Pakistani Americans often wonder why the US media fails to see Imran Khan they see; why every column about Khan reads like its about someone else and not the Khan they have known, understood and loved over years! Sadly, while intricacies of international politics do matter, it’s more to do with Pakistan’s English media and liberals who have invented an Imran Khan that does not exist.
In November 2022, a few days after a hired assassin tried killing Imran Khan during his long march towards Islamabad, an Op-ed, by a Pakistani, in Israel’s left-leaning paper, Haaretz, argued that assassin, Naveed Bashir, wanted to kill Khan because of Khan’s sympathies for Israel – and that Khan had been working on a strategy to recognize Israel. One may wonders if there is any truth to it, but soon you find that a former Pakistani Senator, writing in The Diplomat argued passionately that Khan and his party, PTI, are anti-semitic, sworn enemies of Jews, with deep-seated incurable rancor against Israel.
Maulana Fazal ur Rehman – who once created an International stir when his demands to US ambassador Anne Patterson appeared in the Wikileaks – is a colourful religious leader with a visceral hatred for Imran Khan. Maulana has been telling everyone on tv programs, in his press talks, and while addressing his rallies to mostly uneducated tribal supporters, that Khan is an agent of Jews, and represents a western and Zionist plot against the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Khans’ first wife, Jemima Goldsmith, who raised Khan’s two sons in London, was from a prominent Jewish family. Khan still enjoys warm relations of mutual respect with her and had actively supported the candidature of James Goldsmith, Jemima’s brother, in an election for Mayor of London. Liberal Senator writing in the Diplomat knows all about that but cherry picks – but these anomalies don’t end here.
Imran Khan the Islamist: a creation of Pakistani liberals?
Naveed Bashir, Khan’s would-be assassin (masquerading as a fanatic but clearly a trained shooter who was assigned the job) whose confessional videos, in Nov 22, were released by the Shahbaz Sharif government on state broadcaster PTV, had claimed that he wanted to kill Imran Khan because Khan’s rallies are full of music and dance (by both men and women) and thus Khan has been committing blasphemy and deserved to be killed. Yet most Western and Indian columnists are not tired of telling their readers that rosary (tasbeeh) carrying Khan referring to Riyasat-e-Madina in his speeches is Islamist or someone with deep sympathies for radical Islam. No one remembers that TLP – an Islamist Frankenstein – kept hounding Khan’s PTI government forcing it to humiliating surrenders through street violence, and has since then disappeared. Forgetting all that “Pakistani liberals” readily agree to “Islamist label” and add their own horror inspiring, jaw-dropping, stories of Imran Khan’s dangerous ideas of misogyny and women bashing.
Pakistan’s former PM, Imran Khan has thus become everything -depending upon who is writing about him and why. This reminds me of British writer, Deborah Levy’s 2019 novel, “Man who saw everything”. Deborah’s hero was a fictional character, a historian, Saul Adler, who in 1988 has a minor accident on Abbey Road, North London, then goes on to sleep with his girlfriend, Jennifer. And when she dumps him, he travels to work and lives in Berlin.
We then discover him after his second fateful accident, again on Abbey Road, London. This time Adler is less lucky, instead of Jennifer’s warm bed, he ends up with nurses in a hospital. And we get to hear his story as he moves between streams of consciousness and unconsciousness. And given his penchant for Europe’s 20th-century history – what he has read and what he experiences – his own life gets intertwined with Marx, Engels, East Germany’s authoritarianism, and a flux of European politics of the past quarter century. Europe becomes what this injured mind wants to pick up and see from the ever-changing kaleidoscope.
Why Pakistani liberals hate Imran Khan?
Imran Khan’s politics of populism and upheaval has disturbed, threatened, uprooted, and thus mortally injured many entrenched constituencies in Pakistan – and this is not limited to military establishment, Sharif and Zardari dynasties and tribal mullahs like Fazal ur Rehman but also includes traditional English-speaking and chattering classes often referred to as “Liberals”. Like the injured mind of Deborah’s hero, Saul Adler, these injured souls have worked overtime to delegitimise and contain the “Imran Khan phenomenon”. Their main goal remains to demonize Khan across the Western world. The question arises why?
This question is important for Pakistani diasporas across North America. Americans of Pakistani origin are the most educated and skilled segments of the Pakistani nation; they overwhelmingly support political change in Pakistan, which is important for their image and the role they want to play in the larger world. Why the so “so-called Pakistani liberals” are bent upon inventing ever new excuses to demonize and fail a process of political change in Pakistan? This paradox baffles Americans of Pakistani origin.
To understand the motivations of Pakistani liberals, one must first understand that unlike India – which boosts a significant English-speaking and reading community – only a very small, insignificant percentage of the Pakistani population reads English papers and periodicals. Before the rise of private tv channels, Pakistani political narratives were driven by Urdu papers and at times by the radio services of BBC Urdu. But that era is long dead since the 9/11 political story has been shaped by racy Urdu tv channels – and now increasingly by Urdu social media including the new trend of political Vlogs.
While marketing relations with government and corporate bodies have ensured that a few thousand copies of respected English papers like The Dawn are sold each day – few read these since by the time paper arrives all news has been received through tv and handheld mobile devices. Few thousand do read English content on the net; but countless millions of Pakistanis follow politics through 24/7 Urdu channels, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube. Each major political Vlogger is watched hundreds and thousands of times within 24 hours. Even this writer – mainly an English columnist – new to this Urdu Vlog market is being watched around 100,000 times each 24 hours. So where do English papers and columnists fit?
English columnists & elite: Pakistan’s connect with the West
English papers and columnists (at times totally unheard inside Pakistan) provide the bridge between Pakistan and the Western world – so while they are minuscule, they are important for the Pakistani Establishment that is conscious of its image in the West. Carefully calculated criticism of the Pakistani military – especially if they get published in Western publications – makes them “vitally important” and “sought after” by the Establishment providing them privileged access to the corridors of power. English columnists – more broadly speaking the “liberals” have thus learned to maintain a carefully calibrated cosy relationship with the country’s powerful establishment. They are an essential part of Pakistan’s political inertia, sophisticated defenders of the status quo.
Their writings paint the country’s establishment as powerful, and interfering but also “wise and well-meaning” with a progressive global vision. Reading them you realize that establishment decision-makers only think of Pakistan’s greater good – and never of their own proliferating empires of privilege. Imran Khan’s mass upheaval galvanizing countless millions – including new urban middle classes – has created an existential crisis for Pakistani’s traditional liberals and their carefully cultivated image of being anti-establishment. Their pain becomes obvious when you read their ever more vicious commentaries – designed to serve the establishment and mislead the Western world. Khan’s predicament is the same as was earlier faced by the Establishment: either appease them or accept them as formidable enemies. My hunch is that, so far, he has neither understood their pain nor does he understand how to deal with this phenomenon.
But for Pakistanis in North America, it’s important to understand that most impressions Western media have of Pakistani politics or of Imran Khan originate from the writings, commentaries and interactions of a small community of Pakistani liberals. They may be only a few dozen, they may be mostly unknown or unrecognized by Pakistani people but on the interface between Pakistan and the West they wield huge influence. Western newspapers, networks, and think tanks understand Pakistan through their lens; through their writings and commentaries.
What liberals don’t tell about Imran Khan?
So while 99% of Pakistanis instinctively understand that the assassination attempt on Imran Khan (Nov 2022) was not the act of a lone religious fanatic for any supposed blasphemy but of a trained shooter who was either acting on behalf of elements within the Pakistani establishment or the current government – and for purely political reasons. But this abundantly clear perspective is found missing from the liberal’s commentaries.
Pakistanis understand that Khan, when he talks of “Riyasat-e-Medina”, is not trying to resurrect a 7th-century Islamist social order but is only trying to offer a European-style modern welfare state and that he continuously refers to Britain’s NHS and Scandinavian Health models. And while he quotes examples from Muslim history, he quotes even more examples from the US, UK, India, China, Switzerland, Singapore, and so on.
Liberals paint Imran Khan as an ultra-conservative, someone against women’s education but fail to tell their readers and Western interactions that Khan’s four sisters had the best education and were professional working women. Rubina Khan studied at the London School of Economics and worked for United Nations, Aleema studied at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) established export-oriented businesses, and does fundraising for NUML where free education for girls is an important component. Uzma is a surgeon in Lahore and Rani Khan, after university, works in charity.
Read more: PM Khan thinks Afghan women are very strong
Liberals fail to tell Western readers that Khan’s opponents (PMLN and PPP) represent patriarchal values where women are mostly part of the households or social butterflies. Liberals make selective use of Khan’s different statements to prove that Khan is a misogynist but fail to tell that Khan’s party, PTI, has for the first time mobilized Pakistani women into politics, that Khan’s political rallies are full of women, and young girls and that before Khan’s rise into politics, Pakistan’s political rallies were only for men. Liberal’s selective amnesia fails to tell western audience that in patriarchal world of Khan’s political opponents men once divorced run away with their sons and wipe out all memories of their ex-wife, but Khan and Jemima Goldsmith maintain a relationship of respect and affection twenty years after their separation just like in the post-modern west. And Jemima is a name loved and respected across Muslim Pakistan.
And liberals fail to remember that for the first time, Pakistani women, on the night of 25th May 2022, were part of fierce street fighting in Islamabad’s D-Chowk where all night they fought and resisted police that fired thousands of tear gas shells. This was again the situation around Zaman Park (March 2023) when police came to arrest Imran Khan and women were part of the activists that resisted and failed the police.
How Pakistani Americans can help Imran Khan & Pakistan?
What to do? Pakistan’s North American diaspora will have to realize that Pakistan’s traditional British educated classes (Oxford, Cambridge & LSE) that control the interface between Pakistan and the west are often the biggest beneficiaries of the political status quo. They fear change – and will not be part of it unless it’s inevitable. They have a love hate relationship with Pakistan’s feudal dynasties. Mutual coexistence allows them to continue their wine and whisky driven drawing-room chatter of liberal constitutionalism, Roe vs Wade, women emancipation, gay and lesbian rights while journalists like Arshad Sharif are murdered, political leaders are stripped naked and electrocuted, thousands of men and women are beaten on streets, hundreds of twitter activists imprisoned and professional classes emigrate in hordes. None of that threatens their privileged position inside Pakistan – as they continue with their bland soulless columns in the Dawn and the Tribune.
Pakistani Americans must reject the intellectual stranglehold of this “fossilized Pakistan” and should think of creating their own media platforms (English Newspapers and Web Channels) to integrate their political activities inside the US and to reach out to the wider English-speaking world – only then will the Western media understand them and their concerns. This is not about Imran Khan; he is past 70 and barely survived the assassination attempt in Nov 2022. This is about a new genuinely democratic Pakistan that has to transcend its past of the “Military Mullah Alliance” (as once described by Ambassador Haqqani) and develop modern political institutions and connect with the wider world around it – and with the United States.
Moeed Pirzada is Editor Global Village Space; he is also a prominent TV Anchor and a known columnist. He previously served with the Central Superior Services in Pakistan. Pirzada studied international relations at Columbia University, New York and Law at London School of Economics, UK as a Britannia Chevening Scholar. He has been a participant in Chaophraya Dialogue and Salzburg Forum and has lectured and given talks at universities and think tanks including Harvard, Georgetown, Urbana Champaign, National Defense University, FCCU, LUMS, USIP, Middle East Institute and many others. Twitter: MoeedNj.