Imran Khan continues toxic habits; where’s the change?

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Imran Khan continues toxic habits; where’s the change?

Right after the announcement of the appointment of Princeton economist Atif Mian, to the Economic Advisory Council of Imran Khan’s newly constituted government, the protest began. The religious parties in Parliament and the PML-N, the party of the former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, led the charge. For, Mian is an Ahmadi, a member of the Ahmaddiyya sect that is denied equal citizenship through a constitutional amendment and penal laws that prohibit Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslim. Members of the ruling party, PTI’s, cabinet initially struck defiant poses on Twitter and, presumably, elsewhere and then crumpled. Mian resigned, followed by the other two economists of Pakistani origin teaching abroad, Asim Khwaja of the Harvard Kennedy School and Imran Rasul of UCL—the latter two in protest. One can only hope that Mian did so with more disgust than pain.

Pakistan is facing a potentially disastrous economic crisis. Inflation feels cataclysmic even to middle-class Pakistanis; recurrent bouts of devaluation are reducing the value of savings almost daily. Poor Pakistanis continue to struggle, being exploited and laboring without respite to survive. The citizenry cannot afford the far right’s shenanigans.

In the same week as the resignations were coming, Khan asked overseas Pakistanis to donate money to build a dam. If each donated a thousand dollars, said our new financial genius (all one needs is an abacus after all), the dam could be built. Problem solved. Others equally efficiently handled in the not too distant future we should undoubtedly have no doubt.

Overseas Pakistanis—often citizens elsewhere too—are a relatively new official category, introduced by General Musharraf on the model of India’s NRIs (non-resident Indian), providing economic boosts in the form of remittances and presumably intended to function as pressure groups in the countries to which they have migrated. Mian, too, was an overseas Pakistani, but an Ahmadi. Evidently, he had to make another kind of sacrifice to bail out a craven and confused government.

Ahmadis – the pariahs of Pakistan

Antipathy to the Ahmadis dates back to colonial-era Punjab, but since Muhammad Iqbal, the conceptual father of Pakistan, imagined Ahmadis as a fifth column of impostors within Islam, anti-Ahmadi persecution has seeped deep into the country and, as I have suggested in my book, At Freedom’s Limit: Islam and the Postcolonial Predicament, it has become a conceptual boundary of the state. In 1973, a constitutional amendment was added during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s tenure that effectively made Ahmadis lesser citizens. Under Zia ul-Haq (the US’s great ally in directing anti-Soviet Cold War proxies in Afganistan) this was enshrined in the Pakistan Penal Code as an amendment to Chapter Fifteen, the segment on “Religious Offences.” The Pakistan Penal Code is the renamed colonial set of laws, the Indian Penal Code of 1860. The chapter on religious offences is a bequest of Victorian England, much like the law on homosexuality just overturned by the Indian Supreme Court.

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The closest analogy to the constitutional status of Ahmadis is the three-fifths clause regarding blacks in the American constitution, and like anti-black racism in the US. Ahmadi persecution has become a template for the persecution of other religious minorities in Pakistan.

Imran Khan – the nativist cliché

Imran Khan’s climb down on Mian’s appointment was unsurprising. He is not a deep (or interesting) thinker, has modeled himself as a redeemed Muslim saved from his colonized Western predilections in order to bury his playboy past, and is prone to nativist cliché. He has also explicitly supported the constitutional amendment. His call to overseas Pakistanis is part of the paradox of his appeal. Many of his supporters like him precisely because of his past as a London playboy not despite it. Perhaps my favorite (in a sickened sort of way) Facebook post in the days after his election was by the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan (seriously). The members posted a picture of him carrying a bowler hat, wearing some sort of Edwardian looking suit at what could have been Ascot. Since he claims to want to create a state like Medina in the seventh century, the industry of Pride and Prejudice spinoffs can breathlessly await the Darcy in Medina series.

Absurdity only partially aside, what is more revealing and significant is that Khan’s apparent ability to resist establishment power, manifested by his relentless protests against Sharif, which convinced his supporters of the strength and purity of his anti-corruption campaign and which his critics have always argued had the support of the military, turns out to be minimal—even more so, now that he is part of that establishment. The volte-face on Atif Mian also suggested that his detractors were right all along and his protests against Sharif were indeed military supported stunts.

Sharif’s party’s involvement in the opposition to Mian was probably a combination of real bigotry and political opportunism as the party tries to regain its base in the Punjab, the traditional seat of the most vigorous anti-Ahmadi politics. On this, there seems little daylight between Khan and his arch-enemy, Sharif.

The question facing “overseas” Pakistanis, upon whose pockets Khan thinks he has a claim, is whether we have the principles and the guts to reject his (trans)national emotional blackmail and demand that the new government actively oppose such political habits and tendencies.

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Sadia Abbas

Sadia Abbas is Associate Professor in the English Department at Rutgers Newark. She is the author of At Freedom's Limit: Islam and the Postcolonial Predicament, co-winner of the MLA first book prize. Her first novel, The Empty Room, set in 1970s Karachi, has just been published.

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