Imran Khan is a figure writ large into Pakistan, and now with fifteen years of being out in the political wilderness behind him, Imran Khan is once again the talk of the country. I’d never imagined I’d ever be reading a book by Imran Khan, and that too a personal history of Pakistan, but here it is.
Before his book, there was Imran Khan himself. Everyone who grew up in Pakistan, especially in the 80’s and 90’s, and cricket fans worldwide from that era, will have heard of Imran Khan.
In school, many many years ago, I sold coupons to raise money for Imran’s cancer hospital, and though I never liked cricket, I remember the hue and cry when Pakistan won the World Cup in ’92. Imran was an impressive cricketer, well spoken and a playboy – and he built a state of the art cancer hospital soon after cricket glory.
I don’t remember ever having anything but admiration for him growing up during his cricket and cancer hospital building career. Then he joined politics, for reasons I could understand, using language which made sense to me – that if we left politics only to the existing politicians, the country could never get anywhere. His party’s very name was about Justice, the Pakistan-Tehreek-Insaf. He could do no wrong.
I would have voted for Imran Khan – but then at some point he started regularly coming on TV, and that’s where I noticed something odd. Imran Khan had moved a long way from his early days, as in talk show after talk show he visibly transformed into some other, very new person – someone who spoke about Pakistan mostly in terms of what other countries were doing to it, but very selectively – railing against the United States again and again, while ignoring countries much closer and just as influential, like Saudi Arabia, or India.
Imran would talk about the corruption of politicians, but ignore the corruption of the military, or the Mullahs’s, both of which he seemed to side with by taking pot shots at everyone but them. The Pakistani Taliban emerged, and went on a breathtakingly bloody killing spree across Pakistan, but that seemed from his rhetoric on TV to be a relatively minor, even non existent matter, compared to drone strikes and army operations against the Taliban.
In a country where people sometimes don’t have enough to eat, leaving aside the other basic human needs like drinking water and education, Imran kept talking about issues like “violation of sovereignty” and “respect” and the “image” of Pakistan abroad. It disturbed me that his message, when there was one, became breathtakingly simple over time. I don’t know if he had a spin advisor, telling him over and over again to simplify things for the masses, or he kept trying different tactics to actually connect, to matter, in a world which paid him so little attention it must have been galling after decades of being a sports star.
To me, he was just someone who didn’t quite seem to grasp that the world had changed around him while he was off playing cricket, and that the real world didn’t operate in the black and white, winning and loosing of sports. So that was the past. I just wanted to get that out of the way to counter for bias in this book review – I was very interested in this book, as Imran is now a potent force in Pakistani politics, and because at one time he represented hope for many, as he once again does now, in a somewhat different and much bigger field.
Onwards to the book
Reading the book, it seems to me that there is a big difference in how Imran comes across on TV and how he comes across in his book. There is a huge difference between spending a year or three writing a book and talking on TV, but the word which seems relevant to me is integrity. What I mean is, a person with integrity will have the same basic ideas about things, whether he says them tv or writes an article, or a book about them. Nuances will be lost, but basic ideas remain the same – whether the idea is supporting the Taliban v.s not supporting them for killing thousands of Pakistani’s, or spending far more energy blaming over 30,000 deaths in Pakistan on an American invasion next door than on the people actually doing the killing, which often turn out to be ISI supported groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
The first part of the book is Imran’s take on Pakistani history, and his development alongside, his birth almost coinciding with Pakistan’s birth.
Imran went to a colonial English school, Aitchison in Lahore. Colonial schools disconnect you from the local society, Imran points out, and that is exactly what they’re designed to – to create a subservient local class to work with the colonial overlords. My small english school in Karachi, run by one of the many colonial hangovers left behind as British legacies in Pakistan, forbid the usage of Urdu or any other Pakistani language, and it was a punishable offence to speak in Urdu, with teachers and monitors watching out for it. Urdu books or even authors didn’t exist, and Urdu was taught as a second language, for exactly 50 minutes a week.
As a child, Imran never realised or thought about this – these schools do a good job of brainwashing and not thinking, and kudos to him that later on in life he realised that, and made an effort to reconnect. Many senior figures in the Pakistani establishment come from the colonial school system, and none of them has ever spoken about how that has shaped them or their politics, and I give Imran high marks for his honesty and self-reflection.
Another part of the book which stood out for me is this: Imran believes in the paranormal, even more so than the normal religious person. In particular, Imran speaks a lot about his personal guru Mian Bashir being able to predict the future, and Imran uses’s his own version of the scientific method to establish that yes indeed, Bashir can foretell the future accurately.
That is disturbing to me – I don’t want the potential head of a nuclear armed state listening to random people because he thinks God reveals them the future. The last US president who listened to God’s words, Dubya, really didn’t do his country any favours.
There are so many futurologists in Pakistan, why can’t any of them predict anything useful, like floods and earthquakes or rains, and do some good? It seems every leader in Pakistan has a private sooth sayer giving him advice all the time – perhaps it’s fashion, or a basic requirement of politics which I missed out somewhere?
Astrologists and predicting the future aside, what disturbed me even more is that a lot of Imran’s intellectual development came from his spiritual guru, Mian Bashir, who had only read one book in his life – the Quran. A fine book, with a lot to say, but I wish Imran had mentioned other, more widely read guru’s of his as well, besides Bashir – and if Bashir had this marvellous talent of predicting the future, he could have put it to better use than the one prediction mentioned front and center in the book – that one day Imran Khan would marry a white woman. Which he did, and that is how Imran knows that Mian Bashir is a true, scientifically proven predictor of the future.
There is one other guru mentioned – the famous Indian poet Iqbal, whose philosophy of sufi Islam Imran follows, along with his political viewpoints. Iqbal’s and Imran’s Sufi Islam is Islam practiced a bit like Christianity is practiced in Denmark, Norway and Finland – lots of socialistic help everyone stuff with churches scattered around the landscape. That’s a very short summary of it, but that’s what it boils down to, and yes, Imran supports freedom of religion and cherry picks the nice parts of Islam about upholding human rights and helping thy neighbour, even if the neighbour is an infidel, while ignoring or rationalising the bad parts.
I admire Imran Khan’s honesty about his struggles with God and accepting Islam – he has been more open about his personal struggles than any other politician in Pakistan – which is very admirable – and brave too, considering the state of religious discussion in Pakistan.
Imran Khan: If there is God, why is there so much suffering in the world?
Mian Bashir: God is here not to save us from difficulties but to give us the strength to overcome them
With answers and discussions like these, simplistic as they might sound to some, Imran Khan underwent a profound journey from cricketer playboy to born again Muslim and found true faith. This post is so long that if you’ve made it all the way down here you are probably regretting it and wishing you had just saved yourself some time and read Imran’s book directly, but that’ just a reflection of how important Imran is to the country he wants to lead.
Pakistan is in crisis (yet again), and its existing political leaders have all been tried, many times, and come out severely wanting. Imran Khan is the only new, non corrupt political face in the country, and that makes him immensely important. There are many Imran nay-sayers around, they infest Pakistani TV and newspapers, and a lot of them just make fun of him for saying killing people isn’t the only solution to the problem of people dieing violently, but those people are blinded by the past and by who’s in power now.
They can’t see change unless it hits them in the head, rolls past and makes it onto their tv screens after they’ve recovered from yet another head injury. So Imran was a nobody for the first few years of his political career, but he left his extremely comfortable life and and entered political life in an attempt to make a difference. That is a big thing to do, and little appreciated by so many of the political commentators here.
Politics in Pakistan is often hereditary, so people are born, and join government because their families need a son or daughter in Government – but to enter politics when you don’t have to, takes an immense amount of courage and faith. Practically every professional politician in Pakistan was born into it, dragged into it by the Army (Nawaz) or has some other connection to power. Not many can claim to have made the decision to jump into it from the outside – so Imran is a refreshing change.
Pakistan needs change, it needs it with sheer and utter desperation, a desperation coupled with poverty and the fear hanging across the land, with the stench of death all around, from sucide bombings to execution style killings, to the signs condemning Ahmadi’s and Shia’s to death in seedy alleyways in most cities around the country. In such a place, anything is possible, well some things more possible than others – the chances are thin that Pakistan will head towards Switzerland, and many that it might head towards the Sudan.
Pakistan needs a saviour, and just by virtue of being the only one there, Imran Khan is today’s saviour. Sadly to say, that’s about all I got from the book – Imran loves Ghalib, doesn’t believe in the scientific principle, is personally honest, straightforward and isn’t corrupt – and has demonstrated his ability to lead in sports and philanthropy, learned from past mistakes and is applying them into his new goal – to build and lead a team for the whole country.
How he will do all of that, the book doesn’t really say, and it doesn’t even say why it doesn’t say that, but than the book is about Pakistan and Imran, not a blueprint for his party. At the end, the book is strangely unsatisfying. Different people will read different things into it, but at the end, perhaps that’s what Imran wanted anyways, and as a politician he now has to satisfy all sorts of different people.
Other politicians, like Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama, or Jaswant Singh, or in a Pakistani context, Asghar Khan, when they write a personal book, often don’t say too much either, but at least leave a strong impression that they are smart, very smart, sharp as a tack and they know what’s happening around them. With Imran, I felt just a sense of a lot of wishful thinking and good intentions, backed by more wishful thinking and the earnest good hope that everything will work out. Sometimes you have to look at the world like it is, not like how you want it to be, and while every politician should be dreaming of a brighter future, to actually get there they have to work with the bitter present.
Imran has been all about reconciliation with the Pakistani Taliban, and many people have taken him to task for this stance. In January 2013, twin bomb blasts killed 86 Pakistani’s, mostly Hazara Shia’s, at a billiard room in Quetta – which the LEJ took responsibility for. Finally, after many years of being in politics, Imran came out, on twitter, and condemned the LEJ for that attack. It took him a long time, but slowly, slowly, bomb blast by bomb blast, Imran is condemning groups like the LEJ, and even the Taliban. His preferred response to them still includes more talk than action, but his many critics forget that the both the PPP and the PMLN are closer to the talk end of the spectrum than Imran.
Not very long ago Imran Khan sat next to Sheikh Rasheed as he exhorted the Chief Justice of Pakistan to kill President Zardari. “Kill the Bastard, Kill the Bastard” Sheikh Rasheed chanted while Imran sat a few feet away. Sheikh Rasheed’s words and desire to get rid of obstacles to getting elected by using any means necessary, including murder, is his own, but whither Imran Khan? Senior members of Imran’s party have been spotted, in public, sharing stages with people who advocate the murder of Shia’s and Ahmadi’s, as well as the overthrow of the Pakistani state.
Imran Khan has risen, and walks the land with a castful of savoury and unsavoury characters. He also has some good characters on his side, like his VP Arif Alvi, a successful dentist, or the businessman Asad Umar, who took Engro from strength to strength. Still, he writes in his book about his intense distate for some of Pakistan’s politicians, a few of which he subsequently partnered with. Politics leads to strange bedfellows…
The perfect is the enemy of the good, and in Pakistan trying to aim for a leader who doesn’t routinely consort with murderous individuals seems impossible these days. Zardari, Altaf, Nawaz, Bhutto – they all are associated with extremely unsavoury characters, let alone the various Islamic parties some of which work hand in hand with genodicial lunatics trying to rid the country of minorities by killing them.
Does every politician descend into madness when entering the heart of darkness which is Pakistani politics? The evidence suggests so, as gathered over the years in the many speeches of all Pakistani politicians in Pakistan – different from their speeches to the outside world or the newspaper op-eds they write now and then – and much of it is now viewable anytime anywhere on youtube.
Imran’s book, where he talks of the gentleness of his sufi Islam, and then when he turns around on TV and calls groups who believe gentle Sufi Islam types are apostates and deserve death as people cut from the same sufi book as him doesn’t compute. Not because they aren’t, because people are people, but the differences go well beyond a simple schoolyard fight where you just have to sit down the naughty Taliban boys and talk to them.
When Imran calls the Taliban his brothers, and brothers they are indeed to humanity, and we are all the lesser for it, I wonder what he thinks about all his missing sisters, the one’s who can’t leave their homes becuase that’s where the Taliban thinks they belong, and the millions growing up who’ll never be able to read Imran’s favourite poets Ghalib and Iqbal because their schools have been blown up. I have read Imran write that every Pakistani should go to school and it is the job of government to ensure that, and I have heard him say that people who blow up schools have a point, which we should listen to, and pay some heed to, and let them live their lives how they want to. I am pretty sure he drew the line at shooting little girls in the head, but when it comes to not blowing up schools I am not sure where his line is.
The evidence, scattered with body parts and bloody all over, shows that with the Taliban you can’t have both them and girls school around. Sometimes you have to choose, and it’s the lack of choice here, by everyone from the Army to the government to the opposition, which is tearing Pakistan apart.
Imran said in an interview not so long ago, before he condemned the LEJ on twitter that he doesn’t oppose the Taliban publicly becuase he his afraid for his party workers. In that fear the whole country lives, a fear so large and all consuming and growing that speech and books look very small in front of them, almost meaningless, just like Imran’s book.