Islam - Big Ideas
This is the story of an idea that first emerged 1400 years ago. It
arose in, what was then, an unimportant part of the world. So
captivating was this idea that it swept across countries, empires and
continents. It inspired poets, scientists, inventors and explorers who
took it's message of tolerance and intellectual curiosity to the ends of
the earth. This idea is also one of the world's greatest religions; it
Benazir Bhutto became the first female leader of an Islamic country
when she was elected Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1988. Here she talks
about her religion, her country and her beliefs.
I decided to go into politics after my father was executed on trumped
up charges by a despot. My father, Zulfiker Ali Bhutto, was the first,
democratically elected, President of Pakistan. He was a reformer not
just as a politician but within our own family too.
My father was a progressive, tolerant Muslim leader who was inspired by
his faith. The paradox is that he was hunted down and murdered by men who
also claimed to be inspired by Islam. This divide between two very
different approaches to my religion has torn Pakistan apart, and it hasn't
stopped there. This same conflict has spilled across the world with
catastrophic consequences for us all.
The story of Islam starts in the 7th century in a trading centre in a
relatively unimportant part of what is now Saudi Arabia; Mecca. At that
time, every man and woman owed their allegiance to the tribe they were
born into and women were held to be of so little value that they had no
role to play in society. Mecca was also an important pagan centre where
people would come from al over to worship a whole range of gods. It was a
world of superstition where seers were claimed to mediate between gods and
humans, but all that was about to change.
Almost 1400 years ago, a trader became disenchanted with this divided
society and went into the hills to meditate. While he was meditating he
had a revelation. The Archangel Gabriel appeared before him and told him
to recite the words of God. This trader's name was Mohammed Ibn Abdullah,
peace be upon him, and for Muslims he was the last pf the prophets. The
prophet began to spread his message, and the words revealed to him were
written down in what would become The Koran. It is this that would be at
the heart of the new religion; Islam.
Over the next 22 years, the holy prophet would transform Arabia. He taught
that none of the pagan deities were real gods, instead there was just one
god; Allah, and every man and woman was accountable to him. The prophet
also preached equality.
In 140 years, the Islamic Empire had spread from Spain to Western China.
One reason for it's success was that it was the only religion to offer a
practical guide to how to live your life. A moral code which encompassed
everything from the personal, the political and the religious.
Muslim thinkers focused on the spiritual and the physical quest for
knowledge. As a result, while Christian Europe languished in the dark
ages, Arabs were making spectacular advances in maths, astronomy, the
arts, physics and philosophy. For the next four centuries, the Islamic
empire was held up as the model to which the rest of the world should
aspire. But then something appalling would happen.
In 1099, Christian crusaders from Europe attacked Jerusalem. It would be
the first of many clashes between the East and the West, between Islam and
Christianity. It also brought to the fore divisions within the Muslim
world. On the one hand were men like Saladin who believed, as the Koran
says, that the ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of the
martyr, but as with every other major religion there were also extremists
who distorted Islam to justify violence and indiscriminate slaughter.
Foremost among them was a group who terrorised the Islamic world in the
12th century. They believed in murder as a political weapon, often
dispensing with their victims at Friday prayers in the Mosque. They were
called The Assassins and tales of the atrocities they committed were
legendary throughout the world.
To be killed on a mission, they believed, was not just an honour but
would lead them to becoming martyrs. The Assassins are the spiritual
ancestors of today's Islamic terrorists, men who would respond to any perceived
threat with violence. The breeding ground for many men like these would,
unfortunately, be my own country; Pakistan.
On the 15th of August 1947 the Indian subcontinent gained it's
independence from Britain and would become two separate and distinct
states. India with it's Hindu majority and it's predominantly Muslim
neighbour Pakistan. My family's story has been entwined with the story of
my country from the very beginning.
My father was a young student when Pakistan was partitioned. He was
fired with the zeal of patriotism, he was a great nationalist and he
wanted to help Pakistan. He became a politician, like my grandfather
before him, and hoped to play a role in turning the newly independent
Pakistan into a modern industrialised state. He knew it would be a
struggle because the traditionalists were resistant to change.
In 1967, my father founded The Pakistan People's Party, PPP, and became
the first democratically elected president of our country three years
later. He drew up Pakistan's first constitution and promised to hold free
elections every five years. He built schools, guaranteed a minimum wage
and forbade discrimination against women and minorities.
The army which had never been a force for enlightened, progressive
thinking was then under the command of General Zia ul-Haq who viewed my
father's policies with alarm and decided to do something about it. The
army mounted a coup and overthrew President Bhutto. My father's supporters
were hunted down and tortured but the repression was not merely political.
Zia was a religious extremist and had close links to Islamic organisations
which shared his narrow, bigoted views. My father was sentenced to be
hanged on the 4th of April 1979.
Little did anyone suspect how events, in time, would come to affect
much more than my father, my family, or even my country. Islamic
fundamentalists, allegedly supported by Pakistan, fanned out across the
world and people everywhere would witness, for themselves, the depravity
of these reactionaries in a cataclysm which has become a defining images of
The Twin Towers
Throughout most of the 1980s, Pakistan had to endure the tyrannical
regime of General Zia, a brutal military leader and religious extremist.
At first the triumph of these extremists was merely a tragedy for
Pakistan, it would soon become an international one. Zia and his regime
were hoping to extend their influence beyond the borders and their chance
came when the Soviet Union invaded neighbouring Afghanistan in 1979. Young
men from all over the Muslim world took up arms against the Soviet enemy
and Pakistan became a safe haven for those who provided financial and
military support to the Mujahadeem. One man, in particular, was emerging as
one of the leaders of the rebellion. His name, of course, was Osama Bin
Laden and a new virulent strain of Islamic extremism was conceived.
Ironically, money from the West now flooded into my country to help counter
the Soviet threat and soon the Mujahadeem were weighed down by the best
weapons dollars could buy. Many of these young men were given military and
religious training in extremist Madrassahs which had sprung up throughout
Pakistan; schools which had become breeding grounds for terrorists and
where, contrary to Islam, students were brainwashed against equal rights,
against tolerance and against other religions.
I was in prison, in solitary confinement, and not in any position to
speak out against Zia and his policies. After my release from prison I was
forced into exile. I was determined to continue the fight against Zia and
when he lifted martial law I was able to return to Pakistan in 1986.
There are moments in life which are not possible to describe. My return
to Lahore was one of them. Hundreds of coloured balloons soared into the
air as the airport gates opened. The sea of humanity lining the roads,
jammed on balconies and roofs was more like an ocean. The black, green an
red colours of the PPP seemed to be the only colours in Lahore that day.
Elections were called for the summer of 1988 and I was told that the
army and religious party would never allow a woman to be elected Prime
Minister of Pakistan. But, on Dec 2nd 1988 I became the first woman to
have the government of a Muslim majority state; I was just 35. It was a
bad time to become Prime Minister and it didn't last, the extremists had
conspired against me.
By the mid 1990s they'd achieved a notable success in Afghanistan.
They'd driven the Soviets out and set up their own regime; The Taliban,
who actively supported terrorism. The terrorists are driven by hatred and
intolerance and they do this in the name of Islam. It grieves me that
there is another victim of these terrorist outrages and that is the image
of Islam itself.
Across the world, many non Muslims have come to assume that violent
paramilitary and terrorist groups are the authentic voice of my religion
and many in the West have come to fear Muslims amongst them. But our
religion is not what these people preach. These men who use violence and
hatred in the name of Islam are heretics and their actions contradict the
teachings of the holy prophet.
Postscript: On December 27th 2007 Benazir Bhutto was
assassinated in the city of Rawalpindi during the run-up to
elections that many hoped would restore her as prime minister of
CREDITS: All of the above information was taken from the UK's Channel
Five series "Big Ideas"