Imran Khan's promotion of religiosity is unlikely to find buyers

His latest attempt to redefine Islamic ideology will almost certainly be opposed by the country's influential clergy

Imran Khan during an election rally in 2018. The Pakistani Prime Minister and the ruling Tehreek-e-Insaf party are facing strong headwinds ahead of the 2023 election. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan published an op-ed in January in The Express Tribune, a local daily, that read more like a Friday sermon than the words of a politician. This came just a few months after his government set up a committee to generate religious messaging for domestic and international audiences. It also designed a school curriculum that introduces mandatory Islamic education at an even earlier age.

These developments might prompt one to ask whether Pakistan is entering another 1980s-style phase of government-enforced religiosity. Despite appearances, however, the answer is no. It is, rather, a coping mechanism for two political problems Mr Khan is confronting today.

The first is the rise of Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan, a clerical party capitalising on anti-blasphemy vigilantism and urban working class discontent across the country. The Islamist group has grown so powerful that the government was forced to make significant concessions, including lifting a ban on it in the face of violent protests.

The second is that Mr Khan and the ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf party that he heads have completed more than three quarters of their first term. Their failure to fulfil extravagant promises of transformational reform threatens their 2023 election prospects, especially since it is alleged that the party's 2018 victory is owed more to interventions from the army and judiciary than it is to the voting public.

The kind of political Islam that Mr Khan is espousing today harks back not only to his very first steps in politics, but to many of Pakistan's previous leaders who grappled with similar problems. If history is any guide, the greatest challenge to these policies will come not from progressive forces but from the traditional leaders of the country’s religious denominations, who fiercely resist any intrusions into their domain.

Although now largely forgotten, Mr Khan’s unexpected journey in the 1990s from celebrity cricketer to conservative politician was guided by several figures from the Jamaat-e-Islami movement that shaped the intellectual foundations of Islamist politics across the entire Muslim world. One such figure was the late Hamid Gul, who headed Pakistan's spy agency in the 1980s. Gul was an outspoken Islamist and the standard bearer for Pakistan's dual policy of Islamisation and militarisation.

By 1993, then prime minister Nawaz Sharif decided to try to break politics free from its army patrons, just like another former prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, did before him. This prompted Gul and other figures to publicly call for a "third force" to compete with the Bhuttos and the Sharifs, by then established political dynasties. Mr Khan’s wild popularity after leading the Pakistan cricket team to a World Cup triumph was certainly attractive. More importantly, Mr Khan had repeatedly proved his loyalties by willingly captaining a national team under close military oversight for a decade. It is a role that he continues to faithfully play today.

Mr Khan, by now retired from sport, toured Pakistan in 1994-95 with the support of Gul and the other members of the Jamaat-e-Islami, during which time he employed a rhetoric that remains almost unchanged today. His core argument remains that the Sharifs and Bhuttos are corrupt and have failed to serve the public. But this strategy is mixed with a heavy dose of conservative cultural nationalism; an appeal for pride in "traditional" Islamic values, paired with criticism of women’s rights movements and so-called western ideas said to threaten the unity of the family and the nation.

Much of this rhetoric appeals to the country’s university-educated middle class. However, their anxieties about losing their religious and cultural identity to westernisation – and sometimes so-called "Indianisation" – are surpassed by an even greater insecurity about falling behind the rest of the world. The importance attached to understanding science, technology, management and finance translate into deep reservations about the clerics, who are often regarded as factional and under-educated, suitable at best to guide the working class but not the nation as a whole. Their ideal figure is someone who combines high levels of modernism and Islamic learning – the Islamic intellectual.

But religion is, in fact, one of the few areas in Pakistan where power flows from the bottom-up. In a country that remains rural and poor for the most part, clerics are far better organised and enjoy much larger followings than intellectuals. As a result, the modernists have been at their most powerful when Pakistani politics are at their least democratic. Political rulers have repeatedly attempted to redefine Islamic ideology, often in reaction to attacks on their policies from the religious right. In almost every case, such ventures have only further galvanised competition from the clergy.

The state has bought time through selective accommodation, while building new structures meant to regulate clerics and also disseminating its own Islamic messaging, designed by modernists. This has increased the establishment’s confidence in its growing efforts to promote greater tolerance. Notable recent examples include the firm support for the construction of a Hindu temple in Islamabad and the state-funded restoration of temples damaged in mob attacks elsewhere.

Ultimately, this accommodation suffers from an Achilles' heel that many of Pakistan's leaders have encountered before. The problem for the establishment is that Pakistan’s model of managed democracy requires limiting public participation in politics, thereby robbing the government and its policies of deeper legitimacy. This is especially true when they persistently fail to deliver results for the masses.

It is unclear if the government’s current efforts to control or bypass the clergy are any more likely to succeed than those of the past; the clerics’ ability to channel grassroots anger clearly remains as strong as ever. And that means when a moment of systemic crisis inevitably arrives, the ever-pragmatic deep state will be tempted to, once again, sell the modernists down the river and survive to fight another day.

Published: February 01, 2022, 4:00 AM