Where does Imran Khan really stand on boycotting France?

Ceding ground to Islamists, Pakistan's leader has his feet planted in two contrasting worlds

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during a joint press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (not pictured) at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on November 19, 2020.  / AFP / WAKIL KOHSAR

Few were surprised when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a war of words against his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, following October's brutal murder of the Parisian schoolteacher Samuel Paty after he showed his class controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. The world has largely reconciled itself to Ankara's abrasive brand of politics. Yet Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's subtler echo of Mr Erdogan's words over the past several weeks has raised eyebrows, as did his government's seeming accommodation of clerical protests on Islamabad's streets, demanding a boycott of French goods.

The general perception of Mr Khan as a cosmopolitan leader is one of the reasons for this surprise. But as the anthropologist Pnina Werbner noted in her 1995 study of the cricketer-turned-philanthropist-turned-politician, Mr Khan is not someone who attempts to reconcile different worlds. Instead, he occupies many at once. The image of a clean-shaven English public school boy, Oxford graduate and international sportsman co-exists with that of a nationalistic leader who often bats for religious values and traditional culture.

The latter Mr Khan emerged as he left cricket in 1992, going on cross-country tours to fund a cancer hospital that he had founded. These trips presented him with opportunities to talk to the common man about anything beyond sport. His own complexities are arguably true of Pakistan’s political culture writ large, where democracy and religious populism are often intertwined.

The speculation among many is that the military's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate largely uses protesters, such as the ones supporting the clerics, to undermine civilian governments. For example, Hussain Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to the US, claims that protests against Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses were orchestrated to weaken Benazir Bhutto's first government back in 1989.

But the military is not always in control.

The cartoons at the centre of the ongoing controversy in France were originally published in 2006 by Danish paper Jyllands-Posten. At the time, Gen Pervez Musharraf was Pakistan's military dictator. He initially condemned the cartoons, and used the opportunity to allow Islamists upset about the president's co-operation with America's war on terror to release their anger on the streets. But the protests soon morphed into a mass movement that involved ordinary Pakistanis against what they viewed to be an increasingly unaccountable government. Those demonstrations served as a preview of the "Lawyers' Movement" protests that brought him down two years later.

For now, Mr Khan, as I have written previously in these pages, is still favoured by the army. On the other hand, he faces a cross-party opposition movement that is feeding off of discontent over the military's intervention against his opponents in 2018, as well as his inability to remedy the dire economic situation he inherited.

This makes it very much in his interest to defuse the anti-French protests as soon as possible, or risk them snowballing. Some observe that historically, the weaker a Pakistani government’s democratic mandate, the more it tries to emphasise its religious credentials. Many wonder whether this is the case with Mr Khan at the moment.

Activists and supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) gather outside the house of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, founder of TLP, a day after his death, in Lahore on November 20, 2020.  The founder of an influential Pakistani Islamist party created to protest any reforms to the country's ultra-conservative blasphemy laws died on November 19, days after leading demonstrations against France, an official said. / AFP / Arif ALI
Political Islam in Pakistan doesn't look like it does elsewhere

His reproach of Mr Macron was most likely heartfelt. Such sentiments remain widespread, especially in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, where Mr Khan was raised.

However, political Islam in Pakistan doesn’t look like it does elsewhere. Pakistan’s most populous provinces have shown little interest in electing religious parties into power. Nor has an Iranian-style revolution ever seemed a realistic prospect. As a result, Islamic Sharia law remains subordinate to constitutional law in Pakistan’s legal system.

The country's Partition-era claims of collectively representing the Muslims of South Asia grew weaker after Bangladesh went its own way in 1971. And after the September 11, 2001 attacks on American soil, Gen Musharraf emphasised that Pakistani foreign policy would be guided by national interest, instead of what he termed to be a "culture of jihad". He was thereby explicitly signalling a break from his predecessor, Gen Zia-ul-Haq.

So what does the Islamic identity with which Pakistan's government grapples mean for the masses if not Muslim unity, Sharia or "jihad"? The short answer is religious populism.

FILE - In this Saturday, April 20, 2013 file photo, Pakistan's former President and military ruler Pervez Musharraf arrives at an anti-terrorism court in Islamabad, Pakistan A lawyer said Tuesday, March 10, 2015 that a Pakistani court has issued arrest warrants for Musharraf in a case related to the death of a radical cleric. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed, File)

The idea of Pakistan percolated out of Punjab in the 1920s and 30s. Although the British government in colonial India offered religious freedom and claimed impartiality, it also apportioned power and resources between communities on the basis of numbers, prestige and service to the state. As a result, urban Punjab was an increasingly complex environment where Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian revivalists maligned one another’s faiths with increasing ferocity while attempting to secure converts. The idea of Pakistan appealed to the province’s Muslim majority as a means to defend the community’s collective identity against others in the region – and in doing so, ensure their place in South Asia and the world.

The belief that Pakistan exists to deter attacks on Islam’s honour explains why the country’s blasphemy laws, first introduced by the British to contain communal violence in the 1927, have spiralled out of control – to the extent that they no longer resemble either classical Islamic law or English Common Law. The higher judiciary has doggedly avoided executing anyone, despite the harshness of the addenda. Politicians, meanwhile, have been unable to roll back the law for fear of being accused themselves of blasphemy and murdered by vigilantes, as former Punjab governor Salman Taseer was in 2011.

CANADA - JULY 29:  Before today's rejection of British plans for an Indian government by the powerful Moslem league; M. A. Jinnah; its president; seen here in a rickshaw surrounded by supporters; attacked the good faith of British negotiators. The British must go; he shouted.   (Photo by Toronto Star Archives/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Under these conditions the definition of blasphemy is only likely to grow more malleable and arbitrary.

There are now over 75 million internet users in the country, a number that is rapidly growing and generating enormous opportunities for everything from education to entrepreneurship. But Pakistan's 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act requires its government to somehow police "blasphemous" content on the internet, pitting it in an escalating battle against Big Tech.

Given the difficulty of selling these values abroad, the government has instead often chosen to restrict citizens’ access to the digital world in unsophisticated ways. The pressure to censor has not abated, and the temptation to build a more controlled or cut-off system is growing.

This would be a blow to the country’s huge youth population, especially by denying the poorer among them one of the few routes to overcoming their enormous disadvantages. That tension is illustrative of the two worlds that define Mr Khan's challenge, and his attempts to pander to Islamists are illustrative of his desire, once again, to inhabit each independently rather than reconcile them.

There is no question that France, like all societies in our populist age, must ask itself whether its ideological commitments are serving its people or the other way around. But it is even clearer that such a conversation is long overdue in Pakistan. While it has always taken great pride in its independence, Pakistan has always avoided isolation. Unless it is careful, it may well stumble into the kind solitude that it has always rejected.

Johann Chacko is a writer and South Asia analyst

Johann Chacko

Johann Chacko

Johann Chacko is a writer and South Asia analyst