The Background Noise

Imran Khan’s ascension as Prime Minister of Pakistan in August 2018 preceded and instigated an avalanche of alarming prognoses issued by a range of motley characters. Their convergence made for an interesting union of otherwise incompatible bedfellows. Self-anointed Pakistan experts at neo-conservative U.S. think-tanks, editorials of mainstream Western media, South Asian liberal secular commentators in the region and among the diaspora, hyper nationalist Indian media outlets and their ever-eager Pakistani enablers in exile, and even the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah: all found one voice in delivering prophecies, invariably coated with strident exaggeration, of the calamity that awaits Pakistan and the rest of the world with Imran Khan’s rise to power. The apocalyptic doomsday narratives that accompanied the formation of Imran’s government took multiple trajectories casting him variedly as a fundamentalist, women hating misogynist, petulant neophyte, self-obsessed Trump clone, a licentious pervert, or heartless authoritarian.

For instance, in an opinion piece published a few days after the July elections, the otherwise thoughtful Indian author Pankaj Mishra bizarrely argued that Imran’s triumphs on the cricket field and in the arena of sexual encounters had cemented the latter’s conviction that he was divinely anointed as Pakistan’s savior! Moreover, in a dash of unfazed generalization, Mishra proceeded to entangle Imran’s allegedly hyper masculine sanctimony to his newfound intimacy with religious extremists. There is no question that Imran could and should be criticized, indeed unabashedly so, for his unsavory views on such matters as the blasphemy law. But the problem with Mishra’s essay was its complete lack of interest in complicating the figure of the “religious extremist” by even gesturing at the nuances, complexities, and power dynamics informing the contributions and influence of “religiously” marked actors in the country’s electoral politics. He will be well served by investing in a more intellectually and politically diverse pool of diaspora Pakistani informants. Also, his smug befuddlement at the sight of a Muslim politician’s heteronomous invocation of divine sovereignty as a source of strength and conviction reveals a subtle yet pungent example of liberal Islamo-discomfort (Islamophobia would be too strong and unfair of a term here). For all his critiques of the enlightenment, Mishra found himself unable to overcome the pressing liberal desire to tame and moderate Islam and Muslims so as to render them amenable to the protocols of secular modernity. There is a world of a difference between critique and the liberal secular operation of critique aimed at moderating and domesticating religious (most often Muslim) lives that commit the sin of polluting the domain of “secular” politics with the contagion of theological discourse. Mishra has clearly not thought through the secular theology that undergirds his discomfort with “religious excess.”

To cite another prominent example of such liberal secular discomfort, in a widely circulated Op-ed in the Guardian immediately before the election, author Fatima Bhutto, in a display of harrowing hyperbole, painted Imran as a diabolical pawn of the military, who drew his support from an army of rabidly fascist youth. While some of her points were eminently valid (even if yawningly predictable), they were buried under a bed of selective decontextualized polemical scoring points. A few months later, she also emerged as the latest entrant in New Delhi TV’s esteemed line-up of elite diaspora Pakistanis willing to deliver anti-Imran polemical arrows in the service of smug Indian nationalism, joining the ranks of such shallow neo-imperial sell-outs like the Islamist turned secularist Hussain Haqqani. Critiquing the deep-state is a most worthy and indeed necessary task. But one should have at least some attentiveness to the context and venue of such critique when it is being packaged for other equally problematic imperial and nationalist political projects. But arguably the top prize in amplified sensationalism goes to the Pakistani journalist Mehreen Zahra Malik and to her August (2018) opinion piece in the Washington Post, written even before Imran had taken the oath of office, with the ever-subtle title of “Who’s Afraid of Imran Khan’s Pakistan? Almost Everyone.” In this essay, Malik blamed the purported climate of fear that in her view had gripped the country in the days following Imran’s election as Prime Minister for misplacing keys to her apartment and hence getting locked out! Read her essay for yourself lest you think I were exaggerating. Such puerile commentaries would make for good humor were they not showcased on powerful media platforms like the Washington Post and the New York Times where Malik had earlier also penned an essay on the crucial issue of sexual harassment in Pakistan but in a neo-Orientalist fashion that only fulfilled everyWestern stereotype of the “Muslim woman” in need of urgent saving.[1]

The Promise and Execution of De-Colonial Politics

A year later, while there is plenty about Imran’s PTI government to be concerned about, there is also much that is unprecedented as well as commendable. Conceptually, perhaps the underlying theme that has glued much of Imran’s stint in power (as indeed his political career more broadly) is represented by an abiding commitment to enacting a mode of de-colonial politics that seeks to avidly resist and subvert the violent legacies and afterlives of colonial power in a fractured postcolonial setting like Pakistan. But while the aspiration for de-colonial politics is what makes Imran so radically different from almost all other rulers the country has seen, it is also where some of the most problematic ambiguities surrounding his first year in power are most cuttingly visible. This is the main argument of this essay. Imran articulated the foundational lineaments of his de-colonial aspirations in his very first address to the nation immediately after taking the oath of office. Praised by even his avid detractors for its engaging and refreshingly accessible style of delivery, even more impressive was the content of the speech. A rarity in Pakistan’s history, a Prime Minister’s inaugural address, rather than rehearsing nauseatingly predictable nationalist salvos, focused instead on raising critical social problems ranging from the environmentmalnutrition and stunted growth in children, to the unjust treatment of the poor in police stations and other everyday theaters of the state apparatus. In this speech, Imran also introduced what was to become the signature theme dominating his political outlook as Prime Minister: the promise of cultivating a polity inspired by the principles of justice, equality, and the rule of law that governed the Prophet’s seventh-century community of Medina and that brought together Christians, Jews, and Muslims in a common political venture. [2] Animated by the principles and standards of Medina, Pakistanis, especially the governing elite, must privilege the underprivileged in all its actions and dealings, Imran emphatically argued. Died-in-the-wool secularists in Pakistan and beyond misread this move as the reflection of a fundamentalist desire to return to “pure” origins. But Imran’s invocation of Medina was a lot more nuanced. Through tracing a genealogy of justice and hospitality for the dispossessed (especially religious minorities and the economically downtrodden) that did not pass through Europe, he sought to find middle ground between the extremes of slavishly imitating the self-proclaimed achievements of Western modernity and rejecting the event of modernity altogether by way of pathological and violent inheritances of the Muslim tradition. [3] Thus, Imran’s political theology, a rather fascinating and more explicitly de-colonial variant of the Muslim modernist tradition, is at its core anti-fundamentalist.

Healing Social Wounds

His mobilization of the trope of Medina was not just the hollow expenditure of words; during its first year, the PTI government has taken a number of measures that have sought to ameliorate long-running injustices nourished by colonial inspired hierarchies of power. For instance, a few weeks into his government, during a speech in Karachi, Imran unexpectedly announced that he plans to offer citizenship to millions of Afghan and Bengali refugees in Pakistan, who for decades have lived undocumented in different parts of the country, often in squalor conditions and under the constant threat of labor exploitation and deportation. This somewhat sudden yet in no way unexpected gesture of hospitality highlighted the magnitude of the ridiculousness of those who compare Imran with Trump. While fierce resistance from opposition parties has delayed legislation on this measure [4], Imran nonetheless took the unprecedented step of enabling these refugees to open bank accounts, thus affording them some space to participate in the civic life of the country without fear of recrimination. Imran’s citizenship announcement was met by a deluge of racist stereotyping of the Afghan as a potential “security threat/militant” by political parties opposed to the move, chief among them the self-described “liberal” yet ever-hypocritical PPP of the Bhutto clan that hastened to guard its fast dwindling vote-bank in the metropolis of Karachi housing a large Afghan refugee population. Though curiously, the political party that most vigorously opposed Imran’s refugee citizenship measure and also avidly participated in anti-Afghan racism was the government allied Baloch National Party (BNP) led by Akhtar Mengal that represents the historically oppressed Baloch ethnic minority. Giving citizenship to Pashtun refugees (the dominant ethnicity among Afghan refugees) would render the Baloch a minority in their own province of Balochistan (where the Pashtuns represent the second most populous ethnicity), Mengal’s party feared. Thus, the leader of one oppressed minority fought tooth and nail to deny justice to another; such is the vile tragedy of liberal democracy and its reduction of humanity into enumerated identities.

On Imran’s initiative, the PTI has also established a number of shelter homes ( panah gah ) in cities across the country that provide temporary housing and food to impoverished mendicants, village migrant workers, and others who for decades have been otherwise consigned to abject homelessness on the streets. The government’s flagship poverty alleviation program Ehsas (Empathy) has taken major strides towards its mandate of delivering health, educational, housing, and technological facilities to historically neglected populations of the country: especially women, children, orphans, and the differently abled. A particularly noteworthy aspect of this program is its signature health insurance initiative that offers more than ten million households the opportunity for medical treatment worth 720,000 Rupees per individual at private and public hospitals; this initiative has especially emphasized provision of health-care access to acutely marginalized audiences such as the differently abled, people of the former tribal areas, and overseas Pakistani migrant laborers, largely concentrated in the Gulf region. Coupled with these efforts to nurse the social wounds of the most disaffected and vulnerable segments of society, Imran also put into motion the drive to reduce the perennial chasm between them and the elite occupants of the state. Other than strict austerity measures that minimized expenditures across state offices, and saw the Prime Minister relinquish the palatial PM House that had serviced previous rulers with over five hundred servants, scores of luxury cars and even a steady supply of buffaloes for fresh milk (the cars and buffaloes were auctioned), Imran also opened the doors of majestic and previously inaccessible state properties from the colonial era such as the Punjab Governor’s House in Lahore for weekend public viewings and family picnics. These negligibly priced viewing/picnic opportunities soon became a sensation among middle and lower middle-class families who for the first time in their lives were afforded the chance to transgress otherwise insurmountable walls erected by colonial geographies of elite power. Cynical critics dismissively parodied such steps as useless populist gimmicks. But they failed to consider the profound symbolism wedded to disrupting the materiality of a political order cemented on the indifferent vulturism of a tiny yet insatiably rapacious elite; an elite of postcolonial colonizers. These critics have never quite been able to grasp the visceral affective attachment of the middle and lower classes to Imran for precisely the break he offers from the vicious and what before his rise to power had seemed like an unceasing cycle of seismic moral and financial corruption. Consider this for instance: Imran Khan’s July visit to the U.S. cost the national exchequer $67, 180, which is a whopping 8 times less than the $549,854 that cost Nawaz Sharif’s 2013 U.S. visit and even lesser than the obscene amount of $752,682 incurred by former President Asif Zardari during his 2009 visit. These are not mere gimmicks; this is hard cash saved in a country sinking in poverty by a leader radically more humane and sensible than his criminally venal predecessors. Not to mention the difference that these predecessors are actual criminals, who during their decades long stints in power looted wealth so enormous that renders difficult its representation in a contained set of numerical digits.

Pacifism and Inter-Religious Hospitality

A de-colonial spirit has also shot through Imran’s handling of foreign affairs. Consistent with a long-running commitment to pacifism that has anchored his faith in resolving disputes through dialogue rather than military operations and violence, Imran has dealt with the chauvinist warmongering emanating from Modi’s Hindu nationalist India with remarkable rectitude and thoughtfulness. His speeches at critical moments during the Pulwama episode in February and the more recent crisis precipitated by India’s nefarious annexation of Kashmir not only emphasized the catastrophic consequences of war but also warned his own citizens against the pitfalls of majoritarian intolerance by urging them to treat the country’s religious minorities with justice and hospitality in accordance with the prophetic spirit of Medina. This exhortation for inter-religious hospitality is backed by the PTI government’s laudable multi-year project of restoring, reopening, and handing over to the concerned minority community where applicable a number of Hindu temples, Sikh Gurdwaras, and Buddhist pilgrimage sites across the country. In this regard, the opening of the iconic Kartarpur corridor to Sikh pilgrims worldwide for Baba Guru Nanak’s 550th birthday celebration this November and the restoration of 400 Hindu temples including the 1000-year-old Shawala Teja Singh temple in Sialkot that had remained sealed for 72 years since partition deserve special mention.

In a refreshing departure from past rulers, who competed eagerly for being seen as servile brown liberals in Western eyes, Imran has engaged the U.S. with confidence, self-respect, and dignity. He has also not shied from speaking his mind when so demanded such as in his firm rebuke to Donald Trump’s white mansplaining on twitter in November. Imran responded to Trump’s diatribe against Pakistan for “not doing enough” in the “War on Terror” with an emphatic rejoinder, tweeting back: “Instead of making Pakistan a scapegoat for their failures, the US should do a serious assessment of why, despite 140000 NATO troops plus 250,000 Afghan troops & reportedly $1 trillion spent on war in Afghanistan, the Taliban today are stronger than before.” Could one imagine Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif speaking truth to empire with such clarity? Finally, Imran Khan is arguably the first Prime Minister in recent memory, who without mincing words has acknowledged the country’s past sins in the international arena such as its criminal interference in Afghanistan in the 1980’s and 1990’s during and after the war against the Soviets and its uncritical embrace of the U.S. “War on Terror”: both fatal miscalculations that have unleashed miasmic devastation for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the wider region. And Imran is almost certainly the first Pakistani premiere who has so explicitly and forcefully privileged Kashmiri aspirations over Pakistani sentiments, while talking about a resolution to the Kashmir dispute. As he pointedly summed up recently: “it does not matter what Pakistanis think; what matters is what the people of [Indian occupied] Kashmir want.” These words, that oppose popular opinion in his own country, are not those of a person fueled by masculine, nationalist fury but of someone who harbors profound empathy and unconditional solidarity for a dispossessed subaltern.

The Ambiguities of De-Colonial Politics

Unfortunately, though, Imran’s aspirations for de-colonial politics have also been riddled by a fair number of ambiguities and moments of gaping failure. Perhaps the darkest episode of his first year in power was the removal of renowned Pakistani-American economist Atif Mian from the country’s Economic Advisory Council last September because of the backlash generated by the latter’s association with the publicly controversial and intensely persecuted Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan. While one understands Imran’s later explanation that his nascent government was not in a position to launch combat on multiple fronts at such an early stage of its tenure, he surely squandered an incredibly critical teaching moment that could have ameliorated if not overcome an entrenched majoritarian stain on the country’s past and present. This tragedy also brought into view Imran’s own problematic endorsement of the blasphemy law, the colonial legacy of which he has been unable to recognize. Few things are more infested with colonial logics of religion than the pathological regulation of prophetic love and honor through the sledgehammer of modern law. Imran does not tire of extolling China’s model of economic development and poverty alleviation but he has shown no interest in registering even a hint of displeasure at China’s horrific ongoing torture of Muslim Uighurs, as part of a wicked state-sponsored project of religious moderation and erasure. The few times he has been asked the question, he has responded with the ridiculous answer that he does not know anything about this issue as he has not had the time to read up on it! One can sympathize with the limits that come with leading a country on the brink of financial bankruptcy, but he could at least invest a few minutes of his time devising a less embarrassing answer. And how one misses the Imran, distant from the corridors of power, who was once the most articulate and courageous critic of the injustices of the Pakistani military, especially of its conduct and alliance in the U.S. “war on terror” in the erstwhile tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Not all too long ago, it was Imran who perceptively connected the imprints of U.S. imperial power in Pakistan with the putrid militarization of the country, an analysis for which he was rabidly caricatured as “Taliban Khan” by an anti-military yet pro-war Pakistani secular elite that Imran has quite aptly described as “blood-thirsty liberals” (khooni liberals) or even more aptly as “the scum of the earth.” The hackneyed polemical talking point that presents Imran as a “puppet of the military” is essentially misleading hyperbole, expended in frustration by antagonists who cannot digest his genuine and massive popularity among the people that attracted record public gatherings during the election campaign and that catapulted him to victory in five different constituencies of the National Assembly dotting all corners of the country. [5] But sadly, it is true that his calculated recent alliance with the military as a strategic safety net of power and political effectivity has badly damaged the coherence of the double-critique that had historically anchored his campaign for justice; while highly effective at confronting corrupt monsters from the civilian elite, he seems unable to mobilize any trace of outrage at the monstrosities of the military elite. So, for instance, when 10 activists of the popular Pashtun rights movement PTM Pashtun Tahaffuz (Protection) Movement were killed in late May for allegedly transgressing a military checkpoint in North Waziristan (in erstwhile tribal areas), Imran said or did nothing to console the souls of these bare lives literally buried under the rubble of state power. Ironically, the PTM’s foundational message that the U.S. “war on terror,” especially drone-warfare, and as a consequence, the intimately entangled encroachment of the Pakistani military and non-state militancy in Waziristan has wreaked havoc on the region and its people almost exactly mirrors Imran’s long-running position.

There are certainly many aspects of Imran Khan’s first year in power that undermine and oppose his program for justice through the practice and execution of de-colonial politics. But the view that his political approach and imaginary mark no transformative break from the past or that his promise of a “new Pakistan” (naya Pakistan) is simply a continuity of the old participates in fulsome (in both senses of the word), is bias coupled with capacious imbecility. The now fashionable Pakistani woke argument that any change short of neutralizing the military counts for nothing paradoxically ends up valorizing the military itself as an absolute colonizer of political horizons. There is much about Imran Khan’s first year in power and about his politics more generally that one could and should be critical of. But as I have tried to show in this essay, he has also inaugurated and channeled a potentially productive mode of de-colonial politics that deserves recognition, appreciation, and more nuanced consideration.

SherAli Tareen is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College, and author of Defending Muhammad in Modernity (University of Notre Dame Press, 2019).

[1] On the Orientalist and Islamophobic assumptions that drove Western media coverage of the 2018 Pakistani elections, see SherAli Tareen, “Dear American Media: How Not to Talk about Muslims,” Religious Studies News, August 2018.

[2] Though I should point out the ambiguity in this position that the hospitality accorded to non-Muslims in Medina did not correspond to the modern notion of “equality” but was rather premised on the assumption of Muslim theological superiority. Obviously, the modern promise of equality itself is laden with a series of contradictions.

[3] For arguably the most sophisticated reading of Imran Khan’s religious and political thought, see religion scholar Khurram Hussain’s shining essay “A New Variety of Anti-Secularism?” in Nandini Deo ed. Postsecular Feminisms: Religion and Gender in Transnational Contexts (London, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018); pp. 75-86. As Hussain brilliantly put it: “trapped in the feedback loop of dueling incriminations and recriminations between the secularist elites and their Islamist counterparts, the spirit of Islam is unable to ensoul the body politic with the animating vigor of a salutary identity. Khan sees the liberation of this spirit from the discursive constraints of the eithers and ors of Islamic or secular states as the necessary prior condition for Pakistan’s future development as an Islamic welfare state.” (Ibid, 76).

[4] Memphis Barker of The Guardian was absolutely wrong in running a widely disseminated story that claimed that Imran had taken a “U-turn” on this issue when he had only raised it for deliberation in the parliament. Such foreign correspondents responsible for covering global South contexts are indeed a sordid breed of neo-Orientalists with a special talent in misleading the public through their caricatured misrepresentations; the primary contrast with their 19th century Orientalist ancestors lying of course in their much inferior linguistic skills.

[5] Downplaying Imran’s public popularity by either tethering his political rise to military support or framing him as a Westernized elitist unmoored from Pakistani sensibilities represent long-running tactics of de-legitimization among detractors of varied ideological persuasions. For instance, consider historian Manan Ahmed’s generally problematic 2009 review titled “All Round View” of Christopher Sandford’s biography of Imran Khan called “Imran Khan: The Cricketer, The Celebrity, The Politician” published that same year. In this review, Ahmed contested Imran’s critique of Pakistani leaders like Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto for their servile submission to U.S. political interests and priorities by smugly highlighting that it is not them but Imran who had married a white British woman! (Manan Ahmed, “All Round View,” Arts and Culture, December 2009. Ahmed should know better that critiquing Western imperial power and projects has precious little to do with one’s dating or marriage itinerary. In this same review, Ahmed also made the bizarre claim that the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital (SKMH), established by Imran in his mother’s memory where destitute cancer patients receive free treatment to this day, was made possible through the hefty donations of wealthy Londoners, thus showing Imran’s brittle roots in Lahore and Pakistan (Ibid). Ahmed conveniently ignores the groundswell of middle-class support, especially among the urban youth-showcased in massive fundraising drives in schools and colleges across the country during the early ‘90s-that propelled SKMH to fruition. Ahmed’s and many other such quests to establish Imran’s foreignness are ultimately less reflective of him than of the incapacity of a particular strand of the Pakistani Left to engage with much substance or nuance complex subjects who are neither textbook religious fundamentalists nor cookie-cutter secular liberals. For more on this, see SherAli Tareen, “Liberal Fundamentalists and Imranophobia,” Global Village Space , December 2017.

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