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The ‘shame weapon’ Pakistani politicians use is lethal, can give birth to a religious tyrant

Tempting as it is to see the leaked videos as just another element in the no-holds-barred power struggle, the sexual scandals have special significance.

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Looking up the billowing petticoats of the princess dowager with a telescope, a courtier shouts out: “I see the road to Preferment, well fenc’d and water’d.” “There’s the road, thro bushy park,” says another looking upwards, the pun alluding to the royal park at Bushey and to the genitals of the mother of King George III. “I love power,” princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg cries out, as she rides a broomstick. “Let us make the most of this,” responds her court favourite, the prime minister and third earl of Bute, John Stuart. “We are above the vulgar.”

For politicians in Pakistan, the world of eighteenth-century English popular politics might seem strangely familiar. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan has claimed the government’s plotting to defame him with fake gandi-gandi videos. The elderly Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leader Pervaiz Rashid was targeted through a purportedly leaked video in which the party vice-president is seen recording online sex. And the senator Azam Khan Swati has revealed he was blackmailed with a secretly-filmed explicit video.

Lewd, unashamedly sexist and politically incendiary, the pamphlet about the princess, now housed in the British Museum, was part of a war against the court being waged by the radical—and unscrupulous—politician John Wilkes. Lord Bute had been hand-picked by the crown to end the power of landed oligarchs—and Wilkes hit back with a savage campaign of sexual rumour and innuendo.

Tempting as it is to see the leaked videos as just one more element in the no-holds-barred power struggle among Pakistan’s political élite, the sexual scandals have special significance—just as it had in the time of George III. In regimes built around theological claims, morals have a special place in securing leadership legitimacy. Like armoured vehicles and Kalashnikovs, shame is a weapon.

“Gossip is like a water,” Salman Rushdie wrote in his stellar novel on Pakistan. “It probes surfaces for their weak places, until it finds the breakthrough point.”


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The making of the moral republic

The constitution of the Islamic Republic, forged in the sweltering Karachi heat in August 1953, ceded sovereignty to god, mandating that no laws repugnant to the Quran and Hadith be passed. Exactly what that meant was not quite clear, but in a country awash with refugees, torn by food riots and battered by clerical protests against religious heterodoxy, it was clear that some kind of fundamental reordering was needed. Figures like Khwaja Nazimuddin, scholar Ardath Burks records, conceded clerics a central role in political life.

Elites excluded themselves from this new Pakistan, and the transformation of popular culture was languid. Liquor advertisements, commentator Nadeem Paracha writes, figured in newspaper pages and on the streets until late in the 1960s. First-class passengers on Pakistan International Airlines were offered complimentary cocktails, and women gathered at Karachi bars until at least 1973.

An anti-elite moralism had, however, begun to gain power. In 1972, the National Awami Party-Jami’at Ullema Islam government—an alliance of socialists and Islamists—which ruled what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, proscribed the sale of alcohol.

The crisis had begun to develop in the wake of 1971, as Islamists argued that the defeat to India was the result of moral degradation. The Hamoodur Rahman commission, which investigated the defeat, claimed the army leadership had been hollowed out by “highly immoral and licentious ways of life.”

Lieutenant-General Amir Khan Niazi, the commission claimed, was on “intimate terms with one Mrs. Saeeda Bukhari of Gulberg, Lahore, who was running a brothel under the name of Senorita Home, and was also acting as the General’s tout for receiving bribes.”  The General was also said to be “friendly with another woman called Shamini Firdaus of Sialkot.” “He came to acquire a stinking reputation owing to his association with women of bad repute.”

Aqleem Akhtar—a former police officer’s wife, and mother of six who became a Lahore high-society madame—was blamed for the alcohol-fuelled debaucheries of chief martial law administrator General Yahya Khan. The General’s lifestyle, the argument went, led on to the catastrophe of 1971.

The Pakistan Army’s failures of military competence, and its poor political judgements in the east, were transformed into moral questions.


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Islamic praetorians take power

Even though Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government resisted calls to ban alcohol—“I drink, but I do not drink the blood of the people,” he famously proclaimed at a 1977 rally—the rising moral tide proved inexorable. Islamists used photographs of first lady Nusrat Bhutto dancing with United States President Gerald Ford—clad in an eminently respectable gown—to launch a smear campaign against the prime minister. “Bhutto is a Hindu, Bhutto is a Jew,” crowds in Lahore and Karachi chanted.

Liquor had to be expelled from Pakistan Army messes in 1974, though it remained available at bars, nightclubs and coffee-houses. The rise of the religious-Right Pakistan National Alliance in 1977 saw large-scale attacks on establishments serving alcohol. In a bid to appease the Right, Prime Minister Bhutto banned bars and liquor stores and prohibited gambling.

General Zia-ul-Haq, who took power in a military coup that year, enforced the ban with enthusiasm—among other things, instituting punishment of eighty lashes for violators. The General’s moral qualms did not extend to opium-production, though, which he encouraged insurgents in Afghanistan to cultivate as a means to raise funds for jihad.

The weapon of the moral scandal would be wielded regularly. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is alleged to have used allegations by a former dancer and sex-worker, Madam Tahira, to neuter his most prominent opponent, the Islamist Maulana Sami-ul-Haq—whose seminary at Akora Khattak produced much of the leadership of the Taliban. Lurid accounts of Tahira’s testimony included claims she had arranged threesomes for the cleric, which led to his being described as “Maulana Sandwich.”

″I have been placed in a highly embarrassing position,” Sami-ul-Haq would say in a resignation statement.  The country’s religious forces consider me their soldier who is fighting for the supremacy of the Sharia.”

Faked pictures of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her mother were showered from helicopters ahead of the 1993 elections, and rumours spread about her personal life.


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The perils of sleaze wars

The sex-scandal has regularly been used as a kind of stiletto-knife in contemporary Pakistan. The swirl of sexual misconduct allegations around Imran Khan—graphically described by his former wife, Reham Khan—undermined his efforts to build a political career for years. TikTok star Hareem Shah dealt a sharp blow to railways minister Sheikh Rasheed’s career with a leaked video in 2020. Allegations of sexual misconduct also helped cut the ground from under former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani.

Little imagination is needed to see why sleaze is such an effective weapon. Ever since its independence, Pakistani politics has increasingly centred on competitive religiosity and displays of personal piety, rather than debate around public policy and programmes for change.

For Americans, with a political culture suffused in Christian values, the role of the sexual scandal will be familiar. As sociologist Joshua Gamson notes, the point of the sex scandal isn’t the sex: The issue is the transgression of the moral codes and order that power claims to uphold.

Less religious societies also adore gossip—but it rarely has the same political traction. The often-malicious rumours swirling around Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s sex-life, and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s unconventional relationship with Rajkumari Kaul, had no impact on their political positions. Even less consequence attached to the relationship between chief ministers M.G. Ramachandran and Jayaram Jayalalitha—or a string of similar well-known political romances.

France, famously, barely pays attention to the personal lives of politicians—and changing values in the United Kingdom mean it hasn’t had a genuine sex scandal since the Christine Keeler case, decades ago.

Lethal consequences have often flown from moral campaigns. King Henry III of France was assassinated by the monk Jacques Clement in 1589, amid rumours of the monarch’s homosexuality. London crowds in the eighteenth century, historian Anna Clements writes, “were all too accustomed to amuse themselves by stoning men accused of sodomy in the pillory.”  Wilkes weaponised those prejudices, casting the court of George III as effeminate.

This moment of crisis in Pakistan ought to have been a moment where reflections on the values of the Islamic Republic could have been interrogated and challenged. Exposing each other as hypocrites, Pakistan’s politicians are instead setting the stage for the rise of a genuine puritan—a religious tyrant who is indeed willing to preach what he practices.

The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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