Book Review:

Reconciliation:  Islam, Democracy, and the West

by Benazir Bhutto. Published by Harper Collins, New York. 2008. 319 pages plus end notes. ISBN 978-0-06-156758-2

This is an amazing book. The final edits were finished the day Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007.  Only two months before she had returned to Pakistan after eight years in exile to be welcomed by more than three million people - and the suicide and car bombs that killed 179 people before she had even reached her home.

Reconciliation, is not a biography, even less is it a complaint about the opposition and suffering the former Prime Minister of Pakistan had experienced. It is a well argued plea for a new approach to democracy in the Islamic world.

Bhutto's two main aims in writing the book were to reconcile what she saw as the two main tensions affecting Muslim societies. One concerns whether democratic institutions can flourish in Muslim societies, whether Islam and democracy are mutually exclusive or not. The other tension concerns the collision of values between different groups within Islam.

Bhutto has a sustained and persuasive argument that "in Islam, no terrorism - the reckless slaughter of innocents - is ever justified." p27. She argues for an interpretation of Islam that is modern and contextual. Part of her argument, as one might expect, is for gender equality - illustrated by her own experience of her father's attitude to his wife and daughter. At the time she came to first wear the veil, "My father took one look at me and said, 'My daughter does not have to wear the veil.' My mother decided that if I was not to wear the all-enveloping burqa, she too would not wear one." p43.

One of the strengths of this book is her review of the history of Islam and her description of the development of the different groups and sects. She argues strongly for an interpretation that is adapted to the different contexts in which Muslims find themselves.  She is especially opposed to the claim that only a few experts are able to interpret the Qur'an. She opposes also the idea that Muslim communities need to be governed the way Medina was governed in the first century.

All this is part of an argument for pluralism and tolerance. It is an argument that democracy is consistent with the heart of Islam, and tyranny and dictatorships are contrary to the spirit of Islam. Throughout she illustrates the issues both from the Qur'an and from her own experience in Pakistan.

The second part of the book deals with democracy in history and practice. Here is a major critique of "the sad history of Western political intervention in the Muslim world, which has been a major impediment to the growth of democracy in Islamic nations." p81. Bhutto provides a critique of democratic development in about twenty countries. In many of these, she argues, Western involvement has set back the democratic process - in some cases helping to overthrow democratically elected governments. It is a sad story, as she says.

The book has an extended survey of the history of Pakistan from partition to the present. This is first-rate history, written by one of the key players in the story. Anyone who wants to understand the issues being faced by her husband as President of Pakistan in the present should read this section.

Finally Bhutto deals with the "Clash of Civilisations" debate. She is opposed to Huntington's thesis, but fears that it has been talked about so much that it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. She offers a thorough rebuttal to the theory, building on the work of Stephen Walt and others. She critiques the theory also from the point of view of Islam itself. "Contrary to the pontifications of many who are unashamedly contemptuous of Muslims around the world, democracy and Islam are congruent." p264.

Her main concern is with the future of Islam in the modern world. "The extremism and militancy of Muslim-on-Muslim violence is a long battle for the heart and soul of the future not only of a religion but also of the one billion people who practise it. Fundamentally, it is also about whether the Muslim people can survive and prosper in the modern era or whether linkages with traditional interpretations of the sixteenth century will freeze them in the past." p275. Amongst others she quotes Nurcholish Majdid and Abdurrahman Wahid in support of her thesis of tolerance and pluralism.

She acknowledges the fragility of many democracies in Muslim-majority countries and argues for education, economic improvement and democratic development as the way forward. She also calls on the West to engage in a new version of the Marshall Plan - to foster and assist the democratic processes of developing countries - especially in the Muslim world.

In turn she urges her fellow Muslims to remember the period when Islam was a leader in scientific and intellectual life, and to renew efforts to make sure all their people, including women, are educated.

The book is not only a plea, it contains concrete proposals both for Muslim societies and their leaders as well as for the West and the International community.

Anyone interested in modern history, and the state of play of political Islam ought to read this book. And anyone working for governments or NGOs as well.

Dale Appleby

November 2008