THE ASSASSINATION OF former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto is a great tragedy for her country, but also for pro-democracy Muslims, and especially for Muslim women, worldwide. For all her shortcomings, Bhutto was pro-democracy and adamantly opposed to extremism. Because of her beliefs and her firm stance on democracy, Bhutto was close to the West. She was a shining symbol for Muslim women in general, but especially in places like Saudi Arabia, where women have no rights under the Saudi-Wahhabi sharia law.

From all reports, it is evident that Bhutto's assassination was well orchestrated. The media and analysts in the West quickly exonerated Musharraf's government of any hand in the murder. This habitual rush to judgment obscures basic facts and possibilities. The political pundits argue that Musharraf had nothing to gain from Bhutto's death. First, this argument ignores the way dictators have historically disposed of their opponents. Dictators rarely spare any effort at eliminating possible threats to their regimes, regardless of who gets hurt, even their country and its people. Second, Musharraf may have deemed it necessary to send a message of defiance to the West for having urged him to allow Bhutto to return to Pakistan. The United States and England virtually forced him to allow Bhutto to challenge him for power by running for election. Third, religious terrorists or agents from outside Pakistan may have been involved in the assassination.

When Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October 2007, she was met with open arms by many Pakistanis who, over time, had become disillusioned with Musharraf's military rule. Furthermore, when Bhutto started campaigning, she discovered that her popularity far exceeded her expectations. But she made a colossal mistake by calling on Musharraf to step aside in order to pave the way for a government under her Pakistan People's Party. Musharraf resented the move, just as he resented pressure from the West.

Musharraf was not the only party threatened by Bhutto's popularity. The Saudi royal family, who had hosted Bhutto's competitor, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif (ousted in a military coup by Musharraf in 1999), feared Bhutto would win the election. Her rise to Pakistan's highest office would weaken Saudi-Wahhabi political, economic, and religious influence in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the rest of Central Asia. The Saudis, who loathe Bhutto, summoned Musharraf in November 2007 and talked him into allowing Sharif to return and run against her. Three days later, Sharif was on his way to Pakistan. This is an intriguing turn of events given the fact that the previous month, Musharraf had rebuffed Sharif when he had shown up in Pakistan, forcing Sharif to return to Saudi Arabia on the same plane that had brought him home.

Bhutto's assassination is a catastrophe for pro-democracy Arabs and Muslims and for millions of aspiring Muslim women worldwide. Arab and Muslim dictators will continue to murder advocates of democracy, liberalism, and secularism, whom they fear more than terrorists and religious extremists. Sadly and dangerously, the West cooperates with these dictators, whose ability to stay in power depends on the threat posed by the very extremists they claim to be fighting.

Ali H. Alyami is executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, in Washington, D.C.

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