How Pakistan's Imran Khan taps anti-Americanism to fuel political rise

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan is to Pakistan what Sarah Palin is to the US: controversial, and, arguably, a force to be reckoned with.

Athar Hussain/Reuters/File
Imran Khan, Pakistani cricketer turned politician, raises his hands after arriving to lead a Tehreek-e-Insaf rally against drone attacks in Karachi, Pakistan, on May 21.

Imran Khan once won glory for his country as its most successful cricket captain. After making an unspectacular debut into Pakistani politics as leader of the Movement for Justice party 15 years ago, he positioned himself as a maverick outsider calling for sweeping reform within Islamabad’s murky corridors of power.

Now, it looks as though he might be about to make a comeback on the wave of anti-American sentiment that's sweeping the country.

Mr. Khan's political life appears to be experiencing a new high thanks in part to his unique brand of anti-Americanism, which finds support among Pakistan’s professional classes, youth, and women.

According to research carried out by Pew polling in Pakistan, he enjoys a 68 percent approval rating, making him Pakistan’s most popular politician, up from 52 percent last year. The relationship between the United States and Pakistan, meanwhile, has sunk to new lows in recent months, following the Osama bin Laden raid and the release of a CIA agent who killed two Pakistani citizens.

Long derided as a non-serious candidate in an electoral system dominated by two major parties, Khan surprised political pundits last month by attracting thousands of supporters to a major protest in the northwestern city of Peshawar against US drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas, before going on to stage a sit-in to “symbolically block” NATO supply lines for Afghanistan that pass through the port city of Karachi.

With his good looks and seeming willingness to speak plainly, Khan is to Pakistan what Sarah Palin is to the US: controversial, an antidote to current administration, and, some say, a force to be reckoned with.

American officials in Islamabad concede they are watching him closely, and Khan’s antics often dominate local news coverage. But while Khan’s rising stature may be indicative of rising anti-American sentiment among Pakistan’s educated classes, analysts still aren’t convinced of how seriously to take him.

“The whole world knows that an accused is innocent until a court says you are guilty. He who takes the law into his own hand and kills is himself a terrorist,” he said at the Peshawar rally, referring to US forces.

Such rhetoric is common among Islamist hard-liners and religious party leaders, but Khan’s urbane appeal as a former cricketer who won international acclaim means he can reach a wider, less religious audience and position himself as the acceptable face of anti-Americanism, says Badar Alam, editor of Pakistan’s Herald Magazine.

When mullahs talk, people don't stop to listen. "But when a Western educated clean-shaven man does the same, it does suit them,” Mr. Alam says of Khan, who was educated at Oxford and maintained a reputation as a playboy throughout his cricketing career, before his nine-year marriage with British heiress Jemima Goldsmith.

Khan has what the US wants

Khan’s support base of Pakistan’s middle class, women, and the youth (who make up 70 percent of the country) are exactly the groups the US has targeted in its battle to win hearts and minds in Pakistan.

The country’s youth are particularly rapt by Khan, who appeals to their sense of national pride, says columnist Fasi Zaka.

“The youth of this country think politics is entirely rubbish,” he says. Therefore, Khan’s message of bringing about a "revolution" appeals to young people turned off by traditional politics.

Another part of Khan’s appeal is his squeaky-clean reputation in a country where allegations of corruption are rampant. His Shaukat Khanum hospital, established in memory of his mother, is regarded as one of the best in the country. Last year he was active in fundraising after the worst flooding to hit the country. And in 2008 he set up a college in his home district of Mianwali. “When compared to the other personalities in Pakistani politics, he is a saint,” says Mr. Zaka.

He’s also known for being a straight shooter.

According to a US embassy cable leaked by the whistle-blower website Wikileaks, Khan made “often pointed and critical statements on US policy, which he characterized as dangerous and in need of change” in a meeting with former US Ambassador Anne Patterson last year. That’s in stark contrast to other leaders like Nawaz Sharif, the country’s main opposition leader, and Maulana Fazlur Rehman, its most powerful Islamist party leader – both known for their hostile stances toward the US in public. Leaked US embassy cables showed their tone in private meetings to be far more conciliatory, to the point of fawning.

Though his party has never won more than one seat (his own) in previous elections, Khan is treated by the media as one of a handful of top political leaders, and was offered the position of prime minister in 2002 by former military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf, according to his former wife.

What critics say

With his oft-stated desire for the Pakistani state to cut deals with, rather than fight, the Pakistani Taliban, Khan found himself out of touch with the public as it began to heavily back the Army in its fight against the Taliban after 2009.

Critics say that Khan's penchant for citing the US as the only major factor behind terrorism in Pakistan is flawed, if ridiculous. He once stated that if the US left Afghanistan, he could end all terror in 90 days, says Alam, the editor. Khan has also been accused of being simple-minded – he has long been a vociferous supporter of Pakistan’s Chief Justice Ifthikar Chauhdry, while at the same time advocating for the traditional Pashtun jirga courts, which often push harsh and collective punishments.

As with Sarah Palin, he elicits polarizing reactions.

But with trust in America at a fresh nadir and his own career back on track, Khan has a unique opportunity. At present, his popularity eclipses main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif (63 percent) and even Pakistan’s Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani (52 percent), whose ratings have suffered as the Army has come in for criticism following the fallout from the Bin Laden raid.

So does America need to be wary?

With elections still two years away, Alam says he and others remain skeptical. The professional middle classes and youth may have a big presence in the mainstream and social media, he says, “but historically, those who comprise his support base are the people who never bother to vote.”

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