Liberals Helped Imran Khan’s Election Campaign By Condemning His Comments On Rape
Sometimes I find Pakistani liberals to be naïve to the extent that they are vocal and visible, no doubt, but they only marginally affect the social and political trends in the society. Like their counterparts, the Islamists, they have never been able to register any electoral success in Pakistani elections. And yet some of the modern ideas they espouse are especially crucial in ideologically alleviating the hapless conditions of downtrodden segments of the society in Pakistan.
Take the case of women in Pakistani society—this segment of the society with low literacy rate, poor health indicators, socially oppressed and politically underrepresented—is one of the most oppressed groups in our society. I personally believe that some of the tools in the ideological toolkits of liberal left are absolutely essential for improving the women’s conditions in our society.
And conservative and traditional philosophies can further drown our womenfolk in the darkness of backwardness and oppression.
Then why are liberals naïve? First of all, they are all living in a kind of bubble and they seem to think that their headlong rush towards achieving the goal of women liberation will be achieved through some social media campaigns in utter disregard of the social and political trends in the society. Take for example the case of liberals’ reaction to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s rape comment. To me it seemed that Pakistani liberals with their high profile presence in social media were running the election campaign of Prime Minister Imran Khan free of cost.
In an interview with an American journalist earlier last week, Imran Khan was asked about whether there was a “rape epidemic” in Pakistan, where advocates believe that a large number of assaults go unreported. “If a woman is wearing very few clothes, it will have an impact on the man unless they are robots. I mean, it’s common sense,” he responded.
This was followed by an avalanche of criticism directed at Prime Minister Khan. He was insulted, humiliated and laughed at—social media warriors went into an overdrive. Memes, jokes and critical comments overcame the social media platforms like a flood. But it failed to unnerve the Prime Minister, who issued no clarification.
If criticism on social media is so damaging, as is often described then why didn’t Prime Minister Khan amend his position? Because he knows that in Pakistan society there exists his conservative social and political constituency, which will further consolidate into his vote bank as the voices criticizing him for his rape comment will increase in intensity.
For this large socially and politically conservative constituency, women’s clothing and her modesty is more relevant to the kind of public discourse Pakistani society should be having. This conservative constituency is less interested in rule of law, social equality and democracy and more interested in women properly covering their bodies in public places. Imran Khan was exactly playing to this audience when he said that revealing clothing could lead to rape—but he said it only once or may be twice, but Pakistani liberals went an extra mile in spreading his message to every nook and corner of the country and in a way that show social and electronic media emerging as a big threat to conservative values as they are perceived by this constituency. In other words, liberals ran the election campaign of Imran Khan free of cost.
What is this conservative constituency? First of all there are clear signs that Imran Khan wants his opponents to blame him for being too much under the influence of his Barelvi spouse. This conservative constituency usually described as Barelvi vote bank in Central Punjab was first identified by the establishment to split the vote bank of Nawaz Sharif before 2018 parliamentary elections. For this they fielded Tahir ul Qadiri and later TLP. The religious clergy or leaders belonging to the Barelvi sect — believed to be the largest in central Punjab — started to mobilise themselves politically back in 2009, when they were used as a bulwark against the rising tide of the Taliban movement.
If one was to delve deeper into history, religio-political parties belonging to the Barelvi sect had been active in Pakistani politics since the 1970s, especially during the political agitation against the Bhutto regime. But these parties became dormant following the rise of Deobandi-led jihadism during the Afghan jihad in the 1980s and 1990s.
The establishment was looking for allies in the civil society when military operations began in tribal areas and Swat in late 2000s. Images of Sufism as the soft face of Islam took the military establishment to the doorsteps of the Barelvi leadership whom they found ready to oppose their old theological rivals — Taliban or Deobandi jihadists.
This Sunni Ittehad Council organised a number of anti-Taliban rallies across the country in 2009. One of the constituent parts of Sunni Ittehad Council — Aalmi Tanzeem Ahle Sunnat, an obscure religious organisation — later became the leading light of Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) of Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the foul-mouthed religious scholar who led Faizabad dharna (sit-in) in November 2017.
This honeymoon between the establishment and Barelvi leadership ended in 2011 when the latter started violent protests against the arrest of Mumtaz Qadri, the police guard who killed Governor Salmaan Taseer on charges of blasphemy. But it was perhaps too late. What had been mobilised could not be demobilised so easily.
In May 2015, some of the constituent units of Sunni Ittehad Council and another obscure group Fadiyeen-e-Khatm-e-Nabuwwat joined hands to form a new political party Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) under the leadership of Khadim Hussain Rizvi. A year later, the party started a countrywide registration campaign, which, according to its office bearers, attracted thousands of people. Urban protests, roadblocks and forced and dreadful traffic jams became the hallmark of TLP.
Imran Khan’s “rape comment” was one element of his broader strategy to appease Barelvi vote bank.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.