Imran Khan has been accused of bowing to religious extremists in Pakistan. Photo: AFP/Aamir Qureshi
Imran Khan could well return to power in Pakistan, and the US must be prepared to deal with him. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

In his victory speech after the July 25 Pakistan national elections, Prime Minister Imran Khan said, “When I came into politics, I wanted Pakistan to become the kind of country that our leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah wanted.” If it’s his sincere intent to drive Pakistan toward its founder’s ideals, he has to ask himself some hard questions.

Would Jinnah have wanted religious groups and parties to develop the social power, clout, political influence and reach that they possess in contemporary Pakistan? Would Jinnah have bent over backward to accommodate, if not actively promote, sharper, exclusionary and puritanical interpretations of the Islamic faith as all Pakistani leaders after him have done?

There is no indication that Khan is willing to pose these difficult questions. His government’s response to the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) protest march against far-right-wing Dutch member of Parliament Geert Wilder’s intention to hold a cartoon competition on the Holy Prophet of Islam is a defining point.

Wilder’s proposed cartoon competition was provocative and insensitive. There is a conviction in many parts of the world that freedom of speech cannot be stretched to the extent that it offends deeply held religious convictions or revered religious figures.

Thus a feeling of outrage among many Pakistani Muslims and the government’s condemnation of Wilder’s decision were not unnatural. It was also appropriate that Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi conveyed his country’s feelings to his Dutch counterpart and asked that the competition be called off. In the end, Wilder received death threats and abandoned the competition.

What is questionable is the manner in which Imran Khan responded to TLP leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s mobilization of street power. Certainly, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, would not have preferred that the matter be agitated against even though he would have been in sympathy with the demand of canceling the cartoon competition.

Jinnah would also have been alarmed at people like Rizvi’s participation in public life and the political support coming their way. In the July National Assembly election, all of the religious parties together secured more than 5.5 million votes, representing a 9.5% vote share. An analysis of the vote is instructive, for it reveals a significant trend in Pakistan’s religious politics.

The traditional Pakistani religious parties, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam of Maulana Fazlul Rehman, went into coalitions with other religious parties in the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) – a political alliance comprising conservative, Islamist and religious parties. They secured around 2.5 million votes and 12 seats in the National Assembly – a significant decline from the 59 seats they had won in 2002. However, those elections were during the rule of military dictator General Pervez Musharraf when the traditional secular parties were on the ropes. Unlike the decline of the MMA coalition parties, the TLP’s electoral performance was impressive, enabling it to become the country’s fifth-largest party.

Rizvi had mobilized Muslims to support Mumtaz Qadri, the guard who had murdered the governor of Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, for publicly showing sympathy to a Christian woman falsely accused of blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad. Qadri was hanged and his grave is now a hallowed place for Rizvi and his followers. Rizvi showed his strength last year when his followers marched in thousands in support of the assertion that Muhammad is the final Prophet of Allah.

That is a basic tenet of Islam. Rizvi’s followers camped across an important arterial junction of the capital, throwing its life completely out of gear. The reason for Rizvi’s action was a change in the wording of the oath affirming the final Prophethood of Muhammad. The state caved in. The old formulation was restored and the concerned minister resigned. Significantly, the army stood as a guarantor of the Rizvi-government agreement.

The TLP contested 178 National Assembly seats; it did not win any but got more than 2.2 million votes. According to one estimate, many voters who had formerly supported the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) switched loyalties and favored the TLP. Thus it made a major impact on the electoral fortunes of the PML-N. While it remains to be seen if the TLP will be able to build on the political support it has received, what is sure is that it now has substantial street power, and Imran Khan is unlikely to do anything to curb it.

The July election also witnessed Jamaat-ud-Dawa leader Hafiz Saeed’s participation. His Milli Muslim League was refused registration by the Pakistan Election Commission, so his followers contested through the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek. It put up 265 candidates but failed to win any seat; it secured fewer than 200,000 votes in all. This shows that he is unlikely to be an electoral factor in Pakistan. However, his true constituency lies in the Pakistani establishment, and that is intact. Imran Khan has given no indication that he would press for action in keeping with the United Nations that designated Saeed as a global terrorist.

Conceding that electoral influence of extremist groups may not become critical, Zahid Hussain, a well-known Pakistani columnist, warned after the elections that “allowing such groups to operate freely and participate in elections could be disastrous.” Wondering how Imran Khan’s party would deal with these parties and groups, he said, “Given its soft stance towards the religious right, fears are that such groups may get greater space.”

Indeed, over the decades, Pakistani religious groups wedded to sectarianism and violence have gained more strength. This process has taken the country away from Jinnah’s ideals; it is unlikely that it will be reversed under Imran Khan, his invocations to the founder notwithstanding.

Vivek Katju

The author is a former diplomat with the Indian Foreign Service and retired as a secretary to the government of India. He has extensive experience dealing with Pakistan and Southeast Asia.

One reply on “Imran Khan likely to go soft on religious right in Pakistan”

Comments are closed.