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A debate at Oxford in memory of Bhutto

At the storied society she once led, the topic is the merits of a secular state. Her son attends the event.

January 18, 2008|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

OXFORD, ENGLAND — Since 1823, it has been a chamber of civilized, if sometimes outrageous, debate. In the shelter of the Oxford Union's weathered mahogany wainscoting, long oak benches and high, leaded glass windows, Malcolm X called for black empowerment "by any means necessary."

In 1933, as war brewed in Europe, a 275-to-153 majority of establishment-weary youths backed the proposition that "this House will under no circumstances fight for King and Country," a resolution that a furious Prime Minister Winston Churchill denounced as "that abject, squalid, shameless avowal."

And a young Benazir Bhutto -- known then for her lively debating skills, long brunet hair and the yellow MG sports car she drove all around Oxford -- stepped from the presidency of the union in 1977 to, a little more than a decade later, the leadership of Pakistan.

On Thursday, the Oxford Union commemorated Bhutto, assassinated in Pakistan last month, with a debate on the merits of secular government -- a topic that proved as provocative in Britain as it might have in Pakistan. In the chamber was Bhutto's son and the heir to her political dynasty, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 19.

His return to Christ Church College last week was recorded by a pack of 30 or more photographers called in for a brief photo opportunity, even as police and university officials upped security plans.

"Go home, you endanger us all in Oxford by being here," a reader wrote on the website of one local paper.

"He is a brave man to take on the role, and they are also fighting the same crackpots we are," protested another.

Thursday's debate proposition, "This House believes that the ideal state is a secular state," was scheduled well before Bhutto's death Dec. 27 but was ideally suited to become a memorial for her, said the family's spokesman, Hasan Ahmed Bukhari Hasan.

"Mrs. Bhutto believed so much in secular democracy and politics," he said.

In remembering Bhutto's years at Oxford, where she studied philosophy, politics and economics from 1973 to 1977, her former classmates described a vivacious, brilliant and ambitious young woman. She became the first Asian woman to preside over the Oxford Union after mounting a careful, energetic campaign.

"One felt naturally drawn to the most colorful character of all the characters that Oxford had at the time," said Alan Duncan, another former Oxford Union president, and now a British lawmaker.

"She was amazing, fiery and fun. Standing at this dispatch box, she would enliven this chamber. . . . She absolutely took Oxford by storm," he said.

Bhutto outraged her fellow Oxonians by drinking creme de menthe with milk, and delighted them by introducing rock music to the Oxford Union and painting her office blue.

Author Victoria Schofield, a longtime friend of Bhutto's, remembered meeting her as a freshman in the Oxford Union bar; Bhutto immediately invited her to tea. "She was larger than life for all of us dull, ordinary undergraduates," Schofield said.

"That yellow MG perfectly encapsulated her personality, whether it was parked [illegally] on those double yellow lines outside the union, or driving, as I remember with terror, the wrong way around a London roundabout," said Simon Walker, another former union president.

From the beginning, Schofield said, Bhutto was committed to the ideal of "a secular, modern, democratic" Pakistan.

Thursday's debate underscored the extent to which the fault line between religion and state rocked both of Bhutto's worlds, East and West. While the proposition prevailed by 220 to 171, there were vigorous arguments against those who insisted the British state should not be allied with the Church of England.

"Seventy-two percent of the U.K. population in the last census were prepared to declare themselves Christian. Why on Earth should those 72%, if they then choose to organize themselves and express that religious belief in a political fashion, who are you to tell them that they can't do that? It's just absurd. And you talk about dictatorial?" said Zahid Amin, former president of the Young Muslims Assn.

But others said it was illogical that a country in which citizens in one 2001 survey rated religion as only the ninth most important aspect of their identity should give clerics seats in the upper house of Parliament. Some argued that secular states are better guarantors of human rights and stability.

"We believe in liberal neutrality," said Lewis Iwu, student union president. "The state shouldn't endorse a particular view of how you live your life."

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

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