Imran Khan with Afridis at a village in the Khyber Pass (Photo Courtesy: Pervez A Khan, from Pakistan: A Personal History)
In 1982, Imran Khan took over the captaincy of Pakistan from Javed Miandad and, five years later, retired from international cricket after Pakistan lost the semi-final to Australia in the 1987 World Cup. In 1988, in what would be the last year of his life, Zia-ul-Haq ‘requested’ Imran to return to the national cricket team’s captaincy. It was over the last couple of years of the 1980s, with the 1992 World Cup triumph and his ‘final’ retirement still a few years off, that Imran Khan confronted—and crystallised in his mind—what in his perception was the West’s instinctive hostility to Islam. This watershed in his life had a specific cause and context: the publication in 1988 of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the reaction that followed across the Islamic world, including Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa.
Imran, to be fair, was not very happy with the fatwa despite his undisguised anger at Rushdie and disappointment at the failure of British Muslims in getting the book banned. In his autobiography, Pakistan: A Personal History (2011), Khan writes: “My need to explore the religion was spurred on by the furore in 1988 and 1989 over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Muslims understandably found the book deeply offensive in its satirical portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). It hurt even more because Rushdie was from a Muslim Indian family and must have known the outrage it would cause. You cannot hide behind freedom of speech to humiliate an entire religion and cause so much hurt.” (Rushdie’s moment would come when Imran Khan skipped the 2012 India Today Conclave because of the presence—via videolink—of the author of the Satanic Verses. Rushdie reminded those present—and the world at large—that in his playboy days in London, Imran was called “Im the Dim”.) But then Imran also says: “While blasphemy, according to some interpretations of the Quran, is punishable by death, the fatwa violated various laws in Islamic jurisprudence, which states the need for a fair trial to allow the accused to defend themselves and repent.”
The two quotations offer an insight into Imran Khan’s worldview and ideological maturation. Imran called himself a liberal but also a believer in the essentiality of Islam and its capacity for good. Before he married Jemima Goldsmith in 1995, Imran had often criticised the British press, and especially in the aftermath of the ball tampering row on the 1992 tour (with Miandad as captain), as “anti-Islam”. Quite a leap from the Pakistanis on the pitch, given the history of England-Pakistan cricket (Remember Mike Gatting pointing his finger and shouting at umpire Shakoor Rana? Or Messrs Lamb and Botham’s libel case against Imran? Or Botham’s infamous description of Pakistan?)—but Imran had put it out there, and there it remained.
On his confrontation with the post-Satanic Verses West, Imran goes on: “There was nobody to defend the religion, though, and Islam was under attack, with people in the West drawing comparisons with the book-burning of Nazi Germany. I didn’t have the depth of knowledge to defend it either. While leading Pakistan on a tour of New Zealand at the time I was constantly being asked about whether Islam was a violent religion. So I started reading books about Islam and found that my mind was more stimulated than it had ever been. I was inspired by the writings of great scholars like Iqbal, the poet-philosopher integral to the founding of Pakistan, and Ali Shariati, an Iranian writer and sociologist, who regarded himself as a disciple of Iqbal. Both believed in Islam’s potential for creating a just society, as had been seen during what is known as the Golden Age of Islam in the first five hundred years after the Prophet’s (PBUH) death.”
Imran has often talked about his reading of Allama Iqbal and dedicates a chapter to him in the autobiography. But a closer look needs to be taken at Shariati’s contribution—and, ironically, that of other Shia ideologues of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran—to Imran Khan’s political anti-Americanism which informs his broader ideological anti-Westernism.
“Gharbzadegi” is one of many cerebral Persian neologisms from the decades leading up to the Islamic Revolution. This particular coinage from the 1940s was the philosopher (and revolutionary ideologue) Ahmad Fardid’s, but it was popularised by the novelist Jalal Al-e-Ahmad in his clandestine 1962 book Occidentosis: A Plague from the West. Where Fardid had coined the term strictly in reference to Greek philosophy, post-1962, it took on the much broader meaning of “Westoxification”, “Westoxication”, “Euromania”, “Weststruckness”, “West-strickenness”, “Westernized”, “Occidentalization”, even “Westities”, etc. (Till this day, no scholar of Persian, Occidental or Oriental, has managed to offer a translation that captures the multitude of meanings loaded onto the Persian, although the prefix “West” is generally preferred to “Euro” given that “Gharb” means the West.) Believed to be a play on “senzadegi”, a disease afflicting wheat, the neologism, after Al-e-Ahmad, sought to encapsulate 20th century Iranian attitudes towards the West. Al-e-Ahmad wrote: “We have been unable to preserve our own historicocultural character in the face of the machine and its fateful onslaught. Rather, we have been routed… So long as we do not comprehend the real essence, basis, and philosophy of Western civilization, only aping the West outwardly and formally (by consuming its machines), we shall be like the ass going about in a lion’s skin.” In his 1971 Message to the Pilgrims, Khomeini, borrowing from Al-e-Ahmad, wrote about the “poisonous culture of imperialism” which was “penetrating to the depths of towns and villages throughout the Muslim world, displacing the culture of the Qur’an, recruiting our youth en masse to the service of foreigners and imperialists…”
This foundational anti-Westernism of the Iranian revolution, less of the Ayatollah than of the subsequently discarded ideologues, indebted as it was to Sartre and Heidegger, took the form of a humane Islamism in Ali Shariati (1933-77), perhaps the most influential, wildly popular and beloved of the revolution’s intellectuals (whose ideas, too, were ultimately shunned by the Islamic Republic). A sociologist, Shariati has often been called the Iranian Sayyid Qutb, although he was a socialist and religion for him was less about the Quranic Tawhid than its sociology and historicity as a force of good in a cultural and social context. In a perfect society’s need to conform to Islamic values, Shariati also saw revolution as an imperative, harking back to the revolutionary core of Shia Islam. As a student in Paris, he had encountered Marxism and the ideas of class struggle and a classless society. To interpret what afflicted Iranian society and to prescribe solutions, he borrowed Al-e-Ahmad’s Gharbzadegi and endorsed martyrdom in the cause of social justice. Unlike Western leftists, Shariati did not believe religion had to be abandoned to be a socialist or anti-imperialist. Rather, the yoke of Gharbzadegi could be thrown off only by salvaging one’s own cultural identity. In a society like Iran’s, that cultural identity was necessarily tied up with religion.
It’s not clear how closely or deeply Imran Khan has read Ali Shariati, but there’s not an altogether obscured line from Iran’s revolutionary ideologues to his version of liberal Islamism whereby he has always thought the Taliban could be negotiated with as well as his trenchant criticism of the US drone strikes, to say nothing of his early ‘revolutionary zeal’ of ridding Pakistan of corruption and ushering in a more equal society based on Islamic principles. And yet, the influence of Shariati, et al will remain nebulous, subject to conjecture and unyieldingly subjective. It’s an interesting detective pursuit, but not quite conclusive.
Imran has often talked about Allama Iqbal. But a closer look needs to be taken at Ali Shariati’s contribution—and, ironically, that of other ideologues of the Iranian revolution—to Imran Khan’s political anti-Americanism which informs his broader ideological anti-Westernism
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What is easier is locating Imran Khan’s anti-Americanism in the clearer categories of Pakistani anti-Americanism although, for Imran, it has never been mere political opportunism. According to an article published in the Christian Science Monitor in 2011 when Imran was resurrecting his political career: “He’s also known for being a straight shooter…According to a US embassy cable leaked by the whistle-blower website Wikileaks, Khan made ‘often pointed and critical statements on US policy, which he characterized as dangerous and in need of change’ in a meeting with former US Ambassador Anne Patterson last year. That’s in stark contrast to other leaders like Nawaz Sharif…and Maulana Fazlur Rehman…both known for their hostile stances toward the US in public. Leaked US embassy cables showed their tone in private meetings to be far more conciliatory, to the point of fawning.”
His allegedly conciliatory attitude towards the Taliban helped Imran pick up the moniker “Taliban Khan”. The militants had actually issued death threats against him in the run-up to a rally in South Waziristan but then changed their minds because of his consistent protests against the drone strikes. Of Pashtun lineage, Imran Khan has extensively travelled in the tribal belt of northwest Pakistan and locates the emotional core of his opposition to US policy in what the War on Terror and Pakistan’s participation in it had wreaked on the Pashtuns. Blaming America for trying what the Russians, and before them the British, had failed to do in Afghanistan and indicting Pakistan’s American “puppets” for still greater ignorance of the reality of the then extant FATA and for sending the Pakistan army to the region, the penultimate chapter of his autobiography offers a history and sociology of the tribes and their terrain while offering his own “solution” to the problem. While it is insightful and understanding of the Pashtun tribes, Khan’s conviction that America should have never gone into Afghanistan, or that it should have withdrawn immediately after Osama bin Laden was killed, makes it easy to see why the charge of “Taliban Khan” stuck, notwithstanding the cynicism and ignorance of all the Asif Ali Zardaris and Yousaf Raza Gillanis.
Imran sums up the consequences: “The current strategy can only increase radicalization—a dangerous prospect given that Pakistan is a country with a fast -growing population, a youth bulge and high rates of unemployment. Now there will be a generation born of anger, an army of young men who lost relatives to US drones or Pakistani military operations. And that radicalization will not just be limited to the poor and dispossessed. Even for the youth of the rich elite, Pakistan’s abdication of responsibility for its own sovereignty is a searing humiliation.”
And his solution: “…my personal estimate is that about 90 per cent of the militants in the tribal areas are neither religious extremists nor terrorists. They are simply our own tribal people fighting because of army interventions, drone attacks (and their ‘collateral damage’) and anger over the US occupation of Afghanistan. We only need to deal with the remaining 10 per cent.”
Prime Minister Imran Khan, a much reduced figure since writing those words, had not really budged from his conviction that America had made Pakistan a lot worse than it was before the War on Terror. In that same penultimate chapter he cites the CNN poll that had revealed 80 per cent Pakistanis by then viewed the US as a greater security threat than India. The operative word is conviction: for Imran Khan it is a belief system, not mere politics, not even when a seemingly desperate Pakistani prime minister praises India’s “independent” foreign policy. Conviction, of course, may have little to do with the “foreign-funded conspiracy” although that, too, clearly targets Washington and not Delhi.
Drawing on political scientists Peter Katzenstein and Robert Keohane, a Brookings analysis from November 2013 classified Pakistani anti-Americanism into four types: radical, socio-religious, sovereign-nationalist and liberal. The article says: “The sovereign-nationalist category focuses on American policies seen as causing harm towards Pakistan itself. Perhaps, the political party that fits in most neatly into this category is the PTI, with its stance against drone strikes. This category of anti-American sentiment focuses perhaps most clearly on what America does (and not necessarily what it is); Imran Khan argued exactly this in an interview with Express News on November 11, saying: ‘I am not anti-US… I am against their policies.’” Imran seems to say as much towards the end of his book. And yet, his self-distancing from a West he was once so intimate with, and evidence of which is unambiguous, might seem to say otherwise.
Perhaps Gharbzadegi can only be blamed so much. Especially when Imran Khan’s own original key supporters were the middle class, women and the youth, the same constituencies the US had repeatedly targeted in trying to win “hearts and minds” in Pakistan. Only five years younger than the Pakistani state, Imran’s story is in many ways, the Pakistan story too.