Fatima Bhutto: Time to break dynastic stranglehold on Pakistan

Fatima Bhutto discusses her book, Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter's Memoir, which tells the story of the Bhutto family and her father's life, set in the context of the sweep of Pakistan's history from Partition in 1947 onward.

In 1996, when Fatima Bhutto was 14, her father Mir Murtaza Bhutto — Benazir Bhutto's brother and political rival — was shot dead by police in a barrage of gunfire outside the family home in Karachi.

Fatima and her six-year-old brother heard it all from inside the house, huddling alone in their parents' bedroom, terrified and confused.

Not knowing what was going on, but being the determined and resourceful girl that she was, Fatima did the logical thing. She picked up the phone and called her aunt Benazir, who just happened to be prime minster of Pakistan.

Benazir Bhutto's husband, Asif Zardari, picked up the phone. He told the distraught girl that Bhutto couldn't come to the phone. Fatima heard wailing in the background, then Zardari said, "Oh, don't you know? Your father's been shot."

In that moment, Fatima Bhutto's childhood was over.

She lost a beloved father and became estranged from her aunt, who Fatima became convinced was complicit in his killing. 

Fatima went on with her life and education, attending first Columbia University and then the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, but her life had been irreparably changed.

"Anyone who grows up witnessing that kind of trauma or violence, you learn how to survive," she says. "It means you'll have to steel yourself to certain dangers around you. But I hope that doesn't mean that you let go of part of your life. You just learn to adapt."

Since then, 28-year-old Fatima Bhutto (who still lives in Pakistan in the Bhutto family compound where her father died) has become an outspoken journalist and writer. She is highly critical of the political and military elite that has ruled Pakistan for generations.

She has just published a book, Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter's Memoir, which tells the story of the Bhutto family, and her father's life and death. It's set in the context of the whole sweep of Pakistan's history from Partition in 1947 onward.

Central to the story is the tragic split within the Bhutto family after the 1979 assassination of its patriarch, the charismatic social reformer Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was Pakistan's first democratically elected leader.

His murder by General Zia ul-Haq, who subsequently took power, ultimately pitted his eldest child, Benazir Bhutto, against his eldest son, Mir Murtaza (Fatima's father), who had competing visions for Pakistan's future and political strategies.

Benazir rose to become the first woman elected to lead a Muslim state. She served as prime minister twice (1988-90 and 1993-96), before she was assassinated in 2007.

By contrast, her brother Murtaza (and Fatima's father) lived the life of a political exile, embracing the idea of armed struggle against the military regime until his return to Pakistan in the 1990s and his eventual murder.

CBC producer Jennifer Clibbon interviewed Fatima Bhutto in Toronto.

CBC News: This is a moving book. It's both an exploration of the life of a father you clearly adored, but also a fascinating journey through Pakistan's modern history. What was your motivation in writing this book?

Fatima Bhutto: Our history in Pakistan is written either by foreigners or by the establishment. There really isn't another layer, another "transcript."

What I hoped to do with this book was to write about that hidden transcript; the way people live, the way that violence affects people, written by someone who watched it rather than by someone who perpetrated it.

CBC News: Describe the profound rift that happened in your family between Benazir Bhutto and your father.

Bhutto: My father felt that no negotiation, no compromise with the military, was acceptable at all. Benazir was willing to make certain compromises to make it to the office of the prime minister [she first became prime minister in 1988]. She was willing to allow the army to set her cabinet posts. She was willing to let the army dictate foreign policy specifically in regards to India and Afghanistan. She made those compromises to take power.

CBC News: Your father has been consigned to history as a terrorist, because he lived in exile in Afghanistan and Syria in the 1980s and, for a time, organized armed struggle against Gen. Zia ul-Haq's repressive regime. Your book refutes that portrait of him, describing his years of diplomatic lobbying that led to frustration.

Bhutto: He was 24 [when his father was killed] and his brother was 21, and they made a decision to confront the military regime directly. They were children of the 1970s. Their heroes were Che Guevara and [Congolese independence leader] Patrice Lumumba. They had a romantic notion of what an armed struggle would mean. Their fight was with the military, not with civilians.

To me it is an incredibly difficult decision to make. It is a noble choice and cost them lives and privileges.

CBC News: Your views about Benazir Bhutto are well known. You believe she saw your father as a political rival and bears a "moral responsibility" for the police killing of him in 1996. In your book, she comes across as Machiavellian. Seen from the perspective today, what do you think she accomplished and what were her failings?

Bhutto: If we look at her first government (1988-90), we know that in her two years as prime minister no legislation was passed. Not a single piece of legislation. Nothing of Zia's legacy was dismantled.

When we look at her second government (1993-96), this was a woman prime minister who allowed the Hudood Ordinance to stay in place, the most violent piece of law against women.

[The Hudood Ordinance was a controversial set of laws enacted in 1979 by Zia ul-Haq that pertained mainly to women. Under the law, to prove she'd been raped a woman had to provide four male witnesses to the crime or face the penalty for adultery, which included lashings or stoning. The law was amended in 2006.]

This is a woman who presided over the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. When the Taliban took over in 1996, only three countries recognized them: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Pakistan. This was not someone who fought for women's freedom at all.

If you ask me for one of Benazir's strong points, I would have to take you to the time before she was in power. That was before she was compromised. She was a very brave and courageous campaigner. She was a very courageous voice against dictatorship.

CBC News: Her husband is now president, a man who spent years in prison on charges of corruption and who, you allege, was behind your father's murder. You live in Pakistan and write critically about the regime there. What dangers do you face?

Bhutto: This is a government that is in power on the basis of my family name. He has laid a claim based on a name that is not his to own. As someone who is part of that family, that makes me a threat.

Now after [the book] talking about the government corruption, acquiescence to the Americans, their enthusiasm of the Predator drone attacks that they sanction and assist in, and his role in not only my father's murder but many other criminal cases, it does put me at risk.

Not because the book is published in Pakistan, they don't care what Pakistanis think. But when you go to countries like Great Britain, the United States, where the money that props up [President Asif Ali] Zardari's government comes from, the politicians that support and enable his regime, they don't like it when you do that. It puts me at risk. It puts the people who spoke to me at risk.

CBC News: You've long been critical of U.S. policy in Pakistan. How is it detrimental, in your mind, to reform in Pakistan?

Bhutto: This is not an accident in American foreign policy. From the 1950s 'til now, America has interfered in Pakistan's politics to Pakistan's detriment. It has done the same in any country that is strategic for economic or political reasons.

America sends billions and billions of dollars to corrupt and violent regimes: to Zia ul-Haq's regime, to Gen. Pervez Musharraf's regime, and now to Asif Zardari's regime. These are all regimes with countless human rights abuses in their resumés; governments which preside over such a state of corruption that we have a nuclear country that can't afford electricity for its people.

When Barack Obama's administration carries on where George Bush left off, by supporting governments that are criminal and corrupt, he does that at the detriment of Pakistan.

CBC News: You have said you aren't interested in entering politics. What's the way forward in Pakistan? Does the new generation in Pakistan give you hope?

Bhutto: Absolutely. We have to break the dynastic stranglehold on Pakistan. For as long as we say "yes" to dynasty and we say that you have to be part of one family — or two families, or three parties, or two schools — to rule, we are continuing the cycle.

We are a country of 180 million people. We have more than three choices; we have more than the PPP (Pakistan's Peoples Party) or the PML (Pakistan Muslim League) or the army.

What we have seen which is hopeful to me is the voice of a new generation of Pakistanis. It's a voice that is not just secular, but moderate, anti-the war on terror, that has yet to live through a period where Pakistan is in control over its sovereignty and an independent foreign policy.

This is the generation that is coming up. If we do not allow them the chance to take their part in the country, we are closing a door to them, a door that they will eventually abandon. They will leave and go to other countries.

In Toronto there's a phenomenal South Asian community here of Pakistanis that is ethical and hardworking and brave. We have to wonder why they did not feel that they had that opportunity in their own country … So we have to say, "No more [dynasties]." We have to say, "You've had your chance. We allowed you these chances. Enough."