalrymple put it, Kashmir was turned into “a jihadist playground.” Whether she supported all this, couldn’t oppose the military people behind it or both (that’s my hunch) is something historians will debate long into the future. But it is clear that her record is more complex than some of the eulogies would have it.
Saying this is not meant to tarnish the reputation of this courageous woman. The Pakistanis who were ready to vote for her know all this already. Her father and political mentor Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a left-wing populist who sported Mao caps and campaigned on the faith-free slogan roti, kapra, makan (bread, clothes, housing), played the Islamic card with concessions to religious pressure groups when necessary. It’s more a comment on how complex Pakistani politics are and how hard it is to fit its main actors into categories that readers readily understand.
BTW it’s disappointing to see Dalrymple, a fine historian of the Subcontinent, fall into the same trap as readers who want us to write about “Muslim riots ” in France. In his New York Times op-ed piece cited above, he said that former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by “Sri Lankan Hindu extremists.” The Tamil Tigers are Sri Lankan and presumably mostly Hindu, as most Tamils are, but their separatist struggle is nationalist and not religious at all. They were some of the first modern suicide bombers, but that’s as close to religiously inspired militants as they get.