“We shall see / Certainly we too shall see that day that has been promised us.” So say the first lines of one of the best-known poems by the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Pakistanis trot it out with alacrity in any situation that requires waiting and watching, as elections in Pakistan invariably do. So it was with the general election last week, when both those who were ambivalent about Imran Khan’s incipient victory and those who were ecstatic about it were sharing the poem on social media.
Faiz would almost certainly have balked at this use of his work. A Marxist who endured imprisonment and then exile, he had little love for demagogues and even less liking for the Pakistani military, whose habitual meddling in political affairs he famously opposed. But post-colonial countries often have to repurpose the past to suit their present. The present belongs to Imran Khan, the cricketer turned playboy turned right-wing politician, who swept Pakistan’s elections last week.
Khan’s win was helped along by a series of serendipitous events. On July 6, a high court in Islamabad handed down a verdict against his chief opponents, Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s thrice deposed prime minister, and his daughter and presumed political heir, Maryam Nawaz, who were both found guilty of corruption. On their return from London, where they had been staying in a Park Lane apartment paid for with the proceeds of their graft, military commandos and Pakistani police arrested them and hauled them off to prison. Their followers from Nawaz’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League, were left confused and demoralized. The Sharifs blamed the military for scheming, both to bring the corruption case and to skew the election outcome.
Like so much else in Pakistan’s labyrinthine politics, proving the military’s involvement in the Sharifs’ criminal convictions is impossible. It is clear, though, that the Sharifs had been leading in polls until that point, but that the army favored Imran Khan and his Islamist party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice). In an interview in May, Khan declared his loyalty to the military. “It is the Pakistan Army and not an enemy army,” he said. “I will carry the army with me.” Two months later, the Sharifs were sitting in Adiala prison, and Khan was giving a victory speech to a rapt Pakistan—promising “open borders” with Afghanistan and an Islamic renaissance of Pakistan (already officially an Islamic Republic).
The speech, and Khan’s victory, reveal much about how the Pakistani military envisions the country’s place in a post-American-Order world. The first phase of a shift came in January with President Trump’s scolding New Year tweet accusing Pakistan of years of “lies and deceit.” A few days later, the Trump administration suspended $2 billion in military assistance to Pakistan, blaming the decision on Pakistan’s failure to take decisive action to crack down on the Haqqani group that has been backing a terrorist insurgency against US-led forces in Afghanistan while using Pakistan as a haven to evade American forces.
Imran Khan, then in Pakistan’s opposition, was strident in his response, denouncing Trump as “ignorant and ungrateful.” In his own tweet, he delivered a further taunt: the US, in its desperation to explain its defeat in Afghanistan, was using Pakistan as a scapegoat, he charged. “A couple of thousand or so (Taliban-allied) Haqqanis allegedly in Pakistan are supposed to be the cause of why the most well-equipped military force in history… cannot succeed,” he wrote. For Khan, attacking American intervention is a favorite theme: in speeches, Khan has claimed that the reason so many Pakistanis have been radicalized is because the country was duped into fighting a war at the behest of the CIA.
These words naturally endeared Khan to the Pakistani military, which was furious at Trump’s rebuke since it sees itself as having fought hard to eliminate the Taliban and other militant groups from the tribal areas. Pakistan, in the military’s view, has sacrificed thousands more soldiers than the United States, yet received little credit for it. Khan’s mention of the Haqqanis is also worthy of note. Khan’s party controls Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the Pakistani province that borders Afghanistan, and earlier this year made a huge grant of 277 million rupees to the Darul Uloom Haqqania, the seminary long linked to the Taliban and believed to be a supply line for fighters of the Haqqani network.
Khan has played along. In another dog-whistle to hardline Islamists—those like Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, himself a pioneer of the Afghan jihad, who are already in his alliance, and others he hopes to attract—Khan last week reiterated his promise to create the “type of state that was established in Medina,” referring to the first Muslim city-state during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. Seconds earlier, Khan had also promised to make Pakistan the country that Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah had dreamed of.” The two, Jinnah’s secular democracy and Medina’s Islamic state, are polar opposites, but this Janus-faced leader is not bothered by the contradiction.
The military, too, doesn’t mind his duality. It is, in fact, what makes Khan so saleable; Pakistani urban youth—weary of the battle of many Islams that has raged for most of their lives—see Khan as the solution. Here is the clean-shaven face of the “good Islam,” the purported creator of an Islamic welfare state, which might not be that different in substance from a Taliban-style theocracy but sounds so much better. And on the other side, among the militants such as the administrators of the Darul Uloom Haqqania seminary, and other Pashtun tribal leaders, can envision with Khan’s election the coming of an Islamic state that embodies anti-imperialist values and the sovereignty of Sharia law, with the customs of the Pashtun tribal code, Pashtunwali, thrown in for good measure.
The Pashtun-dominated Islamic state may be closer to Khan’s truth, and he doesn’t care whom he sacrifices to get it. In the past, Pakistani rulers of doubtful legitimacy have used religious strictures that control women, their clothing and behavior, as a convenient means of rallying support and consolidating political control. Khan looks likely to follow suit. In the past, he has opposed legislation criminalizing domestic violence and expressed his support for enforcing the Zina and Hudood Ordinances, which have been used to imprison women on the basis of unproven accusations of illicit sexual relations.
Khan’s vocal support for Pakistan’s blasphemy law means that the position of religious and sectarian minorities such as Christians and Ahmadi Muslims will become still more precarious. In Pakistan’s recent tumultuous climate, Ahmadi Muslims who do not affirm that the Prophetic transmission of revelation ended with the Prophet Muhammad have been labeled blasphemers and prosecuted. Many of them did not vote in this election, with Ahmadis protesting their segregation on separate electoral rolls, and Christians objecting to the continued relegation of minorities to a handful of reserved parliamentary seats. With the religious conservatives who promote Pakistan’s blasphemy law now empowered by Khan’s victory, blasphemy charges, which can be laid without proof and carry a potential death sentence, are likely to skyrocket.
Pakistanis, drained after the drama of electoral vigils, delayed results, and allegations of rigging and meddling, will likely cleave to the promise of Faiz’s poetry. They console themselves by believing that they’ll one day “see that day that has been promised” them. That they do not have a united vision for this future day seems not to be of Imran Khan’s—or anyone’s—concern.