Has Imran Khan’s Political Tsunami Hit Pakistani Shores?
By M. Shahid Alam
Professor of Economics
Northeastern University
Boston, MA

 

(This is a review essay on Imran Khan’s ‘Pakistan: A Personal Narrative’, London: Bantam Press, 2011).

Imran Khan leads a political party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, that is committed to ending the depredations of Pakistan’s corrupt elites. The appearance of this political memoir is timely, since it coincides with a recent surge in the Tehreek’s popularity. In this book, Imran Khan seamlessly weaves his life’s story into the history of Pakistan; he was born only a few years after the country’s founding and since young age, first as a cricketer and later as charity organizer and politician, he has observed with growing concern the country’s elites betray its founding principles. The life of politics has not come easily to Imran Khan, but he has forced himself into this mould because this is what he had resolved to do. Among other things, this essay examines the Tehreek’s program, the gaps in this program, and Imran Khan’s political prospects in the next elections.

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 Person-al 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 pro-tagonist’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 meta-physical 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 shopkeepers. 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. 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 beginning 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.

 

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