While the world focuses on the war against terror, the war against poverty slides on to the backburner. Since the bombing of the World Trade Center in 2001, three developments have become decisive on a global scale. The first is the fight to root out militants, the second is the political rise of those on the religious margins and the third is the growing gap between the rich and the poor.
Pakistan is a frontline state in the war against terrorism. Most of the leading terrorists have been arrested in Pakistan. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, once described as the CEO of al-Qaida, was arrested in Rawalpindi. Other important leaders continue to be caught in dribs and drabs every six months, including Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian, who was arrested in the Pakistani city of Gujrat last month.
This is good and bad news for Islamabad's military ruler. The positive part is that General Pervez Musharraf gets to play good cop and earn Washington's pleasure to continue his dictatorship. The bad part is that eyebrows are raised as to why leading al-Qaida militants found it necessary to hide in a land run by Washington's "key ally" in the war against terror.
Unfortunately for Pakistan, assassinations and suicide bombings have also been increasing domestically. Scores of Pakistanis and many foreigners have been killed. Many political leaders have been gunned down in the streets - from Rawalpindi in the north to Karachi in the south.
None of the assassins has been arrested. Instead, public attention has been focused on five apparent assassination attempts against high-profile targets that have taken place since last December: two attacks on Gen Musharraf, and one each on the Karachi corps commander, the prime minister-designate, Shaukat Aziz, and the Baluchistan chief minister.
While the regime insists these were genuine assassination attempts, their pattern suggests something different. At most, they seem to have been attempts to frighten the targets. At worst, if the cynics are to be believed, the attacks were stage-managed for external consumption.
For example, in each case, the bombers used low intensity explosives. None of the people hurt or killed was of political value - though they were, of course, of personal and national value. These included innocent people escorting the apparent targets. The main targets escaped without a scratch. While it is welcome that they survived, the larger issue needs resolving.
The drivers in the corps commander's and prime minister-designate's cars were killed, but the other passengers escaped unscathed. It is difficult to believe that bombers would repeatedly use low-intensity explosives so that only one occupant of the car being attacked - or a person outside the car - would die. A public commission into these attacks is needed.
The second crucial development since September 11 2001 has been the rise of religious extremists. There appear to be groups in both the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds who believe that a clash of civilizations is needed for religious reasons. The Christian fundamentalists believe that Christ will be resurrected once the people of the Jewish faith are resettled on the banks of the Euphrates. The Muslim extremists believe that the Mahdi will arrive when the battle between Muslims and non-Muslims intensifies.
This political scenario is threatening to undo the entire global social fabric built since the end of the second world war - one based on the tolerance between different faiths, races, genders and cultures. A clash of civilizations can lead to Armageddon, where there will be no winners on earth. But perhaps the religious extremists are not searching for winners on earth.
The challenge for the world community is to emphasize values of tolerance, moderation and inter-faith understanding, on which rest the pillars of a less violent world. However, the bombing of the World Trade Center and the events in Iraq have made that more difficult. The former led to suspicion against Muslims and a loss of civil liberties; the latter to a counter-suspicion from Muslims as to the real purposes of the war. The inability to find weapons of mass destruction and the Abu Ghraib abuses undermined the reasons given for the Iraq war.
While global attention is focused on terrorism, the crisis of poverty is effectively disregarded. Today, big business seems to be in the driving seat. One recent report found that while 20 years ago CEOs made an average of 40 times more than factory workers, last year it was 400 times more, and is now climbing to a multiple of 500.
This staggering rise in the fortunes of those on top, while those below suffer, is a festering sore that has the potential to erupt. The recent Indian elections showed that a stock-market economy alone could not make India shine. The Indian electorate went against all predictions, as peasants, laborers and the middle classes voted for change. Similarly, in Pakistan the talk of stock market rises and foreign exchange increases hides a more troubling picture. This is one of increasing poverty, hunger, misery and frustration. The numbers of young people killing themselves because of hunger was 1,200 in six months. These are the officially recorded figures - the real figures are believed to be much higher.
In Pakistan, the average income has been shrinking. The cost of living is rising sharply. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the ordinary citizen to pay fat utility bills and buy the basic necessities of life. The Pakistan Economic Survey admits that poverty has increased since democracy was derailed in 1996. The gap between the rich and the poor is growing at an alarming rate. The war against terrorism is primarily perceived as a war based on the use of force. However, economics has its own force, as does the desperation of families who cannot feed themselves. A more stable world depends on the ability to use force when necessary - and to seek political solutions when possible. After all, force is the prelude to achieving a more favorable negotiating position in a political settlement.
Militancy and greed cannot become the defining images of a new century that began with much hope. As the body count rises in Iraq, as a leading NGO pulls out of Afghanistan and as a suicide attack takes place against Pakistan's prime minister designate, the time has come to rethink. By returning to the values of democracy, the will of the people, broad-based government and building institutions that can respond to the people, the social malaise can be addressed.
The neglect of rising poverty against the background of religious extremism can only complicate an already difficult world situation.
· Benazir Bhutto is chairperson of the Pakistan People's party and a former prime minister of Pakistan
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004