Reconciliation, by Benazir Bhutto

The last, hopeful message of a Muslim modernist

To bridge the gap between belief and practice is often hazardous. Benazir Bhutto, often castigated for her inability to fulfil her promises, now leaves us a testament of her beliefs: an intricate weave of history, sociology, memoir and religious analysis, amounting to a prescriptive diagnosis of what ails the body politic of Islam.

Western readers who attributed to Bhutto a pro-American, neo-conservative agenda may be alarmed by her frequent recourse to Islamic terminology – consensus, consultation and interpretation – in support of her reformist programme. But Bhutto's persona, far from appearing foreign to the Pakistani electorate, had all the hallmarks of Muslim respectability.

A Pakistani will only be surprised at the breadth of her engagement with subjects normally tackled only by scholars of Islam. Intellectually, she places herself in the line of Muslim modernist thinking that goes back in the Subcontinent to the Uprising of 1857. She cites philosopher-poet Iqbal, for example, as an advocate of radical reform. Her villain is the arch-fundamentalist Maulana Maududi, whose vision of global Islamic theocracy influenced the Egyptian Islamist, Sayyid Qutb. Backed by Saudi Arabian Wahhabis, Maududi also inspired the disastrous gender-biased reforms promulgated by General Zia, nemesis of Benazir's father and model, Zulfiqar.

More surprising is the extent to which Bhutto reflects the ideals formulated at the Bandung conference of 1955, in which the leaders of the Third World opted for a non-aligned politics with socialist tendencies. But Bhutto's final message to the West reassures readers of her commitment to dialogue and collaboration. She holds the leaders of the Muslim world accountable for the plight of their nations and their refusal to facilitate democracy, reform and progress. Yet behind the failure of every effort at democratic reform – in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan – Bhutto locates the damage done by colonialism, and the corrosive neo-colonial interference from America and its cohorts. That has fuelled fundamentalism – often, as in the Taliban, with American backing.

How best the democratic leaders of the Muslim world can withstand neo-colonial pressures is not a question Bhutto comprehensively addresses. Her final call is to the West, to exchange "clash of civilisations" theories for programmes of trade and aid. Bhutto can, at times, appear overly idealistic. But her post-colonial generation was taught that the ideals of their faith, far from being antithetical to democracy and pluralism, endorsed them. Though her apologia for the chronic flaws of her regime is perhaps the weakest part of her book, much of it is evidence that this brave woman, had she lived, may yet have put into practice some of her beliefs.