Imran Khan, the country’s prime minister, has a challenging but not unusual challenge ahead of him in the wake of recent demonstrations in Pakistan over French representations of the Prophet Mohammed.
Few were shocked when, in the wake of the violent murder of Parisian schoolteacher Samuel Paty in October for showing his students inflammatory drawings of the Prophet Mohammed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan engaged in a verbal battle with his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron. The world has generally accepted the aggressive policies of Ankara. However, the more subtly echoed Mr. Erdogan’s statements by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan over the past few weeks have drawn criticism, as has his government’s apparent accommodation of religious protests on the streets of Islamabad calling for a boycott of French products.
One of the reasons for this surprise is that Imran Khan is often regarded as an international leader. But Imran Khan is not someone who tries to bring disparate worlds together, as the anthropologist Pnina Werbner found in her 1995 study of the cricketer-turned-philanthropist-turned-politician. Rather, he keeps several busy at once. The image of a nationalistic leader who frequently fights for religious values and traditional culture coexists with that of a clean-shaven English public school lad, an Oxford graduate, and a world sportsman.
In 1992, Imran Khan ended his career as a cricket player
The latter Imran Khan came into being as he retired from cricket in 1992 and embarked on cross-country tours to raise money for the cancer hospital he had founded. He had the chance to converse with the average person on these trips about topics other than sports. His complexity is perhaps representative of Pakistan’s political culture in general, where populism and democracy are frequently mixed.
Many believe that the military’s strong Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate mostly employs demonstrators, including those who support the clergy, to topple civilian regimes. For instance, Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, asserts that demonstrations against The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie were planned in 1989 to undermine Benazir Bhutto’s first government.
But power does not necessarily rest with the military.
The controversial cartoons that focus on the ongoing debate in France were first printed in 2006 by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Gen. Pervez Musharraf was the military ruler of Pakistan at the time. Initially condemning the drawings, he took advantage of the chance to let Islamists enraged by the president’s support of the US war on terror vent their rage in public. However, the demonstrations quickly turned into a widespread movement against what the people of Pakistan perceived as a government that was becoming less and less accountable. Those protests were a precursor to the “Lawyers’ Movement” rallies that ousted him two years later.
Imran Khan is still favored by the army for the time being
However, he is up against a cross-party opposition movement fueled by resentment over the military’s use of force against his rivals in 2018 and his failure to improve the dire economic circumstances he inherited.
Because of this, it is in his best interest to stop the anti-French demonstrations as soon as possible, lest they grow out of control. Some have noted that traditionally, the weaker the democratic mandate of a Pakistani administration, the more the leadership strives to emphasize its religious credentials. Many people enquire as to whether Mr. imran khan currently fits this description.
Outside the home of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the influential Pakistani Islamist party’s founder who passed away only days after organizing protests against France, activists and admirers assemble.
His criticism of Mr. Macron was likely sincere. Such views are still prevalent, particularly in Punjab, the province with the largest population in Pakistan, where Mr. Imran khan was born and nurtured.
Pakistan’s political Islam, however, differs from that of other countries. The most populous provinces of Pakistan have not demonstrated much enthusiasm for electing religious parties to office. A revolution similar to Iran’s has never felt like a viable option. As a result, in Pakistan’s judicial system, constitutional law continues to take precedence over Islamic Sharia law.
After Bangladesh decided to go in 1971, the nation’s claims to represent all Muslims in South Asia, made during the Partition era, were less credible. Additionally, Gen. Musharraf emphasized that Pakistani foreign policy would be driven by national interest rather than what he called a “culture of jihad” following the September 11, 2001 assaults on American soil. By doing this, he was overtly breaking with his predecessor, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq.
Therefore, if not Muslim unity, Sharia, or “jihad,” what does the Islamic identity with which Pakistan’s leadership is struggling entail for the masses? Religious populism is the quickest response.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Punjab became the birthplace of the concept of Pakistan. Although the British government in colonial India promoted religious freedom and asserted its neutrality, it also divided power and resources among communities according to their size, reputation, and state service. Due to this, urban Punjab became a more complicated milieu where revivalists of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Christian faiths increasingly disparaged one another’s religions to win recruits. The Muslim majority in the province was drawn to the idea of Pakistan as a way to safeguard their place in South Asia and the rest of the globe by defending their community’s collective identity against others in the area.
The idea that Pakistan exists to protect Islam’s honor explains why the country’s blasphemy laws, which were first implemented by the British in 1927 to quell intercommunal violence, have become so out of control that they no longer resemble either traditional Islamic law or English Common Law. Although the addenda are punitive, the upper judiciary has steadfastly refrained from carrying out any executions. Politicians, however, have been unwilling to change the legislation because they are afraid of being falsely accused of blasphemy and killed by vigilantes, as the former governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was in 2011.
The meaning of blasphemy is only going to become more arbitrary and elastic under these circumstances.
There are currently more than 75 million internet users in the United States, a figure that is quickly increasing and creating a wealth of options for everything from entrepreneurship to education. However, Pakistan’s 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act places the country’s government in an intensifying conflict with Big Tech by requiring it to monitor “blasphemous” online content.
The government has frequently opted to impose crude restrictions on citizens’ access to the digital world due to the difficulties in selling these principles abroad. The need to censor has persisted, and the desire to create a more tightly regulated or cut-off system is increasing.
This would be a setback for the nation’s sizable youth population, especially since it would deprive the less fortunate of one of the few paths to overcoming their severe disadvantages. This tension is an example of the conflict between the two worlds that Mr. Imran khan must navigate, and his efforts to appease Islamists show that he still prefers to live separately rather than bring them together.
France, like many nations in our populist era, must undoubtedly consider if its ideological convictions serve its citizens or the other way around. But it is even more obvious that Pakistan has to have this discussion now. Pakistan has always shunned isolation, even though it has always enjoyed its freedom greatly. If it is not careful, it can accidentally enter the kind of seclusion it has always avoided.