I’ll be Your Mirror: The Politics of Pakistan’s Populism by Madiha R. Tahir

This extract from Dispatches from Pakistan (LeftWord, 2012) edited by Vijay Prashad, Madiha R. Tahir, and Qalandar Bux Memon, traces the emergence of Imran Khan in Pakistan and the politics of Pakistan’s populism. A must-read primer on the social history of transformation underway in Pakistan.

The iconic image of Imran Khan – the one everyone still remembers – is the photograph of him wearing a lime-green uniform and holding the 1992 World Cup trophy aloft, arms above his head and a wide grin on his face – the last and greatest triumph of a spectacular career. Over the years, he had proven himself as a disciplined, persistent athlete with a dogged work ethic. During his on-and-off tenure as Pakistan’s captain, he was regarded as an honest leader, though according to some accounts, a dictatorial one as well. According to Christopher Sandford’s biography of Khan, a former teammate had once described his leadership style by comparing him to Stalin. When I put this observation to Khan, he came back with a quick retort. ‘Whoever it is neither understood Stalin nor understands me,’ he quipped. ‘I mean he probably couldn’t even spell Stalin if he described my style as him.’ He laughed. ‘He probably means Churchill not Stalin. He probably confused the two.’

When Imran first stepped onto a pitch in Lahore in 1969 to launch his career in first-class cricket at the age of 16, his performance was erratic – out of line with the legend he was to become, but par for the course given the state of Pakistani cricket in that era. The country had made its international cricketing debut in 1952, the year Imran was born, and since then had led a mercurial, fraught existence. Broader national politics consistently overshadowed the game. Only a few weeks before Imran’s trial for first-class cricket, a three-Test match series between England and Pakistan had to be abandoned when spectators demonstrating in support of a teachers’ strike for better wages and working conditions spilled onto the field in Karachi en masse. It was the last year of military dictator General Ayub Khan’s rule, and the country was restless, wracked by labour and student strikes. The tourists, still unbeaten, fled the country as quickly as they could. For Khan, it marked the beginning of a political education in a game that was itself political.

In Pakistan, cricket belonged to the elite. As a youngster from a wealthy, urban Pashtun family, Imran represented the rule and not the exception among cricketers in his day. Like his cousin, Javed Burki, who had briefly held the captaincy in the early 1960s, Imran also attended Aitchison College, the upper crust English medium school in Lahore skilled at teaching Pakistani boys how to mimic – and perhaps desire – white British manhood.

If cricket represented class politics at home, it was embroiled in race politics abroad, a fact that was not lost on Imran. Schooled at Aitchison and then Oxford, and trained in British morality and values, Khan realised the limits of his educational capital against the grim reality of racism in Britain. ‘At no point in my life did I ever, ever think that I was not going to live in Pakistan. Never,’ he told me. And then added, emphatically in his booming voice: ‘Although, you know, England became a second home to me, but I never ever thought that it would be the place where I would live because I was always a second class citizen there. And that was against my self-esteem: to live as a second class citizen.’

For a boy who grew up rich and educated in English schools, the cultural components of colonialism reverberated far more powerfully than the material exploitation. In his memoir, Pakistan: A Personal History, Khan writes, ‘In my opinion the greatest damage done to the people of the Indian subcontinent was in the humiliation of slavery and the consequent loss of self-esteem. The inferiority complex that is ingrained in a conquered nation results in its imitation of some of the worst aspects of the conquerors, while at the same time neglecting its own great traditions. It destroys originality as the occupied people strive only to imitate the occupiers.’

In the arc of Khan’s post-cricket public life, which has carried him into the thicket of Pakistan’s cultural and religious politics – toward an embrace of Pashtun identity and Islamic piety – the signs of his search for that missing originality seem clear, visible as a yearning for something of the authentic.

‘I never live in my past,’ Imran Khan told me when I asked him whether he missed his life in London. ‘The past is only to learn from. My life was always controlled by my passions,’ he continued, stressing the final word heavily. ‘I was quite rootless in that sense that, you know, my passion was cricket so it took me everywhere. Then it became the hospital, so I came here.’

Among younger Pakistanis, Khan is arguably better known and loved for his hospital in Lahore – formally, the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre – than for his cricket career. The red-bricked state-of-the-art medical centre, which opened in December 1994, stands as an aweinspiring testament to Khan’s dogged persistence and, in a country shattered by cruel class divides, thrilling evidence of the possibility that slumber within liberal Pakistan. The hospital, which provides cancer treatment irrespective of a patient’s ability to pay, was built with World Cup earnings as well as private fundraising. In stories that have quickly passed into folklore, as Imran Khan ventured forth into Pakistan to fundraise for the hospital, his reputation for honesty was such that women tossed their gold bangles and other jewellery at him. But if the public was behind him, the Nawaz Sharif-led government was not leading some newspaper columnists to wonder whether the government feared Imran’s competence.

When Sharif’s government created yet more obstacles for the new hospital, Imran Khan wrote a lengthy article in the Frontier Post voicing his criticism in religious terms. ‘For me,’ he wrote, ‘the greatest feeling of satisfaction was that despite the curse of the un-Islamic VIP culture in the country, our staff made no distinction between the paying and non-paying patients.’

By then, Imran Khan had taken a distinctly pious turn. ‘I met a man who was a very spiritual man and had powers like Ibn Arabi, that great 13th-century mystic who saw with double vision.’ He paused and corrected himself, then started again. ‘It wasn’t that. It was just the wisdom of the man.’ Imran began to read the Qur’an, and he told me that he now regards the Prophet Muhammad as his role model. ‘Leave alone that he was a prophet of God. Let’s say he was an ordinary man. No man has achieved what he’s achieved,’ Khan argued. ‘No man has created a civilisation. No man has been a lawgiver. No man was a leader as a leader, just purely as a leader.’ He made an emphatic gesture with his hands. ‘No man has achieved what he’s done. I mean, he created leaders. When he left this world, everyone around him became a leader. Even if you look on him as a leader, no one has achieved as much. The civilisation he created was the greatest civilisation for 700 years.’

It was around this time that Khan published Warrior Race: A Journey Through the Land of the Tribal Pathans, a book-length depiction, in deeply romanticised terms, of Pashtun tribal culture. He started to speak publicly against what he described as a bankrupt Pakistani elite – whose corruption he attributed to a lack of morals and religion. In a challenge to Pakistan’s secularists, who argued that religion was a private matter and responded squeamishly to public mentions of piety, Khan came to embrace the idea that Islam provided a political and moral framework for living – a complete order that embodied the essence of universal human rights and justice. He began to draw inspiration from Muhammad Iqbal, the early 20th-century poet and philosopher – and particularly from Iqbal’s critique of western rationalism and his efforts to retool Islam as a comprehensive and modern moral and political philosophy. For Imran, Iqbal’s thinking seemed to provide an answer to the question he believed plagued all former colonies: how to be simultaneously modern and authentic to one’s own cultural traditions. It is a journey well-known amongst elite populists across the former colonies; Imran Khan’s turn to indigenous traditions is equal to that of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia.

In the wake of Imran’s self-reinvention as a preacher of national pride – and his stated promise to marry a Pakistani girl – the announcement that he was to wed Jemima Goldsmith, the daughter of a British businessman and philanthropist who was 22 years his junior, met with a cold reaction in Pakistan.

One English-language newspaper ran a column titled ‘Imran Meri Jaan!’ (Imran, My Love), which sarcastically weighed the possible shortcomings of Pakistani women in an attempt to determine why Khan might have chosen a foreign bride. A few columnists in the Urdu press argued sincerely that the marriage was to be applauded, because Imran Khan had saved Jemima from hell by converting her to Islam. The Nation, an English language daily, ran a tongue-in-cheek column satirising this argument, which read, ‘I have a hunch and a good one too that the great Khan has a deep strategy in his mind to serve Islam and arrest the expansion of Zionism. It has been revealed that that lady was of Jewish origin but now has been converted to our religion with conviction through the body-chemistry of our great cricketer. In one go, he has denied many children of Israel to be conceived and come to this world.’

The marriage did not last. ‘Put it this way,’ Imran Khan told me. ‘Marriage and politics are very hard to sustain together. One would have to suffer.’ Jemima and Imran still remain close; indeed, she’s the source of much of his continued circulation through the western press circuit.

Imran has pressed on with his model of politics, a brand that draws connections between the religious and the political. Indeed, that is how he explains his entrée into politics. ‘You have to ask two questions if you’re a thinking person’, he said. ‘Some people blissfully never ask themselves these questions: What is the purpose of existence? What will happen to us when we die? These two questions, and only religion can answer. No science can answer that question.’ Khan’s answer to the first question provides his rationale for having entered politics. ‘The purpose of existence is so simple,’ he said, with the tone of his voice rising as if to stress that this was self-evident. ‘The more the Almighty gives us, the more responsibility on us what we need to do for others. That’s it. No rocket science. It’s being a good human being,’ he continued, and then moved to a more openly political interpretation of the question. ‘In our society, people like us, who have an option of not doing anything – do we sit on our backside and watch our country go down the drain or do we stand up to this corrupt mafia who, in the name of politics and democracy, are plundering the country. Is anyone going to stand up to them or not?’

But this is ultimately a moral issue – who will stand up to the bad guys? – rather than a political one: in a similar vein, Khan typically argues that the problem in Pakistani politics today has to do with the personal ethical failures of politicians rather than the system that encourages, nourishes, buttresses and supports them, or the forms of capitalism that reproduce that system. Breaking down that system will require land reform, wealth redistribution and other wholesale structural changes about which Imran speaks little, if at all. It is Imran’s displacement of political questions onto a moral framework – and not merely his resistance to political favour-trading, as some have claimed – which turns his political vision into a kind of ‘anti-politics.’ And that vision, unlike Bhutto’s, does not have a broad horizon.

When Bhutto emerged, the question of socialism and redistributive justice was firmly on the agenda. Bhutto spoke in the language of socialism because the political atmosphere of the time required that of him. By contrast, Imran effaces questions of land reform and structural changes due in no small part to the kinds of politicians he now courts – feudals and capitalists. Without that politics, Khan can only offer moralism and proceduralism: Islam and the rule of law.

Imran Khan’s moral orientation can yield trenchant critiques of sociopolitical issues, but it also walks him into a narrow politics that is often questionable in its particulars. Take, for example, his reply to my question about the Hudood Ordinance – a set of draconian laws enacted by Zia ul-Haq that enforce severe punishments for extramarital sex, including rape: ‘Had it been debated properly by a proper Parliament rather than a dictator, using Islam, had that not been done, this would’ve been a well-framed law, but as it happened, this was not debated.’

And this is what he said when I asked him bout the so-called ‘blasphemy law’, whose abuses had been widely chronicled even before Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer was murdered for opposing it: ‘Blasphemy is the same thing. You see blasphemy, as I told you, was a British-made law, and it was to create harmony in the society.’ Pakistan’s current law bears little resemblance to that intention, but Imran Khan continued. ‘So what you’ve seen in Pakistan is a breakdown of rule of law. There is no law in Pakistan!’ I pressed him, asking whether he really thought the problem was simply the way the laws were applied, rather than the laws themselves. ‘If you did not have a blasphemy law in Pakistan,’ he said, ‘you will have bloodshed in villages and communities because when someone will say someone has said this about the Prophet, and then you will see fanatics going and killing people.’ But that’s happening right now, I insisted. ‘No,’ he countered. ‘What happens now is that they hand them over to the law. At least these people then have a law to protect them. You would have lynching crowds otherwise.’

So, I asked him, would you say the law right now is fine?

‘No, the law – if it is implemented properly – it gives plenty f time for someone. Only a mad person can abuse the Prophet. Only a mad person can do it. And so they will get a reprieve by the court anyway.’ ‘It’s implementation,’ he continued. ‘It is a law that is open to abuse like every other law. So, in my opinion the law you need to pass is for perjury, false witnesses, because there is no law against that. A false witness can get away. So if you had a law against false witnesses, which is perjury, then you would immediately see these cases decreasing because people who wrongfully accuse would be going to jail.’

Arguments like these demonstrate why Khan has become a target for many urban, secular liberals, even though he has sometimes – as was the case after Salmaan Taseer’s murder – demonstrated more willingness than ostensibly secular politicians to condemn religious extremism.

Featured image: PTI & Imran Khan back up with people living in Hazara on provincial demand, it was announced on 8 April 2012 address to thousands of Pakistanis; for representational purposes only. Source: Wikimedia Commons.