Most of you have probably by now heard of the Ahmadi-Imran Khan brouhaha of the past few days where the PTI central media cell, and then Imran Khan himself, issued statements that they are in no way soliciting the support of the Ahmadi community, that Khan has “an absolute belief in the finality of Prophet Muhammad PBUH”, and that PTI “totally subscribes to” and has no plans to amend the clauses of the Constitution that brand Ahmadis non-Muslims and liars (you can see a good summary of the whole episode here).
I assume most of you are deeply troubled by this. I am, to the extent that I’m questioning my (until yesterday) almost-made decision to vote for PTI. But this isn’t about trying to convince anyone not to vote for PTI or for anyone else though. It’s not really about voting at all. This is also not a defense of any other party or their actions, nor does it imply that they would do or have done any differently in how religious minorities, and more broadly the issue of extremism is treated. We all know both the original sin of the PPP in 1974 to amend the Constitution, and the PML-N’s indefensible political expediency in soliciting banned and extremist organizations’ support in this campaign. This post is however, a set of questions for the potentially-next leader of Pakistan that I’d like addressed, especially as a potential PTI voter.
For a man and a party whose fundamental premise has been to challenge and dismantle the oppressive, corrupt structures of power that the political elite have entrenched themselves in, it begs a few questions of exactly how PTI and Khan would respond to the resistance this very elite puts up if/when a government led by them tries to implement their vision of a ‘Naya Pakistan’. Anyone, anywhere who has tried to reform such systems and displace entrenched political elites has faced massive resistance to them. More often than not, they have failed to live up to expectations and at worse become just another part of the same system.
There’s a reason why ‘wohi purane chehre’ end up being in power repeatedly despite most people preferring that they weren’t. To make an obvious point, change is hard. Changing structures of power is extremely hard. For the ‘inqilabi’ change of the kind promised by Khan, it is not enough just to have ‘good, clean people’ (though necessary), he has to tackle these structures and change the narratives that support hold them up which have led Pakistan to its current predicament. In many ways, PTI has already chipped away large chunks of the pillars of the ‘purana Pakistan’, for which it deserves a lot of credit – politicizing a previously apolitical demographic, holding proper internal party elections, becoming a genuine third force, and most importantly consistently being committed to operating within Constitutional and democratic means.
One of the entrenched pillars of the ‘purana Pakistan’ we (I assume again) want to abolish is the discrimination and marginalization that’s been heavily institutionalized within the Pakistani state against religious minorities (which is especially perverse against Ahmadis, who have the honour of being discriminated against with their very own constitutional amendment). This structure has of course been cultivated and continues to be perpetuated with state support and the public discourses of Islam as imagined and interpreted by the right, extreme right, and extremely right wing (which seems to be the range of the political spectrum within which the major political parties fall into in Pakistan).
This structure and the discourses it flows from are what lets YouTube still remain banned. Why in order to register to vote or get a passport, you have to legally acknowledge that Ahmadis are liars and fakes (a ridiculous notion that in order to exercise your fundamental rights, you have to become party to denying them to a whole community). It’s what hampers us from pursuing normal relations with India even though all major parties, the majority of the population, and now even our Generals, support it. It’s what enables the Hudood Ordinances and blasphemy laws to remain, what allows the ridiculous applications of Articles 62/63 we saw in the candidate scrutiny process. At its worse, it’s metastasized into all too frequent violence against minorities (think Badami Bagh, Rimsha Masih, etc.), and questioning the faith and patriotism of those who support them, to violent ends (Salmaan Taseer-Mumtaz Qadri). It’s what allows hate-based groups such as the Taliban, Sipah-e-Sahaba/ASWJ/LEJ to claim some legitimacy because, after all, they are promoting and defending ‘Islam’, and we have to treat with some deference anyone claiming to be acting in the name of the faith.
So it in this context that Imran Khan and PTI are operating. It’s a tough environment to speak out in. I appreciate that. You could lose a lot of votes, be labeled a traitor/foreign agent, and at worse get violently attacked. But with this ‘controversy’, manufactured by the very forces that thrive on bigotry, here was an opportunity for Imran Khan to either ignore or denounce this politics of discrimination. Instead, he completely capitulated. No qualifications. ‘I, Imran Khan, indisputably reaffirm my faith in institutionalized bigotry and want to reassure you I have no plans to do anything about it’, he seemed to say. It was painful to watch for all of us who have a rock-solid belief in the man’s integrity, whatever our other disagreements with him might be, and who promised (as does PTI’s manifesto) protection of minorities (not to mention how immeasurably worse it would be for minorities to hear).
His statement was an overt acknowledgement, endorsement, and buy-in of the disproportionate power these forces enjoy in setting the parameters of public discourse, and by consequence public policy, in Pakistan. Those parameters over the past few years seem only to be shifting more and more towards the right and the ridiculous, where people like Hafiz Saeed and Mohammad Ahmad Ludhianvi are now regularly on mainstream media outlets and even run for Parliament. Khan, with the popular support he’s built up, has some power to challenge these parameters. That is, after all, what he has done with the political elite by successfully challenging dynasty and corruption. Yet instead of moving the discussion on minorities and religion towards a more “enlightened” state, where it’s okay to solicit votes from Ahmadis and treat them as citizens with rights (gasp!), he seems to have pitched his tent firmly within the status quo.
The political and militant groups that peddle the narratives of hate are also now important political and economic actors (the ‘new feudals’ in parts of the country) and so any government led by PTI cannot achieve what it says it wants without fundamentally questioning their place in the structures of power. So when Imran Khan makes this statement, I question what it means for building the PTI manifesto’s ‘Naya Pakistan’, when he feels so moved by a few “religious” parties cutting into his vote bank and by a viral SMS and Facebook campaign questioning why Ahmadis should be treated like other Pakistanis with rights.
Another example, PTI’s manifesto, rightly, proposes land reforms. What happens when the landlords we so detest hop back onto the ‘land reforms are haraam’ train? It was a similar skewed discourse of Islam that put a stop to them, when the Federal Shariat Court declared them un-Islamic. And, what happens when, assuming he’s serious about land reforms, he takes on the largest landlord and corporate empire in the country, the military? Their former leaders may be down on luck these days but they remain very good at running viral rumour campaigns and mobilizing the kind of ideological groups that led Imran to issue this statement.
It is of course, a bit unfair to only blame Imran Khan. I doubt he wanted to be drawn into this, and he is right that it is politically motivated. The problem is larger than a single public figure or party and it will take more than one election campaign or video statement to tackle. The counter to this is ‘yes, this episode is terrible, but who else would you vote for?’ Honestly, I don’t know, but for a party which promised to challenge all those structures that have put Pakistan in its current malaise, to refuse to engage one the most malignant is at best disheartening and disappointing, and at worse, sapping of any hope for real change. And if PTI cannot promise real change, why are we voting for them?