Imran Khan’s political star is on the rise in Pakistan. Just as he did in his two-decade-long cricket career, he is once again dazzling a fractured nation. This time, his aim is not for the bat, but the ballot box. But will Khan win in a nation that is dominated by feudal politics, corruption, nepotism, old parties and military interference?
Khan’s support among Pakistan’s kingmakers, the media and military intelligence, combined with his high poll ratings, are beginning to yield results in the form of vast gatherings of people who attend his rallies. He is filling a political vacuum in a land where there are few leaders. His recent book, Pakistan: A Personal History, is part memoir and part history, but it is mainly his manifesto for creating change in Pakistan.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I met with Khan last month in London, thanks to my friend Jemima Khan, his former wife. He gave me a copy of his book, and we spoke about Sufism and his attraction towards it. Explaining the draw of this gentler, softer Islam of the hearts, he is sincere in person, as he is when he writes about it. Unlike Cat Stevens, the singer who converted to a more hardline, activist form of Islam, Khan’s rediscovery of his more contemplative faith has been steered by a spiritual mentor, Mian Bashir. Khan writes movingly of mystical encounters. He quotes extensively from Sufi philosophers such as Iqbal, and is comfortable within the Sufi tradition. But this quest does not extend to other aspects of Islam.
In his book, Khan adopts popular Pakistani thinking on Islamic politics without applying his critical faculties as well as he does on other areas of his religion and politics. For example, he writes: “Islam is not just a religion to be practised privately by individuals, but a way of life. The Quran lays out clear rules for how a society should be governed, and guidance on how people should behave.” This slipping into Islam-as-state-and-society is the mistake that extremists make, and then demand we all conform to. Fortunately, the Koran does not specify systems of governments, and uses the Arabic word dean, or religion, to describe Islam, Christianity and Judaism. So Islam is, like others, a religion – it does not demand theocracy.
But Khan is not always wrong. He claims, justifiably, that he was ahead of his time when he criticised the militant pursuit of the war on terror in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and was right in calling for peace with less extreme elements of the Taliban, and others. That policy is now being pursued, perhaps too late, by Pakistan and the west. Khan writes compellingly about the culture and mindset of tribal people in Pakistan’s’ Swat valley and the North West Frontier Province. His book gives invaluable insights into the behavioural codes of Pashtun tribes, and the rise of Islamist radicalism in Pakistan in the wake of ongoing CIA drone attacks.
In both his book and his political role, Khan gives voice to this rise in anti-American radicalism among elite Pakistanis. His story is that of Pakistan’s elite: he was educated abroad, is addicted to cricket, comfortable in English, an admirer of the British monarch, a wearer of western clothes and yet harbours a deep antipathy toward the west.
As a political manifesto, Khan’s book is a rallying cry to these elites. It is also a message to the west, about the intricacies and complexities of a rebellious Pakistan that feels humiliated daily by American violations of its sovereignty. But he does not ask why Pakistan cannot control its own territory. Had it subdued its militants, the US would not need to be involved. Khan writes compassionately about the poor and downtrodden in Pakistan, but he does not touch on the plight of Christian Pakistanis who suffer daily from the discriminatory blasphemy laws that can, almost whimsically, condemn them to death. Nor does he write about the second-class citizenship of Pakistan’s Shia and Ahmedi Muslims, who are barred from opportunities and routinely face harassment both as individuals and as communities.
Khan, rightly, writes and speaks about the need for political leaders to disclose their assets, as he has done, in order to eliminate corruption from public life. But why does he not write about the need for similar disclosure of the wealth of military generals? Or that of rightwing religious leaders?
These and other selective moral outrages, and the convenient reading of Islam, suggest that Khan might be playing to a powerful, religious rightwing gallery in Pakistan. As such, his book helps us comprehend that audience, and how it is shaping westernised Pakistanis such as Imran Khan.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Islamist
Pakistan: A Personal History, by Imran Khan, Bantam Press, £20, 400 pages