The story of Imran Khan, cricketer-turned politician, is nothing short of exceptional. What he managed to achieve in one lifetime is something most people might not achieve in many. After leading Pakistan’s cricket team to the World Cup victory in 1992, Imran Khan now finds himself in the highest office of Pakistan. His recent electoral victory that will make him the next Prime Minister of Pakistan is a feat more remarkable than any of his sporting achievements.
Imran Khan’s ascension to the coveted office is exceptional but tainted by allegations of weaponizing the blasphemy law and courting favors from the all-powerful military establishment. While he is criticized for using religion and military’s support to target his political opponents, Imran’s use of these tactics suggest one thing for certain: his knowledge of exactly what it takes to gain power in Pakistan.
Now that he is in power, his critics fear that any extremism which Imran Khan is inclined towards will manifest itself even more openly and significantly. To give some context, Imran Khan is considered a religious extremist by some of his liberal critics. Imran Khan’s entry into national politics was marked by “quasi-religious sermons attacking feminism, atheists, politicians, ‘evil’ western values, and the Pakistani elites who aped their former colonial masters.” Also, Imran’s opposition to the Women’s Rights Bill in 2006 for it being a ”made-in-Washington Islamic system in the country” adds weight to the case for Imran Khan’s religious extremism. Furthermore, Imran Khan has repeatedly criticized western feminism on the basis that it marginalizes motherhood.
For Imran Khan’s detractors, his attitude at times seems anti-women and religiously conservative, but what has earned him the comparisons with religious extremists are his opposition to military operations against the Taliban and the TTP (Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan), and his sympathy for the two groups. Add to that Imran Khan’s support of the blasphemy law and the argument that Imran Khan is not a religious extremist is significantly weakened.
But Imran Khan’s supporters argue otherwise. They attribute most of his actions to his political pragmatism. The PTI’s (Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf) alliances with extremist political parties are justified as an attempt to attract voters from both the sides of the spectrum. His passionate views about peaceful resolution of issues in the northwestern region of Pakistan are misconstrued as his sympathy for the Taliban. Followers of Imran Khan argue that there should be a distinction between religious conservatism and religious extremism, and while Imran Khan might have conservative views, they are not anti-women as evidenced by the inclusion of Shireen Mazari and Yasmin Rashid, two women leaders within the party.
There are strong arguments on both the sides of the debate on whether Imran Khan is an extremist or not. But as far as Pakistan’s Afghanistan and India policy is concerned, Imran Khan’s views are relativlely inconsequential, because the future course of Pakistan’s foreign policy will be set in Rawalpindi, not in Islamabad - at least for the time being.
On the domestic front, Imran Khan’s views will certainly have an influence. Let us hope that the weaponization of blasphemy issue will not continue and be discarded as just a political tool, but with unavoidable, unintended and unforeseen consequences.
Too much focus on Imran Khan’s pro-blasphemy law position and seemingly pro-Taliban position take away focus from the most important highlight of Imran Khan’s campaign: anti-corruption. Imran Khan led the election campaign on a narrative that involved strengthening national institutions to curb corruption. As admirable as his sentiments are, Imran Khan should be aware of the limitations of the system he will be working with and the effect of those limitations on his ability to introduce deep-rooted reforms. More than Imran Khan, his followers need to realize and manage their expectations as to what a “Naya Pakistan” (New Pakistan) will look like, certainly not one where there is no corruption and everything works smoothly in the immediate future. But if it even remotely resembles a Pakistan with a stronger economy, a more tolerant society, and a more democratic framework, Imran Khan will have left a legacy that will dwarf his World-Cup winning legacy of 1992 in comparison.