Fourteen years old—“a bit of a dunce,” one of his ex-wives would later claim, interested only in cricket—Imran Khan confronted his first spiritual experience: Pir-ji, his mother’s religious advisor, had arrived to offer prayers and guidance. “The woman was sitting on the floor with three or four of her disciples. her head covered by a chador,” Imran later recalled. “She never looked up at me, I never saw her face.” Though Pir-ji miraculously divined that Imran had been evading Quran classes, she proclaimed the boy “would turn out all right.”
Though he did not know it then, the veil he stared into was the beginning of Imran’s ideological journey—and his destiny.
For months now, the city of God that the cricketer-turned-Prime Minister promised to build has been disintegrating, torn by storms he himself unleashed. The Pakistan government is struggling to salvage an International Monetary Fund bailout Imran blew up during his last months in office. The jihadists he patronised are bringing the state to its knees.
Even though Imran ought to have been discredited by this downfall, he remains Pakistan’s most charismatic politician—and confident he can capitalise on the economic chaos in the early elections he hopes to force.
To understand where Pakistan is headed, it is critical to understand the complex inner world of Imran Khan. The misogyny and jihadism illustrated in a sharp interview with journalist Isaac Chotiner last week speaks for the religious anxieties and sexual neurosis of a generation of young men. The world offers them nothing but hardship. Imran Khan is living proof that paradise is possible.
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Englishness and Islam
England, where Imran went to finish his school education, proved culturally traumatic: “I found it almost impossible to make friends with the British,” he recalled. “The English culture we knew through our English schoolmasters, books, stories and anecdotes of my parents’ generation had disappeared under a blitz of sex, drugs and rock and roll,” he wrote in his 2011 book, Pakistan: A Personal History. Even though Imran admitted he was not particularly observant, he “clung to my Muslim identity.” The struggle not to be seduced by the counterculture was constant.
Together with the eminent businessman Vikram Mehta, Imran would visit to-be prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s “lodgings in Lady Margaret Hall every Sunday, when she would have an open house serving cheese and snacks all afternoon.”
Former lover Kristiane Backer—MTV presenter, author and celebrity convert-to-Islam—revealed in her memoirs that the contest between the zeitgeist and Imran’s inherited culture was somewhat more colourful.
“I turned up at his flat in a buttercup-yellow Azzedine Alaia mini dress and a light summer coat,” Backer recalled. “Looking dashing in his pale blue shirt and navy suit trousers, Imran complimented me, but then, to my astonishment, asked me if I could keep my coat on throughout the evening. ‘In Pakistani culture, women don’t show skin,’ Imran explained. ‘They dress modestly, and so do the men. When at home, a wife could wear revealing clothes and red lipstick but when going out she should look conservative and demure’.”
This concern for traditional culture did not stop Imran, according to Backer, from proposing they live together.
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The born-again Islamist
Fifty years or so after his meeting with Pir-ji, Imran would eventually marry a woman strikingly similar to his mother’s chador-clad spiritual guide: The 1974-born mother-of-five and owner of meat-eating djinns Bushra Maneka, known among her circle of followers as Pinki Pirni. Following his divorce from British television presenter Reham Khan, and devastated by electoral defeat, Imran began visiting the spiritualist at her home in southern Punjab. The path to power, she told him, was blocked by black magic.
The solution found for the curse, according to Imran’s friend Aun Chaudhry, was to get married to one of Bushra’s daughters. Imran declined, citing their age difference, at which point Bushra offered herself as a bride. Imran promptly married Bushra—and then married her again, because the first wedding violated Islamic mandates on the length of separation needed after a divorce.
Freudian undertones run through the story. To his mother, he gives credit for a “complete sense of security.” “Her total belief in me gave me self-esteem.” There are no similar words for any of the other women in his life. Even his god, anchored in the folk practice of seeking a spiritual guide, drew on his mother’s belief. Though religious, Imran’s father saw no need for Pirs.
Even as Imran dated Backer, he had begun to demonstrate a deep interest in Islamic theology. “He had no time for mere personal opinions,” she observes. “What mattered to him was the word of God.”
Like many new believers, the cricket star became an enthusiastic proselytiser. “While we were walking across an icy glacier one day,” Backer recalls, “Imran asked us a question: ‘What do you think is the purpose of life?’ Life is a test, and at the same time a seedbed for our future lives in eternity’,” Imran explained.
After his tempestuous marriage to the aristocratic London socialite Jemima Goldsmith—and a painful divorce—Imran hoped to buttress his credentials by marrying a more suitable bride. Even though the Reham-Imran marriage made it to fashion magazines, the public reception was frosty. Imran was assailed for celebrating the wedding even as families of 132 children killed in a terrorist attack on a Peshawar school in December 2014 were in mourning: “You were busy getting married without doing anything about my child,” an angry mother shouted when the couple visited Peshawar.
“Families put the marriages together,” Imran told Chotiner. This was not true, of any of his own marriages. The relationship between Jemima and Imran’s older sisters, according to the account of ex-wife Reham Khan, was fraught. The sisters did not attend his wedding with Reham, either.
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The armchair jihadist
Imran’s interest in jihadism surfaced at around the same time as his growing interest in Afghan mujahideen in 1983—held at the five-star Cafe Royal Hotel on London’s Regent Street. This was to be the beginning of his lifelong support for jihadism. “A Saudi billionaire who had sacrificed a life of luxury to fight for the Afghan people was one who drew particular admiration,” Imran recalled in his 2011 book. “He was Osama bin Laden.” Later, as prime minister, Imran would call Bin Laden a “martyr”.
“The slogan of jihad is not always raised out of religiosity, but often due to an attraction to war—something that transforms ordinary men into superheroes,” scholar Maleeha Afzal has perceptively observed Imran’s armchair jihadism part of the same aesthetic as his sporting success—a signifier of the masculinity and virility his young male followers aspired to.
Farhat Khan—also known as Farah Gogi—exemplified the kinds of redemption piety could bring. Forced to earn a living by dancing at parties, Khan rose to a position of extraordinary power and wealth because of her involvement in Bushra’s religious circles. Together with her husband Ahsan Jameel Gujjar, Farah moved into Imran’s home.
“Living in contemporary Pakistan in a globalised world is not very different from living under the colonial masters.” Islamism, she suggests, has positioned itself to address the crisis of identity faced by an economically-prospectless youth cohort, to which opportunity is closed by class.
Imran also, however, sustained a credulous attachment to folk Islam. Following his first retirement from cricket in 1987, Imran visited a mystic “with piercing eyes and a happy face.” The mystic knew the names of Imran’s sisters—evidence of his miraculous powers, since “he did not look like the type of person who would be into cricket.”
The relationship with his veiled wife, Reham has noted, emerged from a long-standing obsession with the occult—among them, the belief that rubbing black lentils into his genitals would ward off evil.
Imran’s Sufism did not exist in a vacuum. Following 9/11, scholar Muhammad Suleman records, the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf politicised traditional Sufi orders, using them as a counterweight to Salafi-jihadist theology. Though Sufi orders like the Dawat-e-Islami held toxic views on the rights of women—and proved willing to kill in the name of God—they were seen as loyal partners of the State itself. Imran’s own rise to power was facilitated by the Canadian pop Islamist Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri.
This was part of the long instrumentalisation of Islam by Pakistan’s rulers, from Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.
For his young supporters—the losers of Pakistan’s inequitable modernity—Imran promises to rebuild the “lost, idealised and ﬁctionalised society of Medina,” scholars Kainat Shakil and Ihsan Yilmaz write. This version of the Prophet Muhammad’s pro-state would ensure its citizens all had homes, healthcare and jobs—and a masculinity which ensured the subordination and availability of women.
The pleasures of the flesh, and the pleasures of piety: Imran has shown a generation it is possible to have it all.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)