Has Imran Khan’s Political Tsunami Hit Pakistani Shores? - 2
ByDr M. Shahid Alam
Professor of Economics
Northeastern University
Boston, MA

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 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 of 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 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, 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.



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