Is Imran Khan an extremist?

Critical appraisal of leaders is the right of citizens ─ after all, Khan himself has often called for accountability.
Published August 12, 2018

The likely new prime minister of Pakistan has overcome many obstacles and controversies in his political rise.

But few characteristics have dogged him more consistently than those about his religious views.

Eos offers a debate.

Click on the tabs below to explore the opinions of two experts on the subject.


In an interview with Pankaj Mishra several years ago, Imran Khan found himself exasperated. “How can they,” he asked, referring to his liberal critics, “compare me with these uneducated boys of the Taliban or connect me to mullahs?”

It was an unflattering comparison, one that Khan has had to regularly fend off for over a decade and, doubtless, one he considers unfair. But is it actually? To what extent can one reasonably characterise Khan as an Islamist or religious extremist?

The question of Khan’s religious politics, so soon after his party won power, may strike some as a distraction, even churlish. After all, the singular issue that has defined Khan, as well as both his street and electoral politics, has been corruption, not religion or extremism.

Similar to Republicans in the United States, who are loathe to countenance that they elected a racist, many of Khan’s voters would scoff at the notion that they elected a religious extremist. Rather, they are likelier to point to their vote being motivated by a combination of distaste for dynastic politics at the center of the erstwhile hegemonic parties (Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz), a willingness to try something or someone new, and Khan’s charisma or personality.

Regardless of why voters opted for him and his party, however, Khan’s ideology and beliefs on a host of dimensions are indistinguishable from the religious hard-right. Moreover, his ascension to the Prime Minister’s office means that his right-wing views can no longer be relegated to parlour talk; his religious politics will now be thrust into the limelight, for better or for worse.

Two decades of right-wing religiosity

Khan’s ideological moorings are not the product of a recent conversion. His entry into national politics in 1997 was, according to the Sunday Times, marked by “quasi-religious sermons attacking feminism, atheists, politicians, ‘evil’ Western values, and the ‘brown sahibs’ or those Pakistani elites who aped their former colonial masters".

These had traditionally been the targets of religious parties and were adopted seamlessly by the political upstart.

Little about Khan’s rhetorical palette has changed in the two decades since. Khan’s choices as a political figure in what he has said and done — and just as crucially, what he has not said and done — speak volumes.

As a member of parliament in 2006, he opposed the Protection of Women’s Rights Bill, legislation aimed at reversing the Hudood Ordinances.

The Zia-era Hudood laws were draconian and anti-women; amongst other injunctions, they required a woman to present four male witnesses when reporting a rape lest she be accused of adultery.

Khan alone stood alongside religious parties in opposing the bill, criticising it for being a “made-in-Washington Islamic system in the country". This was the exact position espoused by the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), the alliance of religious parties.

Ten years on, finally in control of a provincial government, Khan’s party (Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf) dragged its feet on a similar bill. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) was the last of Pakistan’s provinces to adopt such legislation and the only one to defer it to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) for approval. The CII predictably rejected the bill, after which the provincial government watered down the legislation.

Khan’s suspicions of feminism — often to the point of absurdity, as with his recent comments about motherhood — fit a pattern, stemming from his view that such an agenda is Western-origin and thus, by definition, not appropriate for Pakistan.

Such thinking would be perfectly at home within, say, the Jamaat-e-Islami, which couches its concern for Pakistani women within a larger framework of resistance to Western influence in society.

Then there is Khan’s politicking on the issue of blasphemy, a highly charged issue resulting in high-profile assassinations, mob violence, vigilante killings, and riots.

Last year, a nominal change to a government form generated shrill reactions from the religious right. The form’s signatories would merely be “declaring,” rather than “solemnly swearing,” their belief in the finality of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The language of the form is specifically aimed at the marginalisation of the Ahmadi community.

The episode evoked Pakistan’s troubles with the blasphemy law, in that a third rail of politics makes the weakest of society the most vulnerable to violence and vigilantism. Khan himself conflated the Khatm-e-Nabuwat issue with the blasphemy law.

Accusing the Sharif government of changing the form’s language to — what else? — “please some international lobby”, he pledged to defend the blasphemy law if elected. PTI’s ideological ally in this dangerous and explosive campaign to politicise the issue was the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), an extremist party whose conception lies in the valorisation of Mumtaz Qadri, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer’s assassin.

But all of this — the views on women, the west, or blasphemy — take a backseat to the most costly and damaging manifestation of Khan’s extremism. The PTI chairman earned the “Taliban Khan” moniker for a reason: his sympathy for the group that brought the state to its knees, especially between 2007 and 2014. In railing against the advisability of Pakistan’s alliance with the U.S, he repeatedly conflated the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban — no small clerical error.

While the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its brethren murdered roughly 50,000 of his fellow citizens, Khan consistently portrayed the Taliban as valiantly resisting occupation, despite there being no American forces in Pakistan.

For Khan, there were no Pakistani Taliban to speak of. As he said, “In my opinion, there were only five percent ideological Taliban who were fighting for some ideology. Ninety-five per cent of the people were people in our tribal areas reacting to the moment, reacting to the damage.”

At the height of this existential conflict, during a time when state and society was struggling to coalesce around a firm policy and narrative against terrorism, Khan consistently undercut the rationale for badly-needed security operations, claiming that those Pakistanis favouring military action were “dollar khors", motivated by American largesse.

“The Westoxified Pakistanis have been selling their souls and killing their own people for a few million dollars,” he said. Elsewhere he claimed that “the Taliban were not terrorists, but fundamentalists. We went in for dollars. Our ruling elite have always sold us for dollars". Khan referred to those who supported military action against the Pakistani Taliban as the “scum of this country".

As with other important issues, Khan’s opinions on the war could just as easily have been proffered by the likes of Ghafoor Ahmed, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, Munawar Hasan, or Fazlur Rehman, stalwarts of the religious right. Khan shares with them the belief that that there was no terrorism problem in the region or country until the post-9/11 alliance with the US.

This confluence is no coincidence and no accident. If terrorism is not indigenous to Pakistan, and merely imported, then it follows that no larger reckoning of the state’s and society’s relationship with religion can or should take place — a convenient conclusion for religious hardliners.

The state’s post-2013 narrative, that the TTP was a threat primarily because it was supported by India was most convenient for this bloc, but with Khan’s election and the future of religiously justified terrorism uncertain at best, such a reckoning is surely coming.

Justifications for Khan’s religious politics

Khan and PTI, of course, have no shortage of defenses — and defenders — in response to longstanding concerns about his religious politics. The easiest is whataboutism.

Some argue that the PML-N, PTI’s primary competitor, is no better; after all, it was hardly gung-ho about military operations against the Taliban and has been happy to make unsavoury alliances with parties such as the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ, formerly the banned Sipahe Sahaba), for electoral benefit.

However, leaving aside the vast difference between the two major parties’ popularity among the militant right — ASWJ, for instance, endorsed over 70 PTI candidates to just 16 of PML-N’s in last month’s election, and Khan’s wife reportedly sought a seat arrangement with TLP on PTI’s behalf — the comparison ignores the very real distinctions between the party leadership.

Nawaz Sharif is, on the question of religion and politics, a relatively genteel, centre-right leader, simply not prone to Khan’s fire-breathing against real and imagined external and internal enemies.

This distinction is crucial because, given the lack of institutionalisation of parties in Pakistan, personal leadership and priorities weigh heavily.

Others concede that Khan has a record of religious extremist rhetoric but choose to give him the benefit of the doubt; he was only campaigning for votes, they explain. This is certainly a plausible view, but it beggars belief that Khan could so adroitly don the mask of right-wing religiosity for 20 years without genuinely subscribing to the same ideas.

Much more likely, Khan says what he thinks and truly believes. Indeed, his honesty is what endears him to so many, and it is curious that PTI die-hards would deem all of his words sincere, except those concerning religion.

Yet others may place Khan’s religious politics within the context of his larger world view, which centres on the Manichean disjuncture between a corrupt, venal elite and the hapless and hopeless masses. Indeed, class and religion intersect in Khan’s discourse repeatedly.

In his book Pakistan: A Personal History, for example, Khan writes that “In today’s Lahore and Karachi ... rich women go to glitzy parties in Western clothes chauffeured by men with entirely different customs and values.” In other words, this explanation goes, Khan is merely using the language of religion to underwrite his true message, which concerns the yawning inequality between the rich and the rest in Pakistan.

Such an argument is cold comfort for students of Islamism, a movement which has always contained strands of anti-elite politics, whether in Egypt, Pakistan or elsewhere.

Perhaps the country’s most lethal and vicious terrorist organisation, the anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and its “political” sister group, the ASWJ, have their roots in similar class-based religious antagonism.

As Andreas Reick, the foremost expert on Pakistan’s anti-Shia violence, has written, the group’s founder, Haq Nawaz became prominent in the 1980s with his “diatribes head-on against the great Shia land-owning families".

Sharif spread propaganda that such Shia “feudal families” were “not only exploiting their Sunni tenants economically but also suppressing their religious freedom". Reick’s research evokes the quip that history does not repeat itself, but it most assuredly rhymes.

What now?

Religious extremism, violent or otherwise, remains a foremost challenge for Pakistan. Despite important advances in internal security since 2014, the threat of religious militancy looms large. Christians and Hindus continue to live precariously, Shias and Ahmadis remain in the crosshairs.

Far-right religious parties retain the ability to shut down major urban centres in pursuit of their fascistic demands. In such an environment, it is hard to overstate the necessity of Pakistan’s leadership grasping the scope and perils of religious extremism.

On this score, Khan, for all his admirable qualities, is more a part of the problem than a part of the solution.

Furthermore, there is little assurance his party can temper him. After all, the party’s previous provincial government in KP, aligned with the Jamaat-e-Islami, changed primary school textbooks to remove “objectionable material,” such as pictures of Christmas cakes or instances where ‘Good Morning’ was used in place of ‘Assalaam-o-Alaikum'. That such a party and figure should rise to the highest elected office in the land at this juncture should prompt at least some degree of alarm.

That it does not is largely a function of Khan’s persona and image. His strident criticism of Nawaz Sharif’s dovish India policy, from cries of “Modi ka yaar” [Modi’s friend] to repeatedly casting the PML-N government as doing New Delhi’s bidding has been underemphasised mainly because of his ready-for-television friendship with Indian celebrities.

Similarly, his clean-shaven face and personal life helps keep accusations of religious extremism at arm’s length. Getting under the surface, however, and examining his ideas and discourse reveals a more troubling conclusion about the next leader of the Islamic Republic.

The writer is an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and a non-resident fellow at the Stimson Center. He tweets @ahsanib


Twenty two years ago, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s performance in these recent elections would have been difficult to even imagine. In the last two decades — a turbulent time in a turbulent political environment — Imran Khan’s PTI has grown and evolved, amidst its ups and downs, from its role as a minor, if aspirational, spectator, to a mainstream political force: the leading party in this year’s general elections.

While many are jubilant over PTI’s victory, investing their hopes in the promise of a ‘Naya Pakistan’, some remain sceptical. Much of this scepticism is directed at Khan himself. With a political history like ours, it is not difficult to be a sceptic in Pakistan.

Certainly, the critical appraisal of political figures and elected representatives is the right of every citizen — after all, Khan himself has been one of the loudest voices in the call for accountability for the politically powerful.

Perhaps the issue that the liberal intelligentsia has with Khan is that they believe he ought to be their spokesman and espouse their views, and when he fails to live up to their expectations or their particular worldview, they are disappointed.

However, if the purpose of critique is to push forward, help build rather than destroy, it is worth remembering that working towards change through the messy world of practical politics can sometimes mean making compromises on individual actions, in the service of a larger principle.

One may or may not agree with each and every one of his views and decisions. However, from everything I have seen, I find it hard to doubt Khan’s intent. Real life is not black and white. Khan understands that, and chooses to both try to fight for the rights of all Pakistanis and stay true to his beliefs, at the same time — as a courageous leader should.

Perhaps the most important accusation that has stuck to Khan, most significantly in the period between the 2007 state of emergency and the 2013 elections, manifests in the title ‘Taliban Khan’, alleging his support of the Taliban.

Picked up by the Western press, the moniker paints the alarming picture that he is somehow sympathetic towards forces of terrorism that have wreaked devastation in the country, with the poorest and most marginalised segments of the population suffering the most.

But Khan has clarified his position on the Taliban time and again. He condemns the killing of innocent people and believes that rising militancy and radicalisation are a grave threat, that stopping terrorist activities is a matter of utmost urgency.

However, he was also passionately against the initiation of military intervention in the tribal areas. He believed that military action was not the only way to solve Pakistan’s terrorist problem, and that a great proportion of terrorists from the area were not motivated by an ideological bent, but rather driven to extremism by marginalisation and violence.

Khan believed that there were elements in Pakhtun culture, such as the jirga system, that could prove a more effective and economical means of justice against terrorism than our formal systems. Khan had, and has, passionate views about how to solve Pakistan’s problems on its western front, but that does not make him a Taliban apologist. I think it is to his credit that he stands up for them.

Khan has also come under fire for his ‘extremist’ conservative religious views. The truth is that there is nothing wrong with having and adhering to particular religious beliefs — much of Pakistan is deeply religious in one way or another; it is only a small percentage of people who are not.

Often, it is in relation to this conservatism that Khan is branded anti-woman, or anti-minority. Given his strong personal and religious convictions, it is not surprising that he disagrees with a certain kind of Western feminism that devalues traditional and cultural maternal roles.

Whatever intellectual differences may arise on that point, to imply that this means he, or the party, is anti-woman is disingenuous.

It belies the rich history of prolific women leaders within the party from its inception, such as Shireen Mazari and Yasmin Rashid, as well as the emphasis on women’s development within the agenda.

The party has prioritised women’s education and economic empowerment, as well as their access to justice, focusing on increasing representation of women at all levels of the justice system, and developing specialised provisions for victims of gender-based violence.

The initiation of the women’s development project is intended to occur within the first 100 days of government with the formation of a taskforce of women professionals.

In a similar vein, what is important to note here is that Khan’s Pakistan, and PTI’s Pakistan, has plenty of space for religious minorities, and for the emergence of a tolerant nation.

Khan has spoken time and again against the curse of sectarianism, which may be Pakistan’s biggest religious challenge. He was the first to condemn the brutal murder of Mashal Khan at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan last year. He has also spoken out against the forced conversion-by-marriage of Hindu women, and this year PTI was the first party to ever reserve a minority seat for a member of the Kalash community of Chitral.

Khan has also taken a brave stand on a number of other topics that perhaps no one else could have taken. In 2016, he was brave enough to speak against the national sentiment hostile to Afghan refugees, being the only national leader to say — even against the sentiment in his own party — that we needed to respect Afghan refugees as our guests.

The accusation, then, that singles out Khan for allying himself with hardcore religious elements during his election campaigns, can only be made by people who look at politics, as it is now, as a utopia where reality is depicted in shades of black and white only. This is not true.

What is true is that at no point has Khan or PTI formally allied with any banned organisations. As a centrist party, like all Pakistan’s mainstream political parties, PTI has similarly had to draw on both the left and right for support. However, the important thing is that the party leadership does not become a mouthpiece for extremist or intolerant views.

It seems to many Khan supporters that he is held to a different yardstick than other political figures. Benazir Bhutto’s government sponsored the creation of the Taliban in the mid-1990s under Naseerullah Babar; Nawaz Sharif reportedly wanted to change Pakistan’s governance fabric, wanting to change his title to Ameer-ul-Momineen; and Pervez Musharraf also engaged with the Taliban, and with religious elements, throughout his tenure. And yet by far, Khan attracts the most criticism for any perceived contradiction in his views.

Perhaps it is true that Khan attracts more criticism because he has campaigned so vocally about bringing change. But change is a long process and, in the present, one can only work towards it while considering the complexities of the social fabric we occupy.

The real test of Khan’s Pakistan will not be conducted in the armchairs of the critics, but during the next five years of government. If, in five years, Pakistan is more peaceful, more prosperous, and more tolerant than it is today, as is Khan’s intent, then there will be plenty who owe him an apology.

The writer is a member-elect of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly from Peshawar, head of the Policy Unit of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and a former Partner at McKinsey and Company. He tweets @Jhagra

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 12th, 2018