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Benazir Bhutto: Rise to Politics

Updated on December 4, 2014

In 1988, an event took place that shook the Islamic and Western worlds. Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, won the elections that were held after the death of Pakistani President Zia al-Huq. She was considered the “favorite to win the coming ballot,”1 when she returned to Pakistan in 1986 from two years in exile.2 There seems to be no doubt of the support she received from the people, but the question remains: if Islam and the Middle East are as dominating as it would seem to the western world, how is it that a woman was elected prime minister to the second-largest Muslim population in the world, not only once, but twice? Despite the lies and corruption that appear to surround her and her campaign,3 she was steadfast in her resolve to return to Pakistan for re-election. It is clear enough that those in political power at the time wanted to prevent such a thing from happening, however despite their best attempts, Benazir Bhutto triumphed. "[When] she took office most Pakistanis looked to her with hope...She was obviously beautiful and had a well-rounded education both at Harvard and Oxford...She held a lot of charm and appeal for the West, mainly for the novelty she represented- the novelty of being an urbane, eloquent, and liberal woman, grown in the unlikely soil of the 'decadent' East and polished in the West."4 This statement explains well enough the image that Benazir Bhutto represented to outsiders. So what made her so popular in Pakistan?

Beginnings of an Islamic State

Pakistan’s origins lay in the Muslim-Hindu conflict which had arisen throughout India in the mid-1900s after British colonial power was disintegrated. John Esposito writes, “In the early years Hindu and Muslim leaders of the Indian Nationalist Movement sought a united front. However, as religion was an integral part of the two great traditional cultures…Muslims were concerned about their rights in a predominantly Hindu, albeit secular, state.”5The leader of the Muslim league, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, called for two states, one Hindu and one Muslim. Jawaharlal Nehru, who headed the Hindu population, agreed. In 1947, Nehru became the first Prime Minister of India, and Jinnah became Governor General of Pakistan. Ironically, if one looks at Jinnah’s personal viewpoints, Islam played what seemed like a rather subdued role in his formation of the Pakistani state: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste and creed- that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”6

This is important to mention because it points out both the reasons behind Pakistan’s creation, as well as a small example of the mindset of the person who helped create it in the first place. However, in 1948, issues about the state and Islam expanded. “After Jinnah’s death the arguments between the radicals and the modernists became more intense. As the politicians debated the content of the Pakistani constitution the Islamic-based parties pressed for a document that would establish Pakistan as an ideological state committed to Islam.”7 This suggests that the predominant religious groups of Islam may not have wanted a more secular state, but that was not necessarily what they were going to receive. Is it safe to assume that the very beginnings of Pakistan’s government may have, indirectly, contributed to a woman being elected to a head of state role in a Muslim country?

Despite the origins of Pakistan residing in the need for an Islamic state free from a Hindu majority, the formation of Pakistan’s government itself was not really based within Islam itself. However, this should not undermine the fact that Pakistan is, and always has been, a predominantly Muslim country. By the late 1960s, Pakistan had been through periods of opposite democratic and military eras. Islam held a wavering importance in the government itself, with radicals often calling for the government to take sides or certain measurements in favor of Islam. Pakistan’s first military ruler, Ayub Khan, “clearly opposed those who wanted to put Islam at the heart of the Pakistani state…[he] could at least say that he had tried to confront the radicals…The next strong leader to emerge in Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, didn’t even try.”8


1Hassan Abbas. Pakistan's Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army, and America's War on Terror (New York: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 2005) 133

2Benazir Bhutto. Daughter of Destiny (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1989) 11

3Different perspectives will offer more insight on the corruption of Benazir's campaign. In the interview segments with her niece in the documentary Bhutto, Benazir is portrayed as leading a rather corrupt government. This is possibly due to the animosity within the family.

4Abbas 2005, 136

5John Esposito. "Islam: Ideology and Politcs in Pakistan" in The State, Religion, and Ethnic Politics, Ali Banuazizi and Myron Weiner, ed. (Library of Congress 1986) 334

6Muhammad Ali Jinnah. 11 August 1947 Speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, cited in Pakistan: Eye of the Storm (2003)

7Owen B. Jones. Pakistan: Eye of the Storm (New Haven: Yale University Press 2003)

8Jones 2003, 14-15

9Shahid J. Burki, Pakistan Under Bhutto, 1971-1977 (New York: St. Martin's Press 1980) 36

10"Pakistan's Peoples Party" accessed 10 October 2012,

11Burki, 53

Zulfikar Bhutto and the Global Stage

Benazir Bhutto was a daughter of politics; it was certainly no stranger to her. Zulfikar Bhutto was the son of Sir Shah Nawaz Khan Bhutto, a strong political figure in Sindh since before Pakistan’s founding. Zulfikar Ali had studied politics and was likely taught from a very early age how to handle political affairs. “He was the heir to a powerful political empire,” writes Shahid Burki, “that had been built by his father in central Sind.”9Nine years after Zulfikar’s appointment to the military government of Ayub Khan in 1958, the Pakistan Peoples Party was launched from its convention in Lahore, with Zulfikar Bhutto elected as its chairperson.10The purpose of this party takes a very socialist front while at the same time making “a strong effort to reconcile ‘the spirit of Islam’…arguing that the PPP was working for the establishment not of a secular socialist order but of a system that would closely follow the tenets of Islam.”11More so than Jinnah, Zulfikar aimed at having an Islamic-based state while incorporating socialist ideals. It was this, then, that most likely added to his popularity at first. He called for an Islamic state, which would uphold the very foundation which Pakistan was formed, but also a democratic one, which, in theory, provides a more equal establishment for the people.

In the documentary Bhutto, Amy Wilentz calls Zulfikar “a man of the world…and he wanted to be taken seriously on the global stage.”12 After all, Zulfikar Bhutto had been the first prime minister to be elected to the seat by the people of Pakistan, and according to his daughter, the first to bring democracy, the first to install a Constitution to protect the rights of the people, and a leader who had guaranteed civilian government in the wake of military rule.13According to the documentary, however, Zulfikar’s decline on the political scale caused him to panic near the end of his term, and in his panic appointed a strong military leader as chief of staff. Charges were then brought against Zulfikar by his own general, Zia-ul Haq, who after removing Zulfikar from office, established military law over Pakistan.14 Although it was a bloodless takeover at first, it was a takeover nonetheless by someone who had been close to Zulfikar in politics. “After her father was hanged, many party activists had left the country in order to save themselves from state persecution…It was primarily Benazir and her mother alone, among those close to Bhutto, who held aloft the party standard in the harshest days of the Zia repression.”15

The Push into Politics

Benazir Bhutto’s spotlighted political career began at least two years, if not earlier, before Zulfikar’s death at the hands of the new rising regime headed by Zia ul-Haq. She spent much of this time defending her father against the charges that had been brought against him. However, it was the death of her brother Shahnawaz, and seeing the amazing reactions of the people of Pakistan to his death and her return which gave Benazir the determination she needed to finally enter the political arena. She had been recovering from severe, near fatal illness from her imprisonment by Zia-ul Haq, and was with her family in France at the time of this particular event.16 According to Benazir’s first autobiography, which was published five years after his death, Shahnawaz spoke to Benazir continuously about his belief that Zia was looking for him. His paranoia, it seemed, extended to his wife Rehana.17 Afterwards, the family received news of Shahnawaz’s death. “Something was terribly wrong…no one had been alerted. And someone had taken the time to go through his papers. I looked up to see Rehana. She hardly looked like someone who had just lost a husband or who had rushed to get help.”18 It was as if Shahnawaz’s death gave her the final push towards Pakistan and politics. Upon the family’s return to Pakistan for a proper burial, the amount of people who turned out was shocking. Benazir stated, “Even where there is enmity, it is incumbent on Muslims to express sorrow at death and to take part in the grief. But no one had anticipated these multitudes. The press reported the crowds at well over a million…I don’t think many presidents of nations have been given such an honorable and magnificent farewell.”19 Although most of this is from Benazir’s perspective, it is a sufficient argument that the death of her brother and his suspicions of Zia were the principle motives behind Benazir’s sudden determination to fight the Zia regime.

Shahnawaz’s death and the following reception undoubtedly surprised Benazir. It is clear that she was not expecting such a welcoming. Although there were likely some other, underlying reasons, this radical turnout factored into Martial Law being lifted in 1985, and shortly afterwards Zia announced general elections would be held in 1988. Bhutto, the PPP, and her supporters saw an opportunity to challenge Zia. Benazir could return to Pakistan, and she would either be arrested or not, and if she was, then Zia’s new “civilian government” would be exposed. As word of her return spread, the threats on her life were renewed as well. Before her return, however, she traveled, trying to find support elsewhere, not just from the party supporters within Pakistan. Her return was widely publicized in the United States and in Britain, and she also received exposure on television and in magazines. Her return to Lahore was no less amazing. When the elections finally came, she rose to power as not only the youngest prime minister of a Muslim country, but also as the first woman in a leadership position. Zia-ul Haq had died four months earlier in a plane crash, and his successor could not stand up to Benazir’s widespread popularity. Reza Aslan states that, “Considering the fact that Benazir had to overcome the Sharia ordinances that so profoundly affect women, it is a miracle that she rose to the position of prime minister.”20

Benazir Bhutto wanted to bring democracy and Islam together in government. As a devout Muslim herself, Bhutto wanted an Islamic state, but she also demanded a democratic state as well. She also pushed for the modernization of Pakistani government and way of life: “Neither Islam nor its culture is the major obstacle to political modernity, even if undemocratic leaders sometimes use Islam as their excuse.”21 Unlike Zia before her, she understood the need for moderation between the two. “She had a great force to change not only Pakistan but change the world, and change how Islamic women view themselves and how Islamic men viewed Islamic women.”22 She wanted Islam in the government of Pakistan, without letting Islam rule the government. Prior to the elections, Benazir had performed her journey to Mecca, not only for herself, but for her father and brother as well. She felt the importance and need for Islam; it is, after all, the foundation of the Pakistani state. She fought the very foundation of men and women in Islam, and she said in an interview, “When I first became prime minister, I wanted to show that a woman could be as good as a man…but I think it’s important to be a woman because a woman brings nurturing aspects.”23

Final Thoughts

Benazir was a strong woman. This much can be gleaned from reading her memoirs, biographies, and even her political attitudes. Even just by looking at her life and how she overcame so many hardships against her family, it is obvious that she was strong. A quote of hers from a compilation called The Most Important Thing I Know sums up her ideals quickly: “Life is a constant struggle. It is the story of how each person copes with the difficulties and challenges which arise. It is important to work hard, have faith, patience, and persevere in overcoming odds.”24 However, although her popularity is apparent even to Westerners, it is important to note that within and without Pakistan there were those who had little opinion of her, or a poor opinion of her, many of whom felt this way because she was a woman. There will always be more than one side to a situation. Either way, there is more than enough evidence to support that Pakistan wanted to move forward with a democratic government without the loss of their Islamic ideals, and needed a strong leader to bring them to this realization. Benazir Bhutto certainly challenged the views of Islam in a modern society and refused to conform to the extremist ideals of Islam, without losing what she felt to be the essence of Islam. She believed that Islam and democracy could not only exist together, but harmonize, and her impact on the worldview regarding Islam is an important one to understand.

12Bhutto, directed by Duane Baughman and Johnny O'Hara (November 2010)

13Bhutto 1989, 16-17

14Bhutto, 2010

15Abbas 2005, 133

16Bhutto, 2010

17Bhutto 1989, 290-291

18Bhutto 1989, 296-97

19Bhutto 1989, 300-02

20Reza Aslan in Bhutto, 2010

21Bhutto 2008, 62

22Bhutto, 2010

23Benazir Bhutto in Bhutto, 2010

24The Most Important Thing I Know, compiled by Lorne A. Adrain (New York: MJF Books 1997) 55


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