By Shibil Siddiqi
Pakistan is not immune to the insurrectionary air of the Arab Spring or the international “Occupy” movements. There is a genuine appetite for change, and Imran Khan is adeptly channelling it. Buoyed by these sentiments, the PTI (rally) in Lahore on October 30 was undoubtedly a huge success. Imran Khan is the harbinger of the Pakistani Spring. Change is coming. Yes we Khan.
Clinging to this simplistic hope, throngs of urban, middle-class, and typically election shunning Pakistani youth have gravitated towards the PTI. Politicization of this section of society is, of course, a welcome development. The highly conservative, Islamist or ultra-nationalistic/ xenophobic social and political outlooks of many such youth make the PTI their natural home.
But other progressive minded young – and sometimes older – people have also been taken in by Imran Khan’s political googlies. Informed more by his cult of personality than his politics, they genuinely believe that Imran Khan represents a moderate progressive or even a leftist political movement – a movement for radical change.
This article highlights the inconsistency between the PTI’s progressive rhetoric and political action.
Imran Khan claims to lead a progressive movement, and now talks of“enlightened Islam” – a rehash of General Musharraf’s “enlightened moderation” claptrap. His actions have been far from it, and even further from any kind of progressive politics.
Elected to Parliament in 2002 as the PTI’s lone legislator, Imran Khan found himself ideologically and politically close to the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, a coalition of hard-line and far-right Islamist political parties. He supported the MMA leader, Maulana Fazalur Rahman’s failed bid to become Prime Minister. Imran Khan also backed the MMA in being a vocal critic of madrassah reforms, and of women who participated in mixed-sex road races. He remained close to the MMA even after it voted in favour of the Legal Framework Order and the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan.
In line with the MMA, Khan also opposed the Womens’ Protection Bill in 2006. To his credit, Imran Khan explained that he thought the real problem was the underlying Hudood Ordinance. However, Khan did not introduce any amendments to the Bill, sponsor any separate legislation, or even propose a Parliamentary resolution to deal with the Hudood Ordinance. He has said little about it before or since.
Imran Khan’s closeness to the mullahs resulted in the flight of a number of progressives that had joined the party in the early days, including its first Secretary General, renowned environmental lawyer Dr Pervez Hassan, and the veteran leftist Meraj Muhammad Khan, who served as Secretary General between 1998 and 2003.
The void left in the PTI leadership by the departing progressives has been filled in large measure by some of the usual, often habitual, political defectors and by a large number of Jamaat-e-Islami members, including PTI Secretary General Dr Arif Alvi. Since the PTI does not hold internal elections and relies on nominations by fiat, it is likely that these familiar faces rather than PTI activists or any new leadership will contest elections.
To name a few:
Former Musharraf supporter and foreign policy crank Shireen Mazari (who was made a Vice-President of the PTI without an internal election)
Mian Azhar (a former governor of Punjab with PML-N who went on to found the PML-Q before returning to the PML-N)
Shahid Bhinder (formerly of PML-Q and Law Minister under Musharraf)
Farooq Amjad Mir (formerly of the PML-Q)
Malik Zaheer Abbas Khokar (formerly of PPP and PML-Q)
Ijaz Khan Jazi (formerly of PML-N who unsuccessfully contested a Rawalpindi by-election for the PTI in 2010)
Iftikhar Jhagra (formerly of PPP)
Khwaja Khan Hoti (formerly of the PPP and ANP, and former Minister of Social Welfare)
Tahir Rashid (formerly of PML-N and PML-Q)
Mian Mahmood ur Rasheed (former JI parliamentarian)
Masood Sharif Khan Khattak (formerly of PPP and a former Intelligence Bureau chief)
Former PPP Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Quereshi is also set to join.
A notable former Jamaati in the top leadership is PTI Vice President Ejaz Chaudhry who was ejected from the JI after facing allegations of corruption. He is now the PTI’s advisor on religious affairs and Imran Khan’s point person in the Punjab. Chaudhry is also in charge of PTI’s youth wing, the Insaf Students Federation. Under him, ISF activists have been sporting bandanas reading “ISF al-Jihad.”
The PTI remains close to former MMA partners the JI and JUI, often jointly organizing rallies. In 2009, Imran Khan heaped praise on the JI’s then leader Qazi Hussain Ahmed at a seminar at the Lahore Press Club, referring to Ahmed as his “brother.”
Ties to extremism
More troubling are the links between the PTI and other extremist organizations in Pakistan. Over the summer, Imran Khan personallyvisited the Darul-Uloom Haqqania in Akora Khattak en route to adharna (sit in) in Peshawar. The Darul-Uloom, an extremist seminary popularly known as “the University of Jihad,” is accused by the Federal Investigation Agency of being the launching pad for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. One of its more famous graduates is the Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, who derives his name from his proud affiliation with his alma mater.
Moreover, in May this year Ejaz Chaudhury also attended a rally with Hafiz Saeed, the head of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the political arm of the banned terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. The rally condemned the killing of Osama bin Laden, and declared him a “Martyr of Islam.” Funeral prayers were duly offered.
The flags of the Sipah-e-SahabaPakistan (SSP) have also become a sight seen at PTI rallies, some even featuring SSP-affiliated speakers. The SSP, a violently sectarian anti-Shia and anti-Christian organization, was banned as a terrorist group in 2002. SSP supporters are evidently folding into the PTI while carrying their own hateful agendas, as indicated by the presence of their distinct flags.
In the English press, Imran Khan condemns religious parties as “bigots completely lacking in compassion and tolerance,” as he states in his autobiography. However, the PTI’s cooperation with religious parties and extremist groups continues to proliferate, with press releases usually put out only in Urdu. Ejaz Chaudhury is reportedly a scheduled speaker at an upcoming SSP conference at the Lahore Press Club on November 15, 2011. Remember, the SSP is a banned terrorist organization. This is not out of character for the party. The PTI is frequently present at the events of extremist organizations such as theAalmi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nubuwwat that hounds Ahmadis and celebrated Salman Taseer’s killer. This is hardly “enlightened Islam,” much less any kind of progressive politics.
Perhaps it is because of the PTI’s links to right-wing extremist groups that Imran Khan rarely condemns their hateful activities in public. Some former members of the PTI have even suggested that Imran Khan admires the bearded militants. However, he has made it clear through his statements and in his autobiography that he condemns the terrorism committed by the Tehreek-e-TalibanPakistan(TTP) and other such groups. Unfortunately, he usually does not do so publicly. From the bombing of Benzir Bhutto’s reception procession, to the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, the bombings on Ahmadi congregations or Salman Taseer’s and Shahbaz Bhatti’s assassinations, Imran Khan blames the victims, the government or “foreign elements” only, never the terrorists.
There are hardly any examples of the PTI directly condemning Pakistani terrorist groups. This is stunning, given that of the 35000 Pakistanis that have been killed since 2001, a staggering 33000 have been killed in terrorist attacks or in military operations against militants, compared to around 2000 that have died in drone attacks.
In company with the religious parties, Imran Khan also opposed military operations against Islamist insurgents and al-Qaeda-linked foreign fighters, even in Swat after the TTP take-over of the territory in 2009. He believed the “root cause” of the terror unleashed in Swat was the region’s broken justice system. His fix was setting up Sharia courts as the TTP demanded. The PPP-sponsored Nizam-e-Adl regulations did set up Sharia courts in Swat. In return the TTP continued their march into Buner and other adjacent areas, vowing to continue fighting till their version of Sharia was imposed on the entire country. Imran Khan continued to oppose military action.
In November, 2010, Imran Khan gained considerable support from progressives for favouring amending Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws, as they were “against the spirit of Islam and the Constitution of Pakistan.”
However, the PTI’s position quickly changed after Salman Taseer’s murder. After the outpouring of right-wing support for Taseer’s killer and Blasphemy Laws, Imran Khan dropped any talk of amending them. He now justifies their existence, and stated only that the laws should not be “misused.”
To underscore the PTI’s entente with right-wing forces, on January 30 – less than a month after Taseer’s murder – PTI activists and Vice President Ejaz Chaudhry attended a large rally of religious parties at The Mall in Lahore, pledging that his party would not allow any changes to Blasphemy Laws.
In recent (English language) interviews Imran Khan still speaks of reforming the laws. Yet the PTI attended a Namoos-e-Risalat rally in support of Taseer’s killer in Lahore on October 30 – one day before the Minar-e-Pakistan jalsa. Ejaz Chaudhry, speaking for Imran Khan (“Imran Khan ke taraf se…”), unequivocally stated that theBlasphemy Laws were a settled matter, and that being divine the PTI would tolerate no amendments.
There was no mention at all of blasphemy laws during the PTI jalsaon October 30, much to the chagrin of leaders of Pakistan’s minorities.
Democracy and the Military
Imran Khan’s democratic credentials are similarly mixed. He was an early supporter of the military coup by former president General Pervez Musharraf. He also supported the controversial referendum in 2002 that formally legitimated Musharraf as the President of Pakistan, rallying his supporters under the slogan of, “Musharraf first, all else second.” It was also reported that Musharraf personally intervened to secure Imran Khan’s narrow election victory, using both his imprimatur and state agencies.
Imran Khan has since admitted that his support for Musharraf was a mistake and that he had simply been “charmed” by the man. However, reports indicate that he has recently refreshed his ties with Musharraf (and Altaf Hussain) during a recent trip to London.
Rumours and reports (denied by Imran Khan) swirl about the PTI’s understanding with the Generals at GHQ. In any case, Imran Khan has already indicated a willingness to work with the military establishment. He recently attempted to redefine the relationship in the words, “The Establishment needs me, I don’t need the Establishment.” Tellingly, he also recently called on the army to intervene in enforcing Supreme Court judgements against the government. But his stance was most clearly conveyed when, perhaps sensing the government’s weakness after last years devastating floods, he stated, “Tehrik-e-Insaf will back military rule in the country for the sake of stability.”
Though an ad nauseum critic of American drone strikes, Imran Khan has never criticized the Pakistan military’s primary role in allowing the drones to fly and use facilities in Pakistan. Nor, for that matter, has he had much to say about civilian casualties as a result operations carried out by the Pakistani military, whether in Baluchistan or FATA. Nor has he extended his discourse on corruption to the military, even staying mum on recent revelations about the massive NLC scam.
For all the PTI’s talk of increased social spending, the PTI’s Manifestoalso calls for the modernization of the military with emphasis on building up the air force and the navy, as well as mind-expanding nuclear weapons capability and ballistic missile arsenal. Given regional tensions, and that rapidly rising defence expenditure already represents 25% to a third of public spending, this is a dangerously expensive military laundry list.
Where do we go now?
Considerable momentum has built behind Imran Khan on the basis of the thinking that everyone else has been tried, so why not the PTI? This is nonsense on stilts, and perhaps the worst of all possible reasons to vote for the PTI. Firstly, it is not true. There are any dozens of political parties in Pakistan, including truly progressive options that have never been tried. And if Pakistan’s governance is to be a revolving door where everyone gets a turn, then should the likes of the SSP and the TTP line up too? After all, they have never been tried in government either.
But does any of the above provide an objective reason why Imran Khan should not get votes? It does not. Vote for the PTI if it approximates your beliefs and values despite – or even because of – its politics and associations. But remember politics, and particularly the democratic variety, is an inherently messy team sport. Even with a star player, the team and its strategies, alliances and associations matter.
Or perhaps the PTI represents the best out of a bad lot. After all, other political parties have also relied on the same old political elite, and courted religious bigots and the military for political advantage. Isn’t this just politics as usual in Pakistan? Precisely. Imran Khan’s is not the politics of change. It is politics as usual.
Mr. Shibil is a freelance journalist and a Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Global Power and Politics at Trent University.
(This blog piece appeared on tribune.com.pk on November 17, 2011)