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Imran Khan Redux?

The PTI chairman’s return to his political roots as a protest leader paves the way for new calls to establish a modern Riyasat-e-Madina

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo. Arif Ali—AFP

Imran Khan was ousted as the Prime Minister of Pakistan this month, a little over a year before his five-year tenure was set to end, and is now reverting to crowds who will agitate for him in the streets to bring down the internally strained PMLN-PPP-JUI coalition currently in power. The slogan of Riyasat-e-Madina will undoubtedly come alive again and crowds in the north—Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the erstwhile tribal areas—will gather around their charismatic leader. Political discourse will be further vulgarized by the “great leader” through anyone who joins his movement. Politicians who have transformed into bad-mouthing monsters under his spell will devote the rest of their careers in advancing his career as a great leader.

By the time Khan came to the brink of his downfall, his religion at home had declined into “divine” events. Only this time the Army was not on his side—it was in fact “neutral”—after there was a falling out over his challenge to the United States based on Pakistan’s “honor,” which was close to the hearts of the masses who supported him. An observer noted: “Khan is likely to be seen as one who has left a legacy of sheer incompetency, blatant lies, blame-game and pollution of the political culture with never-ending toxicity while using state resources to portray his positive self-image. Doing so, Imran Khan has reinforced a dangerous precedent of a much higher magnitude.”

Absolutely not!

The fact is that Khan’s worshipful party could not save some of its leaders from disenchantment==he has claimed they were bribed by America—but the birds had flown the charismatic nest. His rhetoric, at times called “chooran” in Urdu, will continue to work on devout followers convinced Pakistan will become a modern ‘State of Madina’ under him. Only this time, the Army will not bite the rhetoric and he may not return to power in short order. But the gravely destabilized state of Pakistan will be economically punished.

One commentator noted his challenge to the global powers: “Khan has called out the Western world for dictating to Pakistan and he has tried to portray himself as the only one who has the courage to say ‘Absolutely Not’ and ‘Not Slaves’ in its face. He has tried to shift the popular discourse in the country from inflation and economic woes to foreign interference. A letter of such magnitude, if true, should otherwise have moved national security with as much magnitude as the Balakot dogfight. Instead, it was waved as a trump card by the prime minister. Khan was building a narrative on anti-U.S. emotions for his own benefit.”

Down with the liberals!

In March 2009, addressing a lawyers’ gathering at the Rawalpindi Bar, Imran Khan once again belabored a certain section of society as “liberals” who fly in the face of national emotion and hurt the state of Pakistan. He particularly condemned their interpretation of the Taliban phenomenon, and thus “obediently following the dictation of the United States.” He blamed them for causing the massacre of Lal Masjid in 2007 by pressuring the Pervez Musharraf-led regime into taking brutal action against “innocent” seminarians. In 2022, his “honor-based” doctrines have become articles of faith with the common man in Pakistan. He is an icon whose achievement as a social worker has been recognized even by his liberal enemies.

Who are the liberals? Pakistan’s top Urdu columnist published a plaint against them on Feb. 3, 2001, accusing them thus: “The liberals are busy demonizing the Taliban and predicting Talibanization of Pakistan. On the other hand, Islamic movements have a way of becoming moderate after reaching a certain level, as it happened in Iran and is bound to happen in Afghanistan.” According to him, Pakistani society was altogether of a “different sort” and would not succumb to Talibanization “after the Taliban have completed their conquest of Afghanistan.” In fact, Pakistan was a “cosmopolitan” society and will remain “cosmopolitan” and will never allow the religious fanatics to take over even if the latter become stronger than at present. In 2022, Pakistan has not moved back to “normal.” Every day, devoutly religious Pakistani soldiers and officers are killed by Pakistani citizens of faith in Balochistan and the erstwhile tribal areas from across the Pak-Afghan border.

Erring nations and the Islamic utopia

Writing in the Express Tribune on Jan. 17, 2022, then-prime minister Imran Khan said: “The rise and fall of nations are different from the rise and fall of civilizations. Nations can be raided, redrawn or re-imagined exogenously but civilizations cannot be killed from the outside, they only commit suicide. The core of every civilization is its spiritual principles; when they die, the civilization dies. In Islamic civilization, the manifestation of our spiritual principles happened in the Prophet’s (SAW) Madina. Besides many other important principles, there were five very important guiding principles upon which the state of Madina was built. These principles are unity, justice and rule of law leading to meritocracy, strong moral and ethical foundation, inclusion of all humans in progress and prosperity, and finally, the quest for knowledge.”

Pakistan was imagined as an Islamic utopia quite early after its birth. First, “ideology” appealed perhaps from the recent “success” of the communist state of the Soviet Union. Article 228 of Pakistan’s Constitution says: “There shall be, constituted … a Council of Islamic ideology.” The word used by Nawaz Sharif and other leaders in Urdu is “nazriati,” meaning “ideological.” It was never used during the Pakistan Movement before 1947. Today, we often refer to Nazaria-e-Pakistan, the ideology of Pakistan. Imran Khan’s charisma has arisen from ideology and the state of Pakistan is itself vulnerable to it.

Ideology to the rescue

Why did we choose the word “ideological” for Pakistan? It was first used during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. Coined by Antoine Destutt de Tracy in 1796, while he was in prison pending trial during the Terror, it was borrowed by Lenin together with “terror” as a legitimate tool of the people. Muslims were inspired by the “equality” (musawaat) of communism as a “collectivizing” creed and called it “Islam without God.” Pakistan was supposed to be “ideological” with Allah presiding over it. Like the Soviet Union, the clerical intellectual thought an Islamic state should have no constitutional opposition. In that sense, theocratic Iran is ideological, Pakistan is not.

It is the word “nazriati” that puts you off because it negates democracy and implies regimentation of thought through coercion. It belongs in the vocabulary of absolutism and has brought nothing but bad luck for the minorities of Pakistan and women. Had Al Qaeda succeeded in conquering Pakistan its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri would have abolished the opposition to make the state truly Islamic, which he propositioned in his treatise on the Constitution of Pakistan. The treatise The Morning and the Lamp was distributed widely by madrassas in Pakistan as the country’s “true” Constitution.

General Zia’s Madina

General Ziaul Haq did not think of Riyasat-e-Madina but of the essence of its rule: Nizam-e-Mustafa. (One wonders how Riyasat-e-Madina can be any different.) His greatest legacy is said to be Islamization; although it had already taken root with the passage of the Objectives Resolution in 1949. The Council of Islamic Ideology, too, had been set up in 1962 by Ayub Khan. What has infected Imran Khan today was a long time in germinating. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s economic socialism had very clear Islamic overtones; His efforts to unite Muslim countries was his major foreign policy initiative. It was his 1973 Constitution that made Islamic Studies compulsory in schools.

Can we blame Imran Khan for swearing by his Riyasat-e-Madina? He grew up absorbing the “ideology” of the state even as he passed through his “playboy” phase. In Pakistan, the most revered leader of the Islamic utopia with its separate judiciary has been Hafiz Saeed. The world did not respect him as much as Pakistan did after the Mumbai adventure of 2008. Today he is an U.N.-designated terrorist on whom the U.S. has placed a $10 million bounty; and Pakistan has sentenced him to 36 years’ imprisonment in five terror-financing cases.

There are other pillars of Islam, men of spiritual greatness that the world is “unfairly” opposed to. They all want to create something like the Riyasat-e-Madina: the quintessential jihadi Harkatul Jihad al-Islami which gave birth to Harkatul Mujahideen, the Harkatul Ansar (HuA) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) led by Maulana Masud Azhar for whom an Indian plane was hijacked after he stupidly landed in New Delhi “to conquer India” and was caught. Imran Khan had stubbed his toe earlier when he appeared to blame Pakistani women for being harassed by men. He has also to deal with the highly developed jurisprudence of the religious utopia he is thinking of. Pakistan was always conceived as a utopia—more or less like Riyasat-e-Madina—and has not covered itself with glory. One prays that the task of “reshaping” going on since 1947 is not repeated through “revolutionizing” national education to recreate the state of Madina.

Decline of education

Physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy wrote about Imran Khan’s “single national curriculum” in daily Dawn on July 19, 2020: “The Punjab government has made teaching of the holy Quran compulsory at the college and university level. Without passing the required examination no student will be able to get a BA, BSc, BE, ME, MA, MSc, MPhil, PhD or medical degree. Even the Zia regime did not have such blanket requirements. To get a university teaching job in the 1980s, you had to name all the wives of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and recite some difficult religious passages such as Dua-i-Qunoot. Still, students could get degrees without that. That option is now closed. Starkly inferior to their counterparts in Iran, India and Bangladesh, Pakistani students perform poorly in all international science and mathematics competitions. Better achievers are invariably from the elite ‘O’-and ‘A’-level streams. More worrying is that most students are unable to express themselves coherently and grammatically in any language, whether Urdu or English. They have stopped reading books.”

The evolution of the ideological state of Pakistan remains in process and Imran Khan—temporarily marginalized—remains its champion, cleansed of his playboy past and manifestly admired by the “ideologically educated” multitudes increasingly resembling the tribally divided people of Afghanistan and clerically ruled Iran. If you thought that Pakistan will evolve “forward” from ideology to democracy, correct yourself by looking at India that has “evolved” from democracy to a religious wilderness even more divorced from rationality than Pakistan.

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