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Imran Khan's Self-Serving Journey: Book review of "Pakistan: A Personal History"

Aparna Pande

Read this quote to a young Pakistani, and it would almost instinctively be identified as coming from the country’s Islamising military dictator, General Ziaul Haq: “Pakistan came into existence as a country because of Islam and the Islamic beliefs of its founders and citizens.” Ziaul Haq expressed the same thought but somewhat differently: “The ideology of Pakistan is Islam and only Islam. There should be no misunderstanding on this score. We should in all sincerity accept Islam as Pakistan’s basic ideology…otherwise…this country (will) be exposed to secular ideologies.” The first quote, however, comes from Pakistan’s latest media icon of ‘change’, Oxford-educated cricket legend Imran Khan who is finally gaining some traction in Pakistan’s treacherous political world after a fringe role for over 15 years.

Imran Khan’s personal memoir is replete with examples of how he represents a continuum in Pakistan’s non-secular establishment worldview while talking of change. Ziaul Haq’s fervent anti-secular admonishment quoted above was itself just an attempt to revive the religion-based nationalism introduced by an earlier military ruler, Field Marshal Ayub Khan. Ziaul Haq felt the secularists had gained ground in the aftermath of Pakistan’s division in 1971. His idiom of ‘change’, ‘accountability’ and disapproval for traditional politicians is uncannily similar to what Ayub Khan voiced in the 1960s and Imran Khan is articulating now.

Not to belabour the point, just compare the above quotes from Imran Khan and Ziaul Haq with this gem from Ayub Khan: “Such an ideology with us is obviously that of Islam. It was on that basis that we fought for and got Pakistan, but having got it, we failed to order our lives in accordance with it…The time has now come when we must…define this ideology in simple but modern terms and put it to the people, so that they can use it as a code of guidance.”

Imran Khan’s political views have obviously been shaped by the narrative of the military dictators under whom he grew up. He betrays an unusual tendency to believe popular conspiracy theories of the variety popularised by Pakistan’s hyper-nationalists, such as some groups of newspapers and the religious political parties, notably the Jamaat-e-Islami. He blames the Americans for most of what has gone wrong with Pakistan. The references to conspiracies starts almost at the beginning of the book with the mention of the assassination of the country’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, on page 23 and the ‘mysterious’ air crash that killed Ziaul Haq on pages 124-125. At a time when an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis believes that 9/11 was part of an American conspiracy to justify attacking Muslim lands, Imran Khan’s predilection for conspiracy theories, though dangerous, might reflect the populist mood of the country.

Like others before him Imran tries to create a pseudo-intellectual justification for his anti-Americanism. He draws a parallel between the British rule in the subcontinent and the lack of sovereignty of British India’s princely states with the current relationship between Pakistan and the US. Ironically, Ayub Khan, towards the end of his decade-long regime had called on the Americans to be Pakistan’s “friends, not masters” and Ziaul Haq had complained days before his death about the US not allowing him space to reap the benefits of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan as part of the same national narrative.

On page 48 after criticising Pakistan’s English-medium schooling—of which he was a recipient for decades—and tying it to a form of neo-colonialism, Imran Khan states that in other post-colonial countries like India the government imposed one core syllabus on the entire country. A little research would have told Khan that this assertion is not true — there are two federal level systems (ICSE and CBSE) and every state in India has its own state board of education. Also, instead of doing away with English education or English schooling, India has helped deepen it further in the last six decades and benefitted from it. In a country with many languages, the English language has proved to be a unifying, not divisive, element. But such factual quibbles have little value for the ideological paradigm Khan embraces. Narratives get votes, facts do not.

Continuing with what he perceives as the long-term adverse impact of colonialism, Imran Khan also asserts that this has prevented people from wearing their traditional dress (shalwar kameez) and they continue to wear western dress (pg 51). There is no effort at determining what percentage of Pakistanis actually wore shalwar kameez before the advent of colonial rule or after independence. Had it been undertaken, Imran Khan would have discovered that in most of what is Pakistan today, various forms of dress, including dhoti or lungi (loose loincloth), may have been more common than shalwar kameez.

Imran Khan does not even attempt an anthropological or sociological inquiry while making sweeping claims. Culture for him is skin deep and depends on outward displays—what we wear or the language we speak—and not on core values and traditions. There is also no attempt to answer an obvious question: If Imran Khan is really so against the English language and education why has he published his book in English using a British publisher in London and not in Urdu through a Pakistani one?

While talking about the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad Mr Khan’s views resonate the views of Pakistan’s foreign and security establishments—that the mujahideen were created and funded by the Americans for their foreign policy goals and Pakistan was an unwilling victim (pg 70). That Mr Khan sympathised with the mujahideen and their views is apparent from his referring to them as “idealists” fighting for a “romantic” reason and stating that “jihad is a noble cause (pg 70).” His admiration for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Osama bin Laden too is evident when he refers to them as people “fighting foreign occupiers” and “sacrificing a life of luxury” (pg 72). Like the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment, Mr Khan preferred the 1980s arrangement between the ISI and the CIA to the post-9/11 arrangement. “However, unlike Musharraf after 9/11, Zia never allowed the CIA to spread its network within Pakistan. It was the ISI who trained the militant groups, funded by the CIA.” Pakistan’s sovereignty, he seems to be arguing, was protected by Zia but sacrificed by Musharraf though how the country could retain complete independence by allowing a foreign intelligence agency’s massive covert operation on its soil remains unexplained.

After declaring Islam as the basis of Pakistani nationhood, Imran Khan ventures into some discussion of the faith. But the only two Muslim scholars mentioned in his book are Shah Waliullah and Muhammad Iqbal, one with violent sectarian revivalist views and the other a modern-educated Muslim exhorting Muslims to find a new path in an era of western domination. Imran Khan does not seem to know how Shah Waliullah contributed to sectarian division in South Asian Islam by his opposition to heresies and his calls for war against the Shias. For the Oxford-educated cricketer, Shah Waliullah’s views enable him to claim that just as the Mughal dynasty declined because it was “degenerative and bound to decay” all the democracies in the Muslim world today are “sham democracies” and are bound to fall (pg 79).

Playing to the Islamist-nationalist gallery in Pakistan, Imran Khan goes on to argue for an Islamic state and implementation of shariah as that is bound to ensure a just democratic welfare state (pp 80-81). A cursory reading of the 1953 report by the Justice Munir Commission would have enlightened Khan on the problems of defining Islam for purposes of governance—a point that Ziaul Haq also occasionally cited as reason for his inability to complete Pakistan’s Islamisation. “Keeping in view the several definitions given by the ulema [people of knowledge],” the Munir Commission pointed out, “need we make any comment except that no two learned divines are agreed on this fundamental. If we attempt our own definition as each learned divine has done and that definition differs from that given by all others, we unanimously go out of the fold of Islam. And if we adopt the definition given by any one of the ulema, we remain Muslims according to the view of that aalim [learned scholar] but kafirs [infidels] according to the definition of everyone else.”

Although Imran Khan does not like him, his book is remarkably similar to the one by General Pervez Musharraf. Both books have a surfeit of self-praise. Musharraf attempted to portray himself as the school bully turned army commando turned self-proclaimed saviour of Pakistan. Imran Khan comes out as someone who lived a hedonistic lifestyle all his life but is now trying to make up for it. His love for his mother, pride in family roots, love for cricket and constant quotations from Iqbal seem all too contrived. His attempt to show how he may not have been an observant Muslim in his youth but has become one in later years is too self-serving.

Throughout the book Imran Khan is not only disparaging about Pakistan’s politicians but also about the field of politics (pg 82). One wonders how he plans to do well in a field that he hates so much. One of his many criticisms of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif is that these individuals did not have enough political and administrative experience before they entered office and hence they were bound to fail. But then he acknowledges that he does not have any experience in politics but it would be akin to swimming where after jumping in he learnt on the job (pg 186). If that is the case then why could not others too learn on the job and do equally well, if not better? And if it is not possible to learn on the job and prior experience is a must, how would Imran Khan do better?

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