Imran Khan Phenomenon; My Prediction in 2011

I wrote this article back in 2011 for 3quarksdaily.com, someone in Outlook picked it up this year. I think I was not far wrong..

The 12th Man Rises

Pakistan’s greatest cricketing hero and second most successful philanthropist entered politics 15 years ago, promising a progressive, Islamic, modern, corruption-free Pakistan. His position as the most successful captain in Pakistan’s cricket history, the founder of Pakistan’s finest cancer hospital (providing free modern cancer care to thousands) provided him instant cachet, but for a long time he was unable to convert this personal popularity into votes in actual elections. With a political platform heavy on slogans (particularly against corruption) but short on specifics and without any obvious connection to already existing grass-roots politics, he remained little more than a fixture on the talk-show circuit for a very long time. Brief flirtation with Pervez Musharraf also set him back, as did a tendency to spout fables about Jirgas and hobnob with jihadi ideologues like Hamid Gul. But his biggest problem was his failure to create a team that could carry his party forward. The Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was a one man show, with Imran Khan its only impressive asset. Even in parties dominated by one strong leader, there are other leaders in the wings and at least a semi-coherent ideology that delivers a section of the vote-bank on ideological grounds alone. Imran had no visible team and no clear ideology beyond a promise to “eradicate corruption”.

He did seem to genuinely believe in the formulaic slogans and historical framework of the 6th grade“ideology of Pakistan” he learned in Aitcheson college. He seems to have some vague notion of “the two nation theory” (basically, “we are not Indians”) and an even vaguer “respect” for Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Allama Iqbal, twin icons of Pakistan’s history. But like his middle class fans, it is a superficial and shallow belief system, with little to show beyond a few empty slogans like “Pakistan first”, “Islamic welfare state” and “we are all Pakistanis now, so we are no longer Punjabis, Sindhis, Pakhtoons or Balochis”. Behind the automatic repetition of such slogans there does lurk an odour of “one folk, one party, one leader” fascism (as it does behind all crude nationalisms) but this is not to imply that Imran Khan is consciously thinking of leading a fascist takeover of Pakistan. His commitment to some notion of democracy seems genuine enough, though his priority (and this is not unusual among middle class nationalists) is nationalism, not democracy; in a crisis, he can easily convince himself that we may have to kill democracy to save the country. In any case, lacking organization and experience and without a good grasp of actual grass-roots politics, he was easily brushed aside by older established political parties.

Things changed in 2008. International pressure and a worsening domestic political position forced Pervez Musharraf to accept elections and eventually to bring “failed politicians” back in power. Imran Khan boycotted those elections, but came back on TV chat shows to dog the new (and admittedly, corrupt and incompetent) civilian set-up at every step. Meanwhile, GHQ managed to win back some of its tarnished reputation by staying away from public view, letting Zardari take all the blame for every disaster (even ones GHQ itself had birthed). The Zardari regime also managed to select an exceptionally bad team, from a clueless prime minister to one of the worst collections of cabinet ministers in Pakistan’s history. His opposite number in the PMLN did a marginally better job in the provincial government in Punjab, but not by much. Continuous infighting, breaking and remaking of coalitions, massive corruption at every level, and a terrorism problem that has kept the nation unsafe for international investment, all these drained the existing political parties of credibility and created an opening for an outsider.

Meanwhile, the deep state continued its “good jihadi, bad jihadi” policy at home and its double game with the US abroad. With the Osama Bin Laden assassination, matters seem to have come to a head with the US. The Americans want GHQ to arrange for an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan and appear willing to pay Pakistan for help in achieving this, but they are not yet ready to hand the place back to the Taliban and the Haqqanis and their Jihadi friends. GHQ meanwhile is playing hardball and smells victory (also smells disasters to come after victory, but victory has its own momentum) and maybe feeling tempted to get rid of the present civilian setup , preferring a civilian regime that is more closely aligned with their own strategic vision. The Facebook generation and the deep state may thus both be ready to opt for Imran Khan. And Imran Khan, it seems, is ready to opt for them. He has sharpened his anti-American message (a message that appeals to both the jihadi and the left-liberal wings of the middle classes) and toned down criticism of the army. He is saying all the right things about drone attacks, peace with our Taliban brothers and an American defeat in Afghanistan. He has been well coached by Shireen Mazari and Hamid Gul and his party is using trained cadres from the Islami Jamiat e Tulaba as well as enthusiastic youngsters from the Facebook generation. The moment has produced the man.

Having produced the man, the next step was to launch him on to the political stage in suitable manner. That step was achieved in Lahore on the 30th of October. Whether the deep state helped out with the gathering or not, the crowd was impressive and enthusiastic. For most of the young people there, it was the first taste of a genuine mass event where everyone is pushing towards one goal with one voice. That this “goal” was being defined in the Paknationalist terms they have all been fed in school and in everyday propaganda was the icing on the cake. Grown men were seen to cry helplessly as carefully choreographed patriotic music blared and the crowd rose as one to sing the national anthem. Fed on a steady diet of news about corrupt, treacherous and unpatriotic politicians, the crowd was happy to anoint Imran Khan as the saviour who will eradicate corruption and save the nation. A generation that never saw the much bigger gatherings of Benazir Bhutto and her father seems to have been swept off their feet by the event. And why not? In addition to pushing the Paknationalist buttons, the rally had something for everyone. A prayer break (with the great leader praying alone on stage during the event) was followed by Shahzad Roy and guitar music. Bearded boys with Al-Jihad headbands mingled good naturedly with middle class families and liberal students from LUMS and NUST. For one shining evening, it must have seemed like hope has been reborn.

But it is still difficult to see how all this will translate into electoral victory unless the deep state plans to manipulate elections in a big way. Pakistan is a parliamentary democracy and established parties, even when discredited, have a grass-roots organizational advantage. In addition, Imran Khan’s personal popularity is wide, but not deep. Very different groups are currently united under his wing, but when push comes to shove, ideological and political choices will have to be made. Right now, Imran Khan has liberal followers who coexist in the party with hardcore Islamists who made their bones in the Islami Jamiat-e-Tulaba. But as he gets closer to real power, choices will have to be made. Since his own understanding of politics and the future of Pakistan is fundamentally aligned with the Paknationalists of the Shireen Mazari and Ahmed Qureshi variety, I predict his choices will turn to out to match those of GHQ to an extent that may surprise a lot of his liberal fans. This is a prediction, and I realize it is an unpopular one in the liberal blogosphere. Pakistani liberals are also hungry for a saviour and right now they prefer to latch on to whatever little bones Imran is throwing in their direction (guitar music right after Magrib prayers, women in visible positions, a modern look and feel) but I fear that Imran Khan is not just repeating his 6th grade Islamiyat and Pakistan studies slogans because repeating simplified propaganda is part and parcel of modern mass politics. He is repeating them because he genuinely believes all those fables about rightly guided caliphs, Jirga justice, Islamic social welfare, the vision of Allama Iqbal, the “leadership of the Quaid-e-Azam” and so on. But since these stories are not too closely aligned with reality, historic or contemporary, a sincere believer is likely to become a pawn in the hands of those with a clearer vision of what they want and a more realistic view of politics and power. The Leninist term “useful idiot” comes to mind, but in this case it is not Pakistan’s 37 Leninists but its much more determined deep state is likely to take advantage of Khan sahib’s naiveté.

Of course, this may not be a done deal yet. Imran clearly has an idealistic bent and even GHQ may not find his crusading zeal easy to contain. And while everyone from Humayun Gohar to Ayaz Amir may be excited by this rally, reality has a way of setting in in Pakistan. The Paknationalist agenda is not new. Army men sitting in mess halls have been carping about unpatriotic politicians, bloody provincialists and separatists, uneducated Pakistani masses and massive foreign conspiracies for decades. But they have failed to wave a magic wand to fix these problems, not because they held back, but because no magic wand actually exists. Wanting to clean up Pakistan and run it like a tight ship (the current model is supposedly China, though a few inconvenient details come to mind: a 3000 year old civilization, a century of revolutions and wars, a genuine mass-based party and titanic achievements and failures, modern capitalism embraced like never before, and so much more) is all well and good, but you cannot create anything you want out of thin air; you have to work with what exists and the properties of what exists are not necessarily what the Paknationalists think they are. History and society may have features that make some choices possible and others nearly impossible. Paknationalism of the GHQ type does not have a sufficient overlap with history, political realities or the various cultures of Pakistan to allow the creation of the homogenous- Islamic-modern-military- mullah-netizen hybrid that is being desired. But it is possible that this vision has enough overlap with the common dreams of Pakistan’s middle class youth to let them have a go at it. One just hopes it evolves towards sanity and a softer nationalism instead of doubling down and going for broke by grasping “this sorry scheme of things entire; would we not shatter it to bits and then, remold it nearer to heart’s desire…”

Browncast: Is Imran Khan on the Way Out?

Another Browncast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

In this episode Omar talks with Ambassador Kamran Shafi and Dr Mohammed Taqi, two very well known and astute observers of the Pakistani political scene. We talk about the current political crisis and why and how the military may have abandoned Imran Khan, exposing him to a no-confidence motion in the National assembly.

(spotify link did not work in Pakistan)

Pakistan’s Pseudo-Revolution Marches on..

Pakistan is at an interesting (and dangerous) juncture today; in 2018 the military used the many levers it has at its disposal to get Imran Khan elected as Prime Minister and GHQ continues to strengthen its grip on power, but that is not the interesting part. That is just the normal Pakistani cycle of semi-civilian rule followed by a phase of more direct military rule, followed by another attempt at civilian government; what is interesting is that a significant section of the emerging Pakistani middle class (“Mehran Man”) has managed to convince themselves that this time there will be a revolution: the violent overthrow of one social order and its replacement by a very different order.

GHQ probably had no such revolution in mind when they promoted Imran Khan and made him prime minister. Some civilian leaders were to be sidelined and some military leaders planned to acquire more direct power, and in order to do this they activated their vast public relations apparatus and talked of revolution and grand transformations, as one does, but no Bolshevik or Chinese revolution was actually in the works. There was probably some fear that the “war on terror” dividend is over and hard times lie ahead, so the state should be prepared for a period of harsher authoritarian rule (i.e. the opposite of a revolution; not a desire to change things but a desire to harden the existing order to meet anticipated challenges). Of course every time GHQ think tanks notice that Pakistan is facing a crisis, they tend to revert to the old “Chakwal solution” paradigm all officers apparently learn during basic training. This PMA version of “how to fix Pakistan” has not changed since the 1950s and includes ideas such as :

  1. Pakistan needs a firm hand (“shoot 5000 people and the country will become an Asian Tiger”)
  2. Presidential system
  3. 22 provinces (to break up existing pre-Pakistani identities such as Pakhtoon, Sindhi, Baloch etc)
  4. Get rid of corrupt politicians (ALL politicians are corrupt, but some join military regimes and are therefore excused)
  5. Technocrat government, etc

So I do not doubt that some of the planners at GHQ did have such “reforms” in mind and just as the cart follows the horse, new policy disasters will no doubt flow from the naive implementation of such “reforms”, but even so, no real revolution was intended, just some “tweaking” of the system.

But while the planners at the top may not have intended more than that, their propaganda seems to have created a number of excited middle class social media warriors who sincerely believe a revolution is in progress. They are cheering every extra-legal step, every fake drug bust and every suppression of dissent. And because the geniuses at GHQ are also human, some of this excitement is filtering back to the bosses and even they may get carried away and imagine they are leading the 1949 Communist revolution in China and not some Sisi-level military coup.  Which will be a tragedy because this is not a revolutionary party, this cannot BE a revolutionary regime; the same elite that was ruling the country yesterday is ruling it today. The social media warriors screaming for a revolution and “across the board” cleanup are not interested in seeing Uncle Jimmy or cousin Mithoo go to prison; they expect the revolution to hit other people (preferably “corrupt politicians”, i.e. politicians who have not thrown in their lot with GHQ), they do not expect their own friends and family to face some revolutionary tribunal in D-chowk. The status quo is meant to be improved, not replaced.

But humans can get carried away and this lot may have misunderstood their own position rather comprehensively. They may imagine they really ARE carrying out a revolution: the violent overthrow of one class by another. Some of them are surely sane enough to know this is just one more round of military rule and after it fails (as it inevitably must) they will have to compromise again with “dirty politicians” and restart the merry go round at 1988 or 2008, if not at 1970 (i.e. controlled democracy, with continued military domination of the heights of the state), but some of them do seem to be getting carried away. We may end up with the worst of both worlds.. The viciousness and disruptive destruction of an attempted revolution, without the creative energy and opportunities created by any genuine overthrow of an ossified ruling elite..
And if that is the case, then the corrupt status quo will evolve into something even worse: a corrupt narrowly based authoritarian regime that has destroyed existing politics (corruption ridden, but still somewhat responsive to public pressures) and replaced it with naked military rule over an unhappy population with no political safety valves and a worsening economic crisis.  They may then find themselves facing an attempt at real revolution.. and that will not be good for anyone.

There is still time. They can step back and let politics take its course and maybe a slightly more competent regime can come into power once PTI crashes and burns. But just writing this sentence is enough to make one realize that they are not going to allow any such soft landing. This time, we will get the full Monty, the chakwal solution in all its glory. It will fail amidst much pain and suffering; you know this, I know this.. but they don’t know this and they will not learn until things fall apart.
Sad.

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Rana Sanaullah, PMLN Punjab Chief, in prison

By the way, here is Brigadier Ijaz Shah, GHQs main enforcer in the Imran Khan regime, giving his side of the story.

And here is the full ISPR version of recent events:

What is in a Name? Al Qadir University

Dear leader (aka Imran Khan) was in Sohawa laying the foundation stone of “Al-Qadir University” and he gave a speech that is a good summary of his (childish, Aitchison college and Pakistan studies) worldview. The guy introducing him mangles one of Iqbal’s finest urdu poems and then Imran Khan takes it from there.. He manages to mangle Ahle suffa, Roohaniyat, history, sufism and science in this speech.. worth a listen.

But today I am not concerned with his worldview (which at least has a certain childish sincerity about it), I am just concerned about the name “Al Qadir University”. We are told that this university is named after Abdul Qadir Jilani. Supposedly Imran Khan and his wife Bushra Maneka came up with this name. But why? Why the “Al”? Al-Qadir just means “THE Qadir”. If it is named after Abdul Qadir Jilani then there is no reason to call him “THE Qadir”. Why not “Abdul Qadir Jilani University”? or just “Qadir University”?

Al-Qadir is one of the names of Allah. It would make sense if the university was named for Allah, but dear leader himself says it is named for Abdul Qadir Jilani. Hence the confusion.

I suspect that this name is an example of the neo-Punjabi tendency to add “Al” to anything they want to Islamize or make attractive by making it sound Arabic. Hence we have “Al-Bakistan”, Al-Mashhoor Fried Chicken and Al-Sultan Shoes and suchlike. It looks like the name of this university is another example of this (unfortunate) practice.

This short blog post is my personal contribution to improving the naming traditions in neo-Punjab. May Allah bless our efforts with success.

Image result for bushra maneka

Ahmedis and Pakistan. Some background..

Atif Mian

Professor Atif Mian is a prominent Pakistani-American economist and a professor of economics at Princeton university. 2 weeks ago he was nominated to be a member of Imran Khan’s “Economic Advisory Council” (a think tank of sorts that is supposed to generate ideas for the new PTI government; it is not at all clear what influence, if any, this group will have in real life). This set off a controversy in Pakistan because Atif Mian is an Ahmedi and Ahmedis are widely reviled as heretics, apostates and traitors in Pakistan. After an initial attempt to defend his appointment (including the obligatory Jinnah quote and reference to the fact that an Ahmedi, Sir Zafrullah, was one of Jinnah’s closest advisers and Pakistan’s first foreign minister) the Imran Khan government backed down and asked him to leave the council.

Since then his defenders (mostly liberals who believe religion should play no role in such appointments and experts should be judged on their professional skills and not their religion) and opponents (Islamists, PTI-type Islamist-lite folks who believe Ahmedis in particular should not be appointed to any important position because they are fake Muslims and potential traitors, etc etc) have been arguing about this case on social media. This post is an attempt to provide background and clarify some of the issues raised by both sides.. (some of the background material was published earlier in a post I wrote in 2012 for 3quarksdaily.com)

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Mirza Ghulam Ahmed

The Ahmediya movement was started in Punjab in 19th century British India, by Mirza Ghulam Ahmed of Qadiyan. He seems to have been a quiet, religious loner who brooded about the challenges faced by his faith and his people. The decisive military and economic superiority of Western civilization over the Islamicate world had produced a variety of efforts at reform and revitalization. They ranged from the Wahabi-influenced puritanical Jihadism of Syed Ahmed Barelvi (who led an extremely fanatical jihadist movement in what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwah, until he was defeated by superior Sikh firepower and a reaction to his extreme views among the local Muslims) to the anglophile reformism of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (founder of Aligarh Muslim University). Mirza Ghulam Ahmed’s response was to start a movement of religious revival that was built around his own charismatic claims. Though he contradicted some mainstream Islamist claims about the finality of prophet-hood and the absolute necessity of military Jihad (military jihad as a Muslim duty is now so widely downplayed that it is hard for Westerners and even Westernized Muslims to figure out why his claim was considered so controversial). His movement was socially conservative and even puritanical and he vigorously defended Islam, especially against Christian missionaries and Hindu critics. He found some support among modestly educated middle class Punjabi Muslims (including Islamist icon Allama Mohammed Iqbal, who either flirted with joining the movement or actually joined for a few years, depending on what version you believe). As his movement (and his claims regarding his own status as prophet or messiah) grew, it also drew orthodox opposition, especially from the dominant Sufi-oriented Barelvi Sunni sect. Ironically this branch of local Islam enjoyed some American (and world media) attention as “moderate and tolerant Muslims” in contrast to their Deobandi/Wahhabi brethren in the aftermath of 9-11 (though this attempt to fight Wahabi/Deobandi fire with Sufi-Barelvi water seems to have run into some trouble recently).

This increasingly vocal opposition (complete with fatwas from Mecca declaring the Ahmedis as apostates liable to the death penalty if they did not repent) led to a sharper separation between Ahmedis and other Muslim sects, but the Ahmedis themselves always claimed to be Muslims and made efforts to remain fully engaged in “Muslim causes”. In their own view they were reforming and purifying Islam, not opposing it, so they had a legitimate interest in the cause of oppressed Muslims everywhere (e.g. they took a leading role in supporting Kashmiri Muslims against their Dogra-Hindu ruler). Some Ahmedis played a very prominent role in the Pakistan movement, including Sir Zafrullah Khan, who wrote a Pakistan proposal for the viceroy in Feb 1940 and shared it with Jinnah before the Muslim League passed its Lahore resolution in March 1940. He remained one of Jinnah’s closest associates and was the first foreign minister of Pakistan and Jinnah’s representative on the boundary commission that divided India) and others held prominent positions in the new state and fought for it with distinction (most famously, General Akhtar Malik in the 1965 war with India). It is likely that neither they, nor the relatively Westernized leadership of the Muslim league had a clear idea of what lay in store for them in Pakistan. Even more ironically, the Ahmedis themselves aggressively pursued “blasphemers” (e.g. Pandit Lekh Ram in Punjab in 1897). It is hard to read this Ahmedi polemic against Lekh Ram without thinking about where the Ahmedis themselves now lie in relation to the blasphemy meme. Continue reading Ahmedis and Pakistan. Some background..

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