Thursday's tragic assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan who returned to her country two months ago, is a staggering loss. Worldwide, Christians who are passionate about reaching Muslims should mourn her murder.
My own heart is heavy, as a great woman and honest friend has been taken away. I knew Benazir personally, having debated her at the Oxford Union a few years ago. The day after the debate, she invited me to a private tea in her London home, where we talked about our similar backgrounds. We were both the same age and had grown up in Christian boarding schools: she in Pakistan, and I across the border in India.
Though a secular Muslim, she praised her Christian schooling, saying it had made her into the woman she was. She saw the advantages that good Christian schooling could bring to her country and so was eager to create an environment in Pakistan where Jews, Christians, and Muslims could worship and thrive together without fear.
I remember her as a humble and winsome spirit. In fact, I found it hard to accept her as a heavyweight in Pakistani politics. She seemed to be an open and positive individual who so wanted the freedoms she saw and enjoyed in the West for her own country.
In our debate at the Union, which questioned whether Islam was relevant for the 21st century, she presented herself as an example of modern-day Islam, stipulating that if she was relevant to the West, then so was Islam. Little did she realize that her lifestyle had less to do with Islam than with the freedoms she had so easily adopted while living in the West, brought about by a Judeo-Christian environment.
Perhaps that was her undoing. Having spent so much time enjoying the freedoms and liberties of London life, she seemed unable to accept that the same was not true of her native land. She was not prepared to hide herself away from the people she loved and went to serve in Pakistan.
She seemed to believe that by sheer personality she could bring Pakistan "kicking and screaming" into the 21st century. She had been warned many times to stay away from large crowds, yet even the attempt on her life the day she returned to Pakistan, barely two months ago, did not sway her from enjoying personal contact with the people of Pakistan.
It was this desire that drove her to stand up through the sunroof in her car and so become a perfectly visible target for the assassin's bullet, followed by the bomb that tore into her car.
Some will call this desire naiveté. Others will say it fed her vanity. Certainly, she knew the risks of assassination, coming from a family where both her brother and father had been assassinated.
Yet even before her return, when questioned about the dangers, she said that she was ready for death, which points to her courage and bravery. Deep down I understand her, since I also get death threats (which I ignore). But the scale of our lives and work are in such contrast that there is really no comparison.
Pakistan stands at the center, geopolitically, for much of what is yet to happen between Islam and the rest of the Western world. More so, I believe, than the Middle East or even Iraq or Iran, not only because of its enormous Muslim population (more than 160 million), but also because of its growing brand of radicalism, which, due to Al Qaeda's influence, is gaining control of Islamic radicalism worldwide.
Benazir understood the threat of radicalism better than anyone else. She brazenly and publicly stood up to the Islamists with a clear desire to take Pakistan back to its roots as a freedom-affirming, civilian-ruled republic. She and other Pakistani leaders dreamed of steering their nation firmly toward the Western world, modeled on what she had seen and enjoyed, not only during her Christian education, but also during her many years in London.
With her gone, I fear for the future of this great nation, and, even more so, for the future of relations between Christian-majority and Muslim-majority nations worldwide.
Where will Pakistan and the world find a woman such as her, able not only to bridge the divisions between peoples, faiths, and nations, but also to give her life so others could share the same freedoms she enjoyed?
Jay Smith is a leader with the London-based Hyde Park Christian Fellowship, a network of Christians active in research on Islam and Christianity. See the Muslim-Christian debate website: www.debate.org.uk.
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