There was a moment last December when the mirage shimmered and briefly dissipated for many Imran Khan supporters. Amidst a tsunami of Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) flags, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) Vice President Ijaz Chaudhry thundered on stage at the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC) rally in Lahore. The special message that he delivered from his quaid, Imran Khan, touched the usual conspiracies and clichés about India, America and the Pakistani government. Yet, many PTI supporters were taken aback by their party rubbing shoulders with sectarian murderers and terrorists. Khan himself was questioned on sharing a platform with the likes of JuD and SSP. Unfazed, Khan simply said it was his duty to “engage” with everyone no matter how extreme.
The mirage reconstructed itself. PTI acolytes parroted the party line. The PTI was not associating with terrorists. It was “engaging” fringe elements to wean them into the mainstream. This rhetoric is attractive without being accurate.
Consider. In May 2011, PTI leaders attended a rally with JuD that condemned the killing of Osama bin Laden, and pronounced him –– a man who had declared war on Pakistan –– a “Martyr of Islam.” PTI leaders also attended rallies with JuD and other extremist organisations on January 30, 2011 and October 29, in favour of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, and to express admiration for Salman Taseer’s assassin. Khan’s message, delivered by Ijaz Chaudhry, was one of endorsement. He called Pakistan’s blasphemy laws “divine,” foreclosing any reform.
Further, in April, 2011 Khan personally visited the Darul-Uloom Haqqania to seek support for his anti-drone dharnas – the campaign many see as a watershed in his rise. Popularly known as “the University of Jihad,” the Dar-ul-Uloom is accused by the Federal Investigation Agency of being the launching pad for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. It has schooled the Taliban’s top leadership, including the Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, who derives his name from his proud affiliation with his alma mater. And Khan’s “engagement” there? Extolling the virtues jihad as a mandatory obligation – the very ideology the would-be jihadis are indoctrinated with.
The DPC’s anti-Ahmadi activities are well-documented. Less so are the PTI’s, which has attended events arranged by the Aalmi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nubuwwat to discuss “increasing anti-social activities by Qadianis [Ahmadis] destroying the country’s peace”. Little surprise, then, that PTI leaders were behind the bigoted boycott of Ahmadi-made products by the Lahore Bar Association.
At DPC rallies PTI leaders are seen erupting in wild applause, encouraging the militancy, xenophobia and misogyny spouted by the likes of Ahmed Ludhianvi of the SSP and Hafiz Saeed of the JuD. In fact, PTI president Javed Hashmi recently named the UN-declared terrorist Hafiz Saeed to be a “preacher of peace” on the same day that Saeed was publicly calling for “holy war”.
In this light, who is engaging whom? And where does engagement drift into naked endorsement? It appears that the PTI, instead of peeling away extremists, is pandering to the hateful agendas of Pakistan’s Islamist and hyper-nationalist lunatic fringe. Moreover, as these organisations gain a mainstream podium to disseminate their extreme views, they are gaining a veneer of legitimacy with mainstream voters and PTI supporters. Indeed, the terrorist SSP has undergone a resurgence since its outings with the DPC and PTI.
Can one reasonably expect the nature of PTI’s “engagement” with the far-right to be substantially different when Imran Khan does not believe jihadist radicalisation to be a concern? Having opposed military operations against the Taliban and terrorist organisations, Khan has stated that in power he would cease any action against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Recently he went so far as to state that “there is not a threat to Pakistan from Taliban ideology.”
This is stunning given the backdrop of the spiralling persecution and slaughter of Pakistan’s beleaguered minorities, including Shias, Ahmadis, Hindus and Christians, by the Taliban and groups sharing their sectarian ideology –– among them PTI’s DPC partners. Khan’s position becomes positively morbid considering that a staggering 40,000 Pakistanis have been killed in militant and terrorist attacks since 2001. Whatever routine of blame-the-imperialist one engages in to explain the existence of these terrorists, the fact is their ideology –– unthreatening to Khan –– accommodates mass murder.
Here, then, is the rub. Politics is about nurturing electoral constituencies and ensuring survival. If far-right politics and appeasing extremists successfully paves the way to power, then after years in the political wilderness Khan will have found his electoral niche. Those making excuses for this political opportunism are engaging only delusion.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 12th, 2012.