Anthropologist who lived in Pakistan comments on Benazir Bhutto’s death

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto is not only a great loss to Pakistan, but also a great loss to the world, says a sociocultural anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis who lived in Pakistan for six months and whose research focuses on Islamic movements in that country and in Afghanistan.

“Most of us knew very well that Benazir Bhutto was a primary target of the Islamists in Pakistan — and others — but some of us presumed that her handlers, supported by the Pakistani police, would have taken extreme measures to ensure her protection,” says Robert L. Canfield, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology and of Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern Studies in Arts & Sciences at Washington University.

Robert Canfield
Robert Canfield

“I did not contemplate her possible murder after the first failed attack. Another attempt at her assassination was no great surprise, but its success has been a shock. Her demise in any case is a shock to Pakistan and to the world, owing to its implications.

“The extensive measures taken to kill her reveal that there were enemy elements out there who regarded the prospect of her coming to power as a threat,” Canfield continues.

“Because she represented the chance that the many radical Islamist groups in Pakistan, now enjoying much latitude, could be placed under the strictures of the rule of law, her murder seems to have been aimed at wrecking all attempts to establish an effective government — something that despite appearances Pakistan still does not really have.

“Whatever these elements claim, presumably to establish what they call ‘sharia law,’ their use of violent means reveals how indifferent they are to the rule of law.”

Canfield, who spent nine years in Afghanistan and has studied Islamic identity issues in Central Asia since the early 1990s, says that whatever Benazir was personally, she was, for many, a symbol.

“She represented the hope of a fresh break from the stultifying administration of Pervez Musharraf and a prospect for turning around a country trapped in a downward spiral,” says Canfield.

“Benazir’s demise was intended to dash the hopes for a government ruled by popular consent. Let’s hope that this most egregious of insults to the well-being of the country will fail in its intent,” he adds.

Canfield teaches a course on Greater Central Asia: History, Culture and Politics, which focuses on contemporary issues in the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia and Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The course also includes extensive reading on the social history of the region in order to enable understanding of the social dynamics at work in the region.

In 1990, Canfield was a consultant in Pakistan for the Agency for International Development – Representative to Afghanistan to develop a strategy for encouraging democratic institutions among the Afghanistan peoples.