by M. Shahid Alam
I have never had the patience for long-winded novels, and much less for memoirs, but I am glad I persuaded myself to read Imran Khan’s Pakistan: A Personal History. Now that Tehreek-e-Insaaf , the political party founded and led by Imran Khan, gathers momentum – after many years in the political wilderness – and may yet grow to challenge the established political parties in the next elections, it is time to take a closer look at the man who leads this party, and promises to restore justice and dignity to Pakistan’s long-suffering but mostly passive population.
Once I had gotten past the Prologue – which I thought did not belong at the beginning of the book – Khan’s narrative never lost its power to sustain my interest. The book takes the reader through many unexpected shifts in the protagonist’s life – from cricket to charity work, from charity work to politics, from the life of a celebrity to a life of piety, from disdain for Islam to a deepening respect for its richness and depth, from contempt (a colonial legacy common to Pakistan’s elites) for ordinary Pakistanis to a growing concern for their tormented lives, from wilting shyness before audiences to a determination to face the glare of public life, from growing anxiety about Pakistan’s problems to an unshakable resolve to do something about them; etc. In short, the book takes the reader through the life of an extraordinary man, at first fully immersed in the privileges of his class and his cricket celebrity but slowly turning inwards, questioning the colonial mindset of his own privileged class, angry at the limitless corruption of Pakistan’s rulers, and, finally, reaching resolution in his commitment to take Pakistan back from its corrupt elites. A politician with Imran Khan’s record would be rare in Western ‘democracies.’ In a country like Pakistan, mired for decades in the corruption of rapacious elites, he is an anomaly – an outlier. Should the Pakistanis embrace Imran Khan, should they give him the chance to pick and lead the nation’s political team, this could be a game-changer for their country.
While describing his spiritual journey following the pain of his mother’s death, Imran Khan sums up his life in an aphorism, “A spiritual person takes responsibility for society, whereas a materialist only takes responsibility for himself (87).” Quite apart from the truth-value of this statement (since a ‘materialist’ or someone without belief in God or afterlife may also choose to take responsibility for society), this sentiment very aptly describes the author’s long and tortuous passage from indifference towards larger questions – both metaphysical and political – to a deepening engagement with God and the history and fate of Pakistanis and Muslims. In time, after much soul-searching, Imran Khan chooses to take “responsibility for society.” Once he has formed a conviction, Imran Khan has shown that there is no turning back for him.
Imran Khan’s autobiography contains some homespun theology too. At one point, he describes how cricket nudged him towards faith; it began with observations on cricketing luck. A game can turn on the toss of a coin; success in bowling can depend on the way the ball is stitched, on umpiring mistakes, on fortuitous injuries, on the weather, etc. In other words, “there seemed to be a zone beyond which players were helpless, and it was called luck (84).” He muses, “…could what we call luck actually be the will of God?” Is it possible, amidst the infinite complexity that produces any outcome, that God intervenes in our lives, nudges a particle here a particle there to confront us with outcomes that surprise us, overthrow our certainties, deflate our egos, forcing us to think of higher forces?
After his mother’s painful death from cancer, Imran Khan turned away from God. Questions of theodicy troubled him. He worried that his life’s accomplishments could vanish in a moment. In the face of this vulnerability, persuaded by a logic that recalls Pascal’s wager, he resumed his salaat. “This was really like an insurance policy – a sort of safety net in case God really did exist.” It is likely that Imran had arrived at his reasoning on his own, or he had encountered this argument in the Qur’an. Unknown to most Muslims, the Qur’an makes this argument on several occasions; it is then taken up by Hazrat ‘Ali, the Prophet’s cousin, and in the eleventh century by al-Ghazzali.
Imran Khan speaks reverently of the influence of Mian Bashir on his life, an obscure but spiritually gifted man who gently led him to discover the inwardness and beauty of Islam. People who have lost touch with metaphysics will likely frown at this influence. Untroubled by such skeptics, Imran Khan recognizes this obscure sufi as the “single most powerful spiritual influence” on his life. I respect this openness to the Unseen, this divinely implanted ‘naiveté’ – if you will – that lies at the heart of all authentic religious experience, and that Western rationalism and scientism have nearly destroyed in modern man. Despite the materialism that assails us, we can stay in touch with this ‘naiveté.’ In better times too, very few men and women could reach the summits of the mystical ascent; but they sought spiritual sustenance in the baraka of the valis, friends of God. Unknown to Pakistan’s militant secularists, Asadullah Khan Ghalib too – despite his celebrated skepticism – sought intimacy with God through veneration of Hazrat ‘Ali and his family.
Imran Khan is nothing if not resolute in pursuing the goals he sets for himself; and his goals have never been modest. “Over the years,” he writes, “I came to the conclusion that ‘genius’ is being obsessed with what you are doing (63).” Quite early in his cricket career, spurred by the example of Dennis Lillee, he decided to remake himself as a fast bowler. His teammates and coach warned him that he “had neither the physique nor the bowling action to become a fast bowler (118)” and he could ruin his career if he tried to change his bowling style. Imran Khan was not deterred. He remodeled his “bowling action to become a fast bowler,” and as he worked hard towards this goal – he writes – “my body also became stronger for me to bowl fast.” Most cricket commentators agree that Imran Khan went on to establish himself as one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time. Fewer still have combined his eminence in fast bowling with skill at batting and leading his team.
When Imran Khan set out in 1984 to establish Pakistan’s first cancer hospital – he ran into a wall of skepticism. When he presented his plans for the Hospital to the leading Pakistani doctors in Lahore and London, they were dismissive; he did not give up. Working indefatigably to collect mostly small donations from tens of thousands of people at home and abroad, Imran Khan began construction work on the project in April 1991. The Hospital admitted its first patients in December 1994, with a commitment to provide free care to all poor patients. Skeptics had warned that this policy was not viable, but generous Pakistanis proved them wrong. Now plans are underway for building two more cancer hospitals in Peshawar and Karachi.
Our author has shown the same dogged persistence in the arena of politics. When he announced his entry into politics in 1996 – with the formation of a new party, Tehreek-e-Insaaf, dedicated to fighting corruption in public life – Pakistanis ignored him. In the first elections it contested in 1997, the Tehreek won no seat; in the second election in 2002, it won a single seat. Imran Khan could draw large crowds to his rallies, but they were drawn to their cricket hero not the political leader who promised to deliver a better future for them. Perhaps, Imran Khan had not done his homework. His promise to fight corruption did not yet carry a broad appeal; his message did not resonate with workers, peasants, students, clerks and small shop-keepers. Pakistanis knew that their leaders are corrupt, but they did not see Imran Khan as the force that could pry Pakistan out of their dirty but powerful grip. Imran Khan had not begun the hard work of building his party from the ground up, creating a cadre of committed workers and donors. He spent too much time on talk shows and too little time organizing his party.
The failure of Tehreek-e-Insaaf to make an impact in the 2002 elections may well have ended Imran Khan’s political career; but he was not ready to quit the field. He persisted in his attacks on Pakistan’s corrupt elites through regular appearances on television talk shows that had proliferated following General Musharraf’s liberalization of the media. Then came the attacks of 9-11, the US decision to draft Pakistan into its so-called Global War Against Terror. Gleefully, Pakistan’s generals accepted every demand that the US made on Pakistan’s sovereignty; they gave the US air and land corridors to Afghanistan, control of one or more airbases in Pakistan, and free run of Pakistan to CIA operatives. Only the religious parties and jihadi factions opposed this surrender of Pakistan’s sovereignty, but they occupied limited political space in Pakistan. With few exceptions, Pakistan’s ‘liberal’ and ‘left’ intellectuals also supported the US War; they were happy to see the Taliban driven out by the American invaders. The political tides were begging to turn for Imran Khan. This was his opportunity to broaden his critique of Pakistan’s corrupt political classes; their corruption now veered towards treason. None of this was surprising, but it did bring out into the open Pakistan’s descent to the depths of servitude.
As events unfolded, the charge of treason would gain greater plausibility. General Musharraf’s government kept the Americans happy by killing the Taliban who had sought refuge in Pakistan; others were captured and handed over to the Americans. In open violation of Pakistan’s constitution, the government also began to disappear Pakistanis who were then secretly transferred to the Americans. Pakistan’s involvement in America’s war entered a new phase in 2004 as the CIA mounted its first drone strikes on Pakistani territory. On American demand, the generals also directed the Pakistani military to attack Taliban sanctuaries in Waziristan. Pakistan’s political classes had now privatized the army. Pakistani soldiers now killed the Taliban and Pakistanis to enrich the country’s political elites.
While the generals collected cash from the US, Pakistanis would pay the price for this treason. Pakistan’s war against the Taliban and their Pashtun hosts produced a frightening backlash that has continued to grow. The logic of this backlash was simple, as Imran Khan also explains. No doubt encouraged by the Afghan Taliban, the families of the Pashtun victims – calling themselves the Pakistani Taliban – mounted devastating retaliatory attacks against military and civilian targets in Pakistan, but mostly against the latter. There was no change in Pakistan’s commitment to America’s war when a civilian government, led corrupt politicians rehabilitated under a deal hatched in Washington, replaced General Musharraf in 2008. While Pakistan’s liberal and left intellectuals wanted the government to exterminate the Pakistani Taliban; they insisted that the Pakistani Taliban was an Islamic fundamentalist movement to take power in Pakistan and had nothing to do with the war Pakistani military had unleashed against the Pashtuns. Imran made the opposite argument. Terminate the war against the Pashtuns and Afghans, and the Pakistani Taliban would cease their attacks; they would disappear as quickly as they had appeared.
After a long delay, Imran Khan’s strategy began to pay off. As Pakistan escalated the war against its own people in two of its four provinces, as Pakistani capital fled and foreign capital shunned the country, as the economy worsened, as poverty deepened, as political factions in Karachi engaged in bloody turf battles, as power outages persisted, as supply of cooking gas become intermittent, the anger and desperation of Pakistanis also grew. Who could lift Pakistan from this descent into chaos? Pakistanis knew better than to expect a savior to emerge from the military or the established political classes: for they had produced the mayhem and were its chief beneficiaries. In this gloom, Imran Khan beckoned to Pakistanis. His calls for justice grew louder, his jeremiads against corrupt politicians became sharper, his critique of the generals became unsparing. Slowly, his message began to resonate with Pakistani youth and the urban middle classes in Pakistan. Starting in mid-2011, the polls signaled a surge in his popularity.
On October 30 2011, Imran Khan was ready to take a measure of his popularity with a rally in Lahore. The rally was a great success; more than two hundred thousand people showed up. Most people agreed that nothing like this had been seen since the days of the charismatic Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s. On December 25, the Tehreek organized a second rally in Karachi, the stronghold of a local ethnic party, with the same results. Finally, some sixteen years after his entry into politics, people were beginning to rally around Imran Khan and his party. This surge in his popularity suddenly changed the political map of Pakistan. It also produced some unwelcome results; now that his prospects looked brighter, some members of the established political class began to knock on the Tehreek’s door. Imran Khan was now a political force; after wandering for many years on the margins, he had arrived with a bang on Pakistan’s political scene.
Imran Khan offered a more optimistic assessment of his prospects. He described the surge in his popularity as a political tsunami that would in time sweep out the old corrupt order. Was this a case of excessive self-congratulation? This would depend on whether the Tehreek could sustain the momentum it had generated, whether it could capitalize on this surge to build a grassroots organization, whether it could expand its program to incorporate the interests of workers and peasants, and whether it could create an intellectual cadre that would disseminate its message through print, television and the internet. Can Imran Khan energize the people, raise their hopes of change to a fever pitch, so that attempts to defeat them by extra-legal means could backfire and persuade the Tehreek to lead an uprising? I will return to these questions; but first, I wish to turn to the increasingly shrill and frenzied attacks against Imran Khan by Pakistan’s putative liberal and left-leaning intelligentsia; these attacks are most visible in the English-language print media. Their shrill commentary suggests that they are beginning to take him seriously.
Pakistan’s ‘liberal’ and ‘left-leaning’ groups bring three related charges against Imran Khan: he is an Islamist (or fundamentalist), a partisan of the Taliban, and a rightist. They rely on less than half-truths in making their case.
Imran Khan is certainly Islamic in his thinking, inspiration and identity but he is not an Islamist, a term that generally applies to Muslims who subscribe to a literalist interpretation of the Qur’an and the Traditions of the Prophet. Unlike many Pakistanis who identify themselves as liberals or leftists – and take a Kemalist view of Islam as a backward religion that must be rigorously excluded from the public discourse and even public space – Imran Khan derives his identity from Islam and seeks inspiration in the Qur’an and the Traditions. In regards to the relevance of some of the legal aspects of the Qur’an, together with Allama Iqbal and Fazlur Rahman (for many years, a professor of Islamic Studies at University of Chicago), he recognizes the need for revisiting some of the rulings that were given currency by the consensus of a previous age. In this sense, it would be appropriate to describe Imran Khan as an Islamic modernist; but unlike most Islamic modernists he also feels a strong affinity for the sufi tradition of Islam that has emphasized the spirit and inward content religion without neglecting its outward practice. In both respects, I doubt if there are Islamists who would admit Imran Khan into their inner circles.
Is Imran Khan then a partisan of the Taliban? The United States has used its hegemonic control over mainstream global discourse – especially since launching its global military offensive under the cover of the Global War Against Terror – to smear all freedom fighters it does not support as terrorists. The discourse on terrorism is very cleverly designed to focus the world’s attention on the relatively insignificant acts of violence by oppressed peoples and thereby legitimize the massive acts of violence perpetrated by Western nations against the rest of the world. In American demonology, anyone fighting against the US occupation of Afghanistan is a terrorist – whether he is Afghan or Pakistani. Most ‘liberal’ and ‘left’ writers in Pakistan have internalized this American rhetoric; it follows that the Afghans and Pakistanis fighting the US occupation do not have a legitimate cause regardless of what fighting tactics they employ. In describing Imran Khan as Taliban sympathizer, then, these writers hope to smear him as a terrorist-sympathizer. This smear will not stick. Most Pakistanis recognize that Imran Khan supports the right of Afghans to rid their country of US occupation; other than that and his ethnic kinship with the Pashtuns, there can exist little affinity between him and the Afghan Taliban.
It is time now to explain the scare quotes surrounding the political labels left, right and liberal. In much of the Islamicate, politics has moved into strangely dubious territory, where these labels retain very little of their original meaning. As the liberal or left-oriented political elites in much of the Islamicate began to lose their legitimacy starting the 1970s – because of their dismal failure to create free, sovereign and prosperous polities – and faced growing opposition from various Islamist movements, they chose to sacrifice their ideology in order to cling to power. They had risen to power on an anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist and, in some cases, socialist platform. Starting in the 1970s, the survival of the increasingly repressive regimes they led was tied to the support of Western powers in return for keeping the Islamists out of power; this was the pact they made with the devil. It was an enduring pact that crushed any opposition to these regimes until the recent Arab uprising. The liberal and left factions in Pakistan also reprogrammed themselves after the end of the Cold War. Under Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistan People’s Party, once left-leaning, anti-imperialist, sought legitimacy in Washington and quickly embraced its neoliberal program to open the economy to Western capital.
If the formerly liberal and left leaning forces completed this metamorphosis with little difficulty, this is not entirely surprising. Even when they proclaimed socialist ideals or employed anti-imperialist rhetoric, the thinking of the politically dominant classes in much of the Islamicate had been shaped by an Orientalist narrative. After the Western powers had destroyed or marginalized the traditional learned classes – judges and jurisprudents trained in Shariah, theologians, physicians, engineers, architects and artists – this created space for the emergence of new intellectual classes that were beholden to their colonial masters. More often than not, they were secular and nationalist in their politics, and, following their Orientalist mentors, they blamed Islam for their backwardness; as a result, even when they paid lip service to Islam, they were determined to exclude it from their political discourse. In keeping with their colonialist thinking, they affected Western styles and mannerisms but did little to acquire the institutions, sciences and technology that were the motors of Western power and prosperity. It is no exaggeration to assert that these new elites – despite their nationalist rhetoric – felt closer to their colonial masters they had replaced than to the people they claimed to lead.
In consequence, as Islamist opposition movements began to reject their claims to leadership, the failed political elites retreated into the arms of their former colonial masters. They sought to convince the Western world that they faced a common enemy; the Islamist parties eager to replace them would turn the clock back on human rights, women’s rights and the rights of minorities. Worse, should the Islamist opposition gain power they would pursue policies openly hostile to Western interests. Despite the about-turn in their policies, however, these elites continued to sport their old political labels. They were ‘nationalists’ but owed their survival to Western arms, money, diplomatic support, intelligence, and advice. They were ‘liberals’ but they were happy to use the police state to suppress opposition to their regimes. They were ‘socialists’ but eagerly embraced the neoliberal dictates of the IMF and the World Bank.
In Pakistan, different factions of the ruling elites – who variously claim to be ‘nationalists,’ ‘liberals’ or ‘leftists’ – strenuously lobby the Americans or the British to gain power or to keep it. They outbid each other in sacrificing vital national interests; they never tire of proclaiming that the nation’s economic salvation depends on attracting foreign investment; they have backed unconditionally America’s so-called war on terrorism; they oppose the Afghans’ right to free their country of foreign occupiers; they cheered when General Musharraf used Pakistan’s military to fight Pakistanis who aided the Afghans; they privately assure the Americans that – despite their public stance – they stand firmly behind the deadly drone strikes against ‘targets’ inside Pakistan. Disregarding Pakistan’s Islamic sensibilities, a tiny minority of ‘secularists’ in Pakistan want to impose Western sexual mores on Pakistan; they have campaigned to abrogate the nation’s laws against blasphemy, not prevent its abuse or mitigate its penalties; they refuse to defend the rights of Muslim minorities in Western countries; they support America’s demands to shut down the madrasas in Pakistan but have long supported a colonial system of education for the elites that uses syllabi and exams designed in Cambridge.
Indeed, recently, one columnist at Dawn – a leading English newspaper – lampooned Imran Khan for refusing to share the podium with Salman Rushdi at a literary event in India. I do not know what inner demons drove Rushdi to produce his obscene caricature of Islam, but it does seem odd that a writer – that any person with imagination – would seek to sully and shatter a sacred treasure of humanity only because he finds himself excluded from its deep mystery. Needless to say, I did not support Ayatollah Khomenei’s call for Rushdi’s assassination; nor do I support the death penalty for apostasy. Islam supports free choice in matters of conscience, but the state may limit the activities of well-funded foreign missionaries that use pecuniary inducements to gain converts.
Imran Khan has a great deal to say about the canker of Pakistan’s colonial legacy; the cultural divide that separates the class of brown sahibs and the great mass of Pakistanis who remain anchored in their history and traditions; and the new American masters this class has served since the departure of the British.
He also writes about his own struggles to overcome the Orientalist culture into which he was born, the culture of the brown sahibs, their sneering contempt for Islam, their denigration of the ‘natives’ and their culture. He describes his long and distinguished career in cricket that reveals a perfectionist and a man undaunted by failures. He shares with the readers his personal discovery of God, about growing spiritually through his own struggles in cricket and his charity work; finding inspiration in Islam’s great thinkers, poets and sages – most of all the great Islamic poet, visionary and philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal – but also seeking the blessings of nameless sufis, who prefer to live in obscurity and poverty despite their spiritual gifts. This review can only look at some of these issues; to accompany Imran Khan on his life journey, to walk through the many stages of his life, to explore his personal narrative of Pakistan’s political failures you have to read his Pakistan: A Personal History.
Quite rightly, Imran Khan blames the brown sahibs – a few thousand of the most powerful military officers, bureaucrats, and influential landed families – for never giving Pakistan the chance to develop into a self-respecting, sovereign and prosperous country. This class had retained or acquired its social rank, wealth and power during the colonial era by rendering loyal service to the British rulers; demonstrating their servility to their foreign masters by adopting their dress, mimicking their life style and mannerisms, and gaining familiarity with the history of British royalty, British place names, and British writers. They turned to jaundiced Orientalists for their knowledge of Islam, the history of Muslims and of India; and from them they acquired their deep contempt for Islam, the Muslims and their languages and traditions. Like their British masters, they interacted with the ‘natives’ – those who did not speak English or spoke it with a native accent – only as social inferiors, as clerks, peons, servants, peasants, low-ranking military officers and nameless jawans in the army.
Imran Khan provides several vignette from the social life of these brown sahibs in Pakistan. “In the Gymkhana and the Punjab Club in Lahore,” he writes, “Pakistanis pretended to be English. Everyone spoke English including the waiters; the men dressed in suits; we, the members’ children, watched English films while the grown-ups danced to Western music on a Saturday night (43).” At Aitchison College, where the sons of Punjab’s landed elites were trained to become brown sahibs, boys “caught speaking in Urdu during school hours were fined, despite it being the official language of Pakistan (47).” Elsewhere, he writes, “When I was a boy I remember one of my uncles asking a cousin of mine, who was wearing shalwar kameez, why he was dressed like a servant (49-50).” Asked if he could speak Urdu – I can recall – the son of leading civil servant who served during General Ayub Khan’s tenure, shot back, “Only a little, when talking to the servants.”
Led by Iqbal, Jinnah and a small band of dedicated leaders – from the various provinces of British India – the struggles and sacrifices of ordinary Muslims had created a country they had hoped would make them proud, a country that would be guided by the highest Islamic ideals of justice, a country where they would be safe, where they could prosper, a country that would be a source of strength for the Muslims they had left behind in India, a country that would offer inspiration and leadership to the Islamicate. This was not to be. Within a few years of gaining independence, the brown sahibs in Pakistan seized control over the affairs of the country. That was the beginning of Pakistan’s descent into a shameless kleptocracy in the service of foreign powers.
“Far from shaking off colonialism,” writes Imran Khan, “our ruling elite slipped into its shoes (43-44).” Our brown sahibs made no significant changes to the colonial structures developed by the British to keep their Indian subjects on a tight leash. This omission was deliberate: the intent was to keep the ‘natives’ down, to continue to smother their long-suppressed energies, to stifle their creativity. As a result, the economy that Pakistan’s elites promoted soon became dependent on foreign loans; its capitalist class built its wealth on defaulted loans; its manufacturing sector could not move too far beyond processing raw materials; the educational standards at state institutions were allowed to deteriorate so that quality education was confined to the rich; and sixty years after independence more than half the population remains illiterate.
Over time, the emerging middle classes too began to mould themselves in the image of the brown sahibs. Since Urdu or the regional languages would get them nowhere in Pakistan’s private or public sectors, they began sending their children to English schools. Under colonial rule, the Muslim middle classes had abandoned Arabic and Persian, thus losing contact with the classics of their civilization; in the sixty years since gaining nominal independence, the new generations that attended English schools have become strangers to Urdu as well. Were it not for the logic of audience ratings – most viewers do not understand English – that forced the proliferating television channels to run their programs in Urdu, spoken Urdu too would be on its way out. Nevertheless, many of the actors who play lead roles in the Urdu serials can scarcely carry on a conversation in Urdu; the credits for these serials too are often presented in English. A growing number of commercial billboards in the cities also display their Urdu slogans and jingles in Roman letters.
The style of education at Aitchison College – the elite boarding school that he attended – Imran Khan writes, transformed Pakistani students “into cheap imitations of English public school boys.” These students adopted Western sportsmen, actors and pop stars as their role models. Only much later did Imran Khan come to understand how much this “education dislocated our sense of ourselves as a nation.” A generation later, this cultural dislocation is being reproduced on a much larger scale in dozens of elite schools – all run as profit-making enterprises – that prepare their students for the Cambridge O-level and A-level exams. As a result, writes Imran Khan, “Today our English-language schools produce ‘Desi Americans’ – young kids who, though they have never been out of Pakistan, have not only perfected the American twang but all the mannerisms (including the tilt of the baseball cap) just by watching Hollywood films.” In imitation, poorer children too are deserting the state-run Urdu schools to attend poorly staffed English medium schools run out of apartments but carrying exotic labels. Some are named after Catholic saints, in a tawdry attempt to bask in the prestige of Christian missionary schools. Others carry more hilarious names. One school, less inclined to borrow the halo of Catholic saints, calls itself, Oxford and Cambridge Islamic English-Medium School. I am aware that this faux Anglicization is being driven by global forces as well, but – in the Islamic world alone – Turkey, Iran and Indonesia continue to give primacy to their national languages.
A slavish Westernization among the elites has forced Pakistan into intellectual sterility. Over the past century, these Westernized classes have produced little world-class scholarship on the country’s history or social and economic structures; their scientific production too remains mostly meager and mediocre, if not worse. Nearly all the great Muslim thinkers and writers of the previous hundred and fifty years in South Asia had received their early education in wholly or partly traditional setting; and this includes Ghalib, Hali, Syed Ahmad Khan, Muhammad Iqbal, Abul Kalam Azad, Shibli Nu’mani, Syed Sulaiman Nadvi, Syed Abul ‘Ala Maududi, Saleemuzzaman Siddiqui, and Faiz, to name only a few illustrious figures from that period. Yet the growing cohorts of Western-educated Muslims since the 1900s have produced scarce any thinker or writer who could stand comparison with their predecessors. As the middle classes too increasingly submit themselves to the same shallow Westernization, this has deepened the poverty of Muslim intellect in South Asia. As the shift towards Western education has drained the Madrasas of its recruits from the middle classes, this has produced another deleterious effect: the coarsening of the Islamic discourse that flows from the madrasas. Imran Khan is deeply cognizant of this intellectual malaise. “If our Westernized classes started to study Islam,” writes Imran Khan, “not only would it be able to project the dynamic spirit of Islam but also help our society fight sectarianism and extremism…How can the group that is in the best position to project Islam do so when it sees Islam through Western eyes? The most damaging aspect of the gulf between the two sections of our society is that it has stopped the evolution of both religion and culture in Pakistan (340-1).”
The coarsening of religious discourse in the West too flows in large part from similar causes: the abandonment and denigration of religion and its mystical traditions by the intellectual classes. In the West this process began with the Renaissance and the Reformation, gained strength with the Enlightenment, and reached its apogee in the nineteenth century with the launching of Darwinian evolutionalism. As a result, over the past three centuries, Christianity has increasingly adopted hard fundamentalist positions – especially in the United States – that draw their inspiration from the conquest narratives of the Old Testament not the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. Over the past half century, especially, the more fundamentalist variants of Christianity have become the refuge of whites who have been marginalized by the rapid economic and social changes in the United States. They vent their anger at immigrants, blacks and Muslims, at women who take charge of their bodies, and – paradoxically – at ‘big’ government, the only institution that could help reverse their economic marginalization. Increasingly also, they have been led by Christian Zionism and Israel’s military successes to identify with Jewish colonization of Palestine. In their commitment to Israeli expansionism, these messianic Christians are more intransigent than the Israelis themselves.
Imran Khan blames the Westernized elites for the Pakistan’s deepening problems. Quite early on, these elites ensured that independence would merely exchange one set of white masters for another: the Americans for the British. Unlike the British, the Americans would rule over Pakistan through local surrogates; the brown faces of these surrogates would maintain the happy illusion that Pakistanis were in control of their destiny.
Although this neocolonial relationship has seen some ups and downs, starting in the 1990s, the top echelons of Pakistan’s governments have been appointed by Washington and, accordingly, their activities are monitored and supervised by the US ambassador in Islamabad. In turn, the Pakistani rulers and their cronies use the government to capture rent, much of which is transferred to foreign bank accounts. Pakistan’s subordination to the US reached a new lows after the 9-11 attacks as the rulers – civilian and military – rented the country’s ports, highways, airspace, air bases, and, soon, its military to the US for moneys that have largely gone into private coffers.
Although Imran Khan does not spell out the manifold linkages that bind Pakistan’s corrupt rulers to the United States, he understands that Pakistan cannot move forward unless it ends its neocolonial ties to the United States. To this end, he sets himself several interrelated tasks. A Tehreek government will pull Pakistan out of America’s so-called war on terrorism; this means stopping the drone attacks on Pakistani territory, revoking all the territorial concessions General Musharraf made to the United States, and ending Pakistan’s war against its own people in Pakhtunkhwa. “Pakistan should disengage from this insane and immoral war,” writes Imran Khan (360). If this could be done, the chief factor that has been destabilizing Pakistan, pushing it to the edge of a civil war, will disappear. Pakistan’s military disengagement from the US will be followed by efforts to end Pakistan’s dependency on foreign loans to pay for government programs, much of which have been diverted to private coffers in the past.
Is all this doable? Despite the dire warnings of slanted commentators, should Pakistan withdraw from the US war against terror, it is extremely unlikely that it would face a war. At present, the US has no stomach for starting another war even as it and Israel threaten to start a war against Iran. The US will certainly stop payments of the blood money, but this should not hurt Pakistan since most of this money finds its way back where it came from. China too will oppose any US attacks against Pakistan, and will stand ready to tide Pakistan through its balance of payments difficulties.
Pakistan can gain economic independence – Imran Khan argues – by ending tax evasions; this alone will double the government’s revenues. Ending corruption at the highest levels of government, therefore, is the Tehreek’s signature policy goal. Imran Khan has sought to develop a culture opposed to corruption in his own party; the Tehreek requires the party’s office bearers to declare their assets and tax returns; it has set in motion steps to elect all office bearers to the party; it will deny the party’s ticket to anyone with a record of corruption; and, it has promised to make all elected and unelected officials accountable to an independent National Accountability Board. Ending corruption at the top – Imran Khan maintains – will banish corruption from lower levels of government. I am afraid this is a wish not a well-considered expectation. It will take a lot of hard work – a variety of administrative reforms – to push back against Pakistan’s rampant corruption.
Reforming the country’s education system is a fundamental goal of the Tehreek. The country’s three-tiered system – consisting of private English-medium schools, public schools using Urdu and local languages, and the madrasa system – is divisive. The English schools reproduce the class of brown sahibs and spread their pernicious culture to the growing middle classes; the poorly staffed and poorly equipped public schools deny the great majority of the country’s population a decent education; and the madrasas have become a welfare system for the poorest children. The plan is to replace this multi-tiered educational system, one that has perpetuated the colonial mindset, with a uniform system of education for everyone that will embrace mathematics, the natural and social sciences, and history while giving their proper place to the Pakistani languages, English, and the Islamic sciences.
Another important policy goal of the Tehreek is to create a system of local governance for Pakistan’s 50,000 villages. This will take local development funds out of the hands of politicians and put them in the hands of elected village councils, who will decide how this money is spent. They will also serve as the local government for the villages, with responsibility for maintaining municipal services, including a registry of births, deaths and marriages; and reviewing the work of local officials responsible for policing, health, irrigation, and education. In addition, like the panchayats of the pre-colonial era, the village councils will provide cheap and quick adjudication of local disputes.
Imran Khan has not articulated – at least in his book – an economic policy. Most likely, this omission is deliberate; he has had many occasions to set forth his economic policies but he has persisted in reiterating his position on a few signature issues, including corruption, lawlessness, and the betrayal of Pakistan’s , national interests by the rulers. As a result, we know very little about what policies he favors on infrastructure, industry, agriculture, urban labor, urban transportation, exports, energy, water, R&D, etc. This appears to suggest that he takes a rather Adam Smithian view of economic development. If you provide honest governance – I have heard him say this a few times – this will create the right incentives for all other matters to move in the right direction; the proverbial invisible hand will sort things out for the best. With their property rights secured, private individuals, pursuing their own interest, will generate savings, investments, innovation and, therefore, rapid economic growth. It is possible that Imran Khan has not had time to formulate policies in these areas; or he believes that the focus on a small number of core issues will best help to energize support for his party. In either case, it is this writer’s view, that he should quickly remedy this neglect. For good governance alone will not energize Pakistan’s people to become active economic agents of change. In addition, from an electoral standpoint, he is more likely to expand his support base by articulating his position on issues that are vital to the interests of workers, peasants, ordinary citizens anxious for their health, and prospective investors in Pakistan’s economy.
Certainly, better governance will be a hugely positive thing for Pakistan; it can start to reverse the ruination produced by decades of rampant corruption. But good governance alone will not lift Pakistan out of poverty nor will it produce economic miracles. Objectively considered, no one will contest the British claim that they instituted ‘good governance’ in India once the rule of the East India Company was replaced by representatives of the Crown. Nevertheless, the evidence is also clear that during their long stay in India the British produced a great deal of economic misery; unfettered British imports destroyed India’s manufactures; British capital displaced indigenous capital from the most vital areas of the economy; their destruction of indigenous educational institutions produced mass illiteracy; and they pauperized the Indians. Good governance alone will not produce economic development if that governance is not used to encourage the growth of indigenous capital, institutions, technology, education and skills. Good governance must also be used to correct past social inequities and the new ones that a capitalist system is certain to produce. If good governance is used only in support of markets and capital, it will very quickly be overthrown by the inequities produced by the capitalist system. Let us not forget that Western democracies – especially in the United States and Britain – are now mostly hollow institutions; they are tolerated by corporate leaders only because they can game these systems to perpetuate their wealth and power.
Notwithstanding the surge in his popularity in the cities, what are the chances that the Tehreek, if given the chance, will be able to form the country’s next government?
If Pakistan had a presidential system of government, it is more than likely that Imran Khan would sweep the polls; the rivals that any party might place against him would look like cretins. Under Pakistan’s parliamentary system, however, he faces an uphill task. In this decentralized system, where elections have to be won in several hundred local constituencies, the Tehreek candidates will have to fight against the power of corrupt local incumbents who will use their traditional authority, their money, dirty tricks, thugs, and help from their foreign masters to defeat a challenge that threatens to end their plundering binge. Winning a majority of these local contests cannot be easy.
On his path to power, Imran Khan will have to face a showdown with several factions of Pakistan’s corrupt elites. Many top generals, bureaucrats, politicians, media barons, loan-defaulting mill-owners, journalists, television anchors, and leaders of civil society have become entangled with American interests: they have cultivated ties with various US agencies; they or their close relatives hold green cards; they or their relatives work for subsidiaries of Western corporations; they have advised or worked for Western think tanks; their NGOs have thrived on foreign funding; and they have become rich and are hungry for more. Perhaps, the corrupt elites may concede victory to the Tehreek, since they may soon engineer a return to power; but it appears more likely that they will fight back, since this will end even if temporarily the bonanza they have enjoyed since 2001.
If it appears that the Tehreek is going to win the next elections scheduled for 2013, will these elections be held or, if they are allowed to proceed, will they not be rigged to ensure the Tehreek’s defeat? Alternatively, the political parties in power may try to increase the chaos in Pakistan’s cities, and thus pave the way for a military takeover that may end Imran Khan’s political career. More simply, the CIA or some segment of the corrupt elites, or the two working together, may assassinate Imran Khan. Can Imran Khan forestall these subterfuges? None of these options are certainties, but not to anticipate them and have contingent plans to deal with them would be reckless.
The power of the corrupt elites will be hardest to dislodge in Pakistan’s rural hinterlands that are still dominated largely by traditional power barons: the landlords, dynasties of so-called pirs, and tribal chiefs. Despite his tremendous charisma and notwithstanding his populist rhetoric, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto chose the easy route to electoral victory by co-opting the traditional rural power barons. This compromise brought an easy victory but, bending to the power of these barons, Bhutto proceeded to marginalize the left block in his party. At the same time, he implemented his farcical ‘socialist’ agenda of destroying Pakistan’s nascent capitalist class; he seized and handed over their industries, banks and even schools to the stalwarts in his party. Imran Khan too is aware of the handicap he faces in a parliamentary system; and – on a smaller scale so far – he too has opened leadership positions in his party to the old power barons. This compromise is certain to alienate the old workers in his party, but it also carries the more serious risk of alienating the young voters who have pinned their hopes for change on the Tehreek’s commitment to establish a just order in Pakistan. The propagandists of the old order are already hammering home this point. It does not inspire confidence when the Tehreek takes a strong stand against drone strikes but appoints a former foreign minister – who supported these strikes during his tenure – as the vice-chairman of his party.
Imran Khan’s defense of these compromises is not convincing. These old politicians – he parries – are welcome to join his party but he will vet them for corruption before he awards them the party’s tickets to the national and provincial assemblies. If the Tehreek cannot win the rural constituencies without enlisting the local power barons, he will have to embrace many more of their kind. Should he do this, however, he will surrender his chief strength – the unwavering commitment to reform the old order. Once the scions of the traditional political families begin to fill his party – even if they look less corrupt than others – the Tehreek cannot implement the reforms that will hurt the economic and political interests of this class of people.
Aware of these risks, Imran Khan is seeking to strengthen his hand by organizing his base, consisting of younger voters. He has launched a drive to register them as members of the Tehreek. Once the membership rolls are ready, he promises that they will elect their local, regional and national leaders. It is a formidable undertaking; it has never been done by any party other than the Jamat-e-Islami that restricts membership to practicing Muslims. If the Tehreek succeeds in this endeavor, this may begin to alter the dynamics of power at the local levels. As a grass-roots party with a strong organization, it could stand up more effectively against the power of the local barons. This will reduce the need to bring these rural barons into the party; the Tehreek could use them selectively to win a few seats in districts where its support base is weakest.
The Tehreek has a chance to extend its populist appeal to the rural areas with its plan to institute thousands of elected village councils. This is the only program that carries the prospect of mobilizing the peasants behind the Tehreek, but for this populist appeal to take roots, the party has to do two things. It must ensure that the rural population hears about this program and understands the benefits it can bring to them. More importantly, the Tehreek has to come up with a plan to assure the rural poor that these village councils will not be captured by the local power barons. How is this to be done? If the party members can be organized at the level of the villages, they can pit their organized strength against the bullying of the local thugs. The Tehreek should also create mobile brigades of young idealist college students who will be ready to travel and deploy to the villages to support – with their disciplined but non-violent presence – the rural poor during the elections to the village councils. The elections can be staggered to ensure that these college volunteers are available at the village elections. In addition, these elections should be held only after the Tehreek has had time to reform the police force.
Since it began drawing crowds, its rivals have accused the Tehreek of receiving support from the ‘establishment,’ a code word for the security agencies working under the umbrella of the Pakistan army. This is a smear. The Tehreek’s support has grown because the people can see more plainly than before their country being pushed ever closer to the brink by the unbridled corruption of their rulers: and they see Imran as their only real chance of reversing their country’s slide into chaos. The Tehreek should continue to distance itself from any material assistance of the security agencies, but I hope that that it enjoys the tacit support of the mid-level and junior officers and the jawans in the military, who cannot be too happy at having to kill other Pakistanis and whose lives were sacrificed by the military leadership so that they and the civilians leaders could collect blood money from the United States. In 1996, the Pakistan army faced a spate of desertions from its ranks as they were asked to fight the Afghan resistance and their Pakistani hosts. Although these desertions were contained, it cannot be doubted that resentment still simmers in the army’s rank and file against the military leadership for their readiness to do the bidding of the United States for pecuniary gain. One hopes that as the Tehreek ratchets its campaign, it will work in subtle ways to win the esteem of the rank and file in Pakistan’s army. The knowledge that their own rank and file have their eyes on their backs will restrain the generals who may want to extend their profitable partnership with the United States.
The Tehreek should also send out signals – convincing signals – that it has a second arrow in its quiver. It must let Pakistanis know that it is ready to mobilize its ranks for more forceful action if the corrupt political elites will use dirty tricks to extend their corruption binge for another five years. Pakistan cannot survive another five years of their depredations. In times of crisis – and has Pakistan faced a greater crisis than it does now – the movement to save the country must be ready to proceed along two tracks: change through the electoral process but if that is obstructed the people must be ready to bring down the corrupt rulers through massive and sustained but non-violent protests. Victory only comes to those who are prepared to broaden their democratic struggle if change becomes impossible through the ballot box.
M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is author of Israeli Exceptionalism (Palgrave, 2010).
 In only two areas have Pakistanis produced distinctive creative work over the past few decades, music and poetry; in both areas, this success derives in no small part from their connectedness to tradition.