The Press Trust of India calls Benazir Bhutto “an uncompromising champion of democracy and a moderate face of Islam.”
In doing so, she presented herself as a moderate, willing to stand up to the Islamist militants in the madrassas and to take on the pro-Taliban fighters in the lawless Afghan border areas instead of making truces.
And to be sure, it does seem clear that someone who was moderate as opposed to “Islamist militants” and the Taliban was a moderate Muslim, not a moderate Christian or moderate vegetarian, even if the Guardian doesn’t spell it out.
Calling Benazir Bhutto a moderate Muslim is one manifestation of what’s wrong with the term, and how confusing and misleading it can be. Benazir Bhutto was indeed a Muslim, at least nominally, but when she was in power in Pakistan what she championed was a Western secularist, socialist vision, not an Islamic one by any stretch of the imagination. She did not, in other words, offer an alternative vision of Islam itself, shorn of its draconian and supremacist elements. She didn’t offer or stand for an alternative understanding of the Qur’an and Sunnah that taught that Muslims should not wage war for Islam, subjugate unbelievers, or institute stoning and amputation and the rest. Rather, she essentially advocated that in some areas Islamic law should be set aside. That, along with her gender, is what aroused the ire of the Islamic leaders in Pakistan against her, as it has against Musharraf.
So is a moderate Muslim, or someone who presents a moderate face of Islam, simply one who stands for less Islam, particularly in the political sphere? Maybe. But most of the people in the West who use the term “moderate Muslim” imagine that it refers to those who advocate not less Islam but a different Islam — and indeed, one that is more authentic than the jihadists’ version. Many of those who refer to the need to support moderate Muslims imagine that there is a version of Islam that is simultaneously traditional and peaceful, that deserves our support against the radicals.
That Islam, unfortunately, does not exist, and assuming that it does exist has led policymakers and law enforcement officials to numerous errors in many fields. And Benazir Bhutto did not represent such an Islam. She certainly supported the Taliban in Afghanistan, but that was a matter of calculation, not conviction — and in any case would hardly be evidence of moderation in anything. She was, in the precise and encompassing words of Andrew McCarthy, “an attractive, American-educated socialist whose prominent family made common cause with Soviets and whose tenures were rife with corruption.”
In the coming tumultuous days and weeks, it would be wiser for analysts and government officials to remember her that way than as a champion of a chimerical and elusive moderate Islam.