OffTheBus recently caught up with Fatima Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto's niece, whose father died under questionable circumstances at the hands of the police force under her aunt's rule. Fatima Bhutto is 25-years-old, a newspaper columnist/author and, in the eyes of many, the crown princess of Pakistan's most powerful political dynasty. She is the granddaughter of the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's wildly popular former prime minister (who was hanged after a military takeover by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq). Fatima is also the niece of Benazir Bhutto, the county's past and would-be future prime minister.
Aunt Benazir is back under house arrest again and calling for Musharraf to quit. Yet, when Fatima talked to me from Karachi, she had a lot to say about her aunt's extravagant political gamesmanship, about how Pakistanis will react if the U.S. attacks Iran, about which American presidential candidate looks like a winner from a Pakistani standpoint---and which Dem she personally wants to see win. [Hint: It's not Hillary].
OffTheBus: How has the Bush Administration affected Pakistani politics?
Fatima Bhutto: A lot. Musharraf has been fighting the war on terror for the Bush White House, as if it was his own, and so he's brought it to our doorstep. Prior to 9/11 and the war on terror, the religious parties in Pakistan really had no ground support. Out of 400 seats in parliament, they would take maybe four or five. They would never break double digits. But after 9/11, and after opening up our borders to American forces, and launching airstrikes, the religious right has tripled or quadrupled their support. Instead of getting four seats, they get 15 or 20 seats. And now we have a civil war going on in the northern part of our country.
OffTheBus: As you know, the US will elect a new president. Do Pakistanis pay much attention to American politics? And if so, who would they like to see in office?
FB: Actually, Pakistanis follow American elections very closely, because they affect us so much. But, if you ask most Pakistanis, they believe earnestly that Republicans are the best, because they'll give us a lot of money, aide and weapons. The average person forgets that, in return, we have to do the American's dirty work for them. I think what a lot of people are most upset about is right now is that Americans are threatening to cut aid. The average Pakistani doesn't think about what we have to do to get that money.
OffTheBus; What about you? Who do you like?
FB: I have to say I like Obama a lot. His record is the best. He's always been vocal about his opposition to the war in Iraq. And he's speaking out against the Patriot Act. Frankly, he seems very good in a lot of ways. Whereas with Hillary, if you look at her record, it doesn't support what she says now. If I could vote in the American elections, Obama would get my vote.
But even Obama has come out and said, if necessary, we will attack Pakistan. They've all said that -- Republicans and Democrats. So Pakistanis feel the safest bet is the Republicans, because they will fund us and give us those F-16s that we paid for and never got. As, for the religious parties, they like the neocons because they lose a lot of their dynamism if they have no one to go up against. For them, the neocons are perfect.
To understand the magnetic force the name "Bhutto" conjures in Pakistan, imagine the Kennedys, the Clintons and the entire Bush clan all rolled into one -- with added doses of tragedy, corruption and political intrigue. It's important to know that Fatima's father, Murtaza Bhutto, was an opposition member of parliament when older sister Benazir was last in power, and that he died in a hail of bullets under still-cloudy circumstances at the hands of the police force under his sister's rule. Then later, Benazir retreated into exile amid big-money corruption charges that Musharraf has recently agreed to drop.
You also need to know that Columbia-educated Fatima is widely expected to leap into politics herself. But, if and when she ever does, it will assuredly not be under her aunt's Pakistani People's Party banner.
OffTheBus: A lot of people have called for you to run for public office? Are you seriously considering it?
FB: Well, I don't believe my name automatically qualifies me, or makes me the best person. In a country like Pakistan where is politics is often an art form of the elite, and it's often very dynastic, it's hard to explain to people why I don't think it's a birthright. But no, I'm not going to run for elections this January or February whenever Musharraf claims its going to happen. I'd only do it if I felt I could make a positive difference. But, I feel like writing is best for now.
OffTheBus: And in the future?
FB: I'm very political in my writing. And I'm politically active in other ways. I think we can build democracy in Pakistan. But it will take time. And it will be a Pakistani democracy. Not one that's imposed by....someone else.
OffTheBus: Speaking of political impositions, how would Pakistanis react if Bush were to attack Iran?
FB: I think it would be catastrophic. If our government sides with an American attack on Iran, that'll be it. The Pakistani people have great sympathy for the Iranian people. We don't think we're anything like the Afghans. We don't think we're like the Iraqis, really either. But Pakistanis and Iranians have a connection. Urdu is very much like Farsi. It's practically the same language.
I visited Iran last January. And I asked Iranians what they would do if there was an American strike. And they said, "We'd strike America back." I asked how they could do that. And they said, "Don't you realize, we'll strike them in Afghanistan, we'll strike them in Iraq, and we'll strike them in Pakistan." Really, it would be catastrophic.
OffTheBus: Now that your aunt's again under house arrest, and has ratcheted up her calls for General Musharraf to step down, the media is reporting that the Bush-brokered power sharing deal between her and the general is now off.
FB: A lot of this is theater. Actually, it seems very much still on. Her corruption cases remain withdrawn -- as per the arrangements of the deal. all her supporters and her party members are allowed into the compound with her. She addresses her supporters outside through a megaphone. And she is granted amazing access to the media here, while other political parties have been given a blanket ban. If they want to hold a press conference they're not allowed. Only the Islamic party is given similar freedoms. And it isn't Benazir's supporters getting arrested by the thousands. It's the lawyers who have been charged with treason, and the journalists.
OffTheBus: So why her latest surge in rhetoric?
FB: I think she's in a tight spot. Her party supporters want her to come out more directly against Musharraf and she's flip flopped. It seems, though, that Musharraf's camp is tiring of her. One of his cabinet members just gave a statement saying she is the least suitable candidate for Prime Minister. But then again they never wanted her in the first place. She was forced upon them by the White House.
It's a murky situation here. Unfortunately it only gets murkier by the minute.
OffTheBus: Ever since emergency rule was declared, much of the media has been shut down. So how is everyone managing to get news?
FB: Well, this is the 13th emergency that's been declared in Pakistan's sixty-year history. So we pretty much know the drill. But the media has suffered tremendously since this emergency. The journalistic community was accused of betraying the country. A media law was passed almost immediately, which states that broadcasters can no longer give opinions about Pakistan. No live scenes of conflict can be aired on TV anymore. Now, we no longer know who is protesting, who is in danger. Stations can be shut down at any time. No foreign airtime is allowed. So we don't have CNN or the BBC anymore... And we can't even get podcasts. We're proud of the fact that we're part of the information age. Cutting that off has jolted people, especially the young people.
OffTheBus: Okay, then what methods do you use to get the word out?
FB: They haven't been able to block our email providers like Hotmail. Blogs are also very useful for notifications about protests and arrests. And we get a lot of news from text messaging. The government thought that this media blackout would deprive us of the news, but somehow we're very resourceful people.
OffTheBus: You lost your father when you were fourteen years old....
FB: Yes. He was assassinated in a very violent way. We read about assassination squads in the paper every day. Violence is so cheap in Pakistan. But when it happens to your father, you have a different stake in it. He was killed right outside our house. And I went to the hospital so I saw him in that... state. I don't know that we'll ever get justice in my father's case. Too many people have too much to lose.
OffTheBus: Were you close to your father?
FB: I was very, very close to my father. My biological mother and he were divorced when I was very young. And he didn't marry my stepmother -- who is really my mother --until years later. So my father raised me as a single parent until I was almost seven. So we were sort of bachelors in exile. It was my father who brushed my hair, and took me to school and did my homework with me. It was very progressive, I think. He was the first one to notice that I enjoyed writing. He gave me the foundation that I stand on now. He was the best.
OffTheBus: When it comes to writers, who are you heroes?
FB: Robert Fisk. I remember reading his book when I was eighteen and going off to college, and thinking, I want to be like him and be a journalist. Seymour Hersh. He's another person. My favorite poet is T.S. Elliott. I love writers from the Jazz Age. I love Fitzgerald. I'm a very proud bookworm. I just read The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. It's beautiful, beautiful writing.
OffTheBus: You're very critical of both the Musharraf government, and of your aunt. Are you ever fearful about your own safety?
FB: Well, yes... I've been very vocal in my columns, and sometimes I've been told, "You could be hurt if you're not careful." But it always comes in the form or a friendly warning and not a direct threat. (pause) But I take precautions.