EDITORIAL: Death a blow to democracy

What a disheartening way to end the year.

On Dec. 27, popular politician Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Pakistan by a suicide bomber following a campaign rally. Twenty other people also died in the senseless act of violence. The country is holding a general election next week, and Bhutto was expected to do well – hailed by many as someone who could bring stability to a volatile nuclear arms-equipped nation undermined by Islamic fanatics and terrorists.

Whether or not Bhutto, as leader of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), would have wrestled power from self-appointed President Pervez Musharraf, or made good on her promises to improve the lot of the poor, by all accounts, she was a remarkable woman.

The first female leader of a Muslim country (she was Pakistan’s prime minister twice, for a total of two years), 54-year-old Bhutto was a fascinating enigma: a hijab-wearing wife in an arranged marriage who was educated at the elite Western universities, Harvard and Oxford.

Her life and family background represent a complicated chapter in foreign history. Her grandfather’s party helped Pakistan gain independence from India in 1947; her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who served as the country’s president (1971-73) and prime minister (1973-77), was executed in 1979. Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October after eight years in exile, despite repeated threats against her own life. She was recently named eternal chairwoman of the PPP, which her father founded.

In more simpler terms – and on the world stage – Bhutto was an important figurehead for democracy. Her murder, now attributed to al Qaeda, is a blow to what most Canadians hold dear – freedom of speech and religion; gender equality; help for the poor.

Surrey’s Farrukh Alam, president of the Pakistan-Canada Association of Vancouver, was saddened by the news of Bhutto’s death, and concerned for family members still living in Pakistan. On Friday, he and others from the community attended a prayer service at Pakistan House in Surrey.

“What can we as a people do except offer our condolences and be sad in the moment like this and pray for the soul,” Alam reasoned. “That’s all we can do.”

We as a people can also continue to work against those who seek to quash personal freedom through murder and violence, and support the brave – like Bhutto – who put their lives on the line doing so.

And hope, against the odds, for a more peaceful 2008.

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