"Reconciliation" - Book Review

In a superbusy week, I've decided to post a book review instead of a reflection. While in the past I've added reviews in a sidebar, I find the present one is too full and I will need to find a way to archive the reviews. In some respects this particular review is better placed in the main section anyway.

It was several months ago that I purchased Benazir Bhutto's posthumously published "Reconciliation", but I finished reading it only a few weeks back. It is pretty solid going, and one I categorise as a nonfiction "should read," rather than an enthralling novel such as "The Various Flavours of Coffee," which I finished in three days. Benazir Bhutto was, as you will know, twice the Prime Minister of Pakistan (1988–1990; 1993–1996), a role also held by her father. While leader of the Opposition Pakistan People's Party she was assassinated in 2007, after returning from exile to stand for re-election to Parliament. she had been working on this book that year, and never had the chance to fine tune it; it could have benefited from a firmer editorial hand. There are numerous repetitive themes, and the main section, analysing the progress of democracy in dozens of individual Islamic nations, is rather boring to non-political people who like me; until I visited the Middle East ten years ago I never even read the World section of the newspaper! However, it is a pivotal work in the history of the Clash of Civilisations, of which I became much more aware through my time in Israel-Palestine, and I'm glad I persisted to the end.

This book was recommended to me by a visiting missionary who serves in a development role in a Muslim-majority country in Asia. He introduced me to the notion of a "Clash of Civilisations," which is a term coined by Samuel Huntington in 1996 to describe the burgeoning antipathy between Islamic-led nations and the West, especially the United States. Five years before September 11, Huntington mooted that in the aftermath of the Cold War, it would be theological and cultural identities that would trigger international conflict, rather than economic ideology. Specifically, he predicted that clashes between Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance and Chinese assertiveness would determine the fault lines of global violence in coming decades. The solutions he offered however, were limited and jingoistic, compared with the peace-building vision of Benazir Bhutto in Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West. The assumption, she says, that Islam is a "unitary rigid social system transcending religion"(p62) is quite mistaken; Islam is a religion whose one billion adherents follow a wide diversity of polities within at least seven main sects.

Bhutto pulls no punches about the folly of the Islamist terrorist response, but she also critiques the misguided support of Western leaders for various Muslim dictators who disempower people and breed discontent. (p 171) The West is also guilty of focussing on short-term gains such as access to oil. The Muslim assertion of cultural superiority is understandable, she says, in light of America's double standards. Bhutto is nevertheless eminently hopeful for the future role of Muslim-majority nations in working for a more peaceful world. It is the patriarchal tribalism of some regimes, and the destructive autocracy of others, that have severely damaged the cause of democracy, which she believes is eminently compatible with the Koran and the example of Mohammed himself. On that note, I found of interest her comment that if the sacred texts or social histories of other religions were scrutinised for anti-democratic themes and injunctions to violence, to the degree that has the Koran, many examples of unacceptably primitive values would also be seen (p 63).

Bhutto's vision for the future is founded on assisting developing societies to feed and educate desperate and deprived people whose plight provokes them to impatience and radical solutions. A developed democratic Muslim society would, she believes, provide jobs, education and hope, and be less prone to religious fanaticism and political extremes. This paragraph from the final chapter is a helpful summary of her convictions:
The Muslim world's decline is not due simply to the injustices of colonialism or the global distribution of power. At some point Muslim societies must be responsible and accountable. There is an abundance of riches in Muslim countries. If organized properly, they could draw up an agenda to reduce poverty and rekindle Islamic nations as centres of knowledge and ideas. The Muslim countries have the power to change the direction of history by adhering to the teaching of sharing wealth. Such collective action is a challenge that we must have the courage to face and act upon. (p 300)
This well-reasoned and fully-referenced text provides ample evidence for Bhutto's claim that true Islam is a religion of peace and justice, and calls for a radical reexamination of motives and priorities by both Muslim leadership and politicians in the West. (For an intriguing take on the Speech that a more enlightened President Bush could have given after 9/11, see this link on Brian McLaren's website.) New conversations must take place, and a new future be embraced. Bhutto died before she could see her dream fulfilled, but my missionary friend is quietly doing what he can, over many cups of tea.

What can I do to help? I recommend you read this book for a start. And suggest you delete alarmist emails like the one I received this week, warning me of the "sinister takeover" of New Zealand planned by our nation's Muslims. And continue in my own way to have many "cups of tea" with Muslim ladies in my own community, who like me just want their children to grow up in peace and freedom.