Since assuming the office of Prime Minister last August, Imran Khan has delivered some remarkably thoughtful and nuanced speeches, especially on topics of international significance. One could point for instance to his brief but incredibly productive address in late February at the height of the Pulwama episode when he powerfully articulated the dangerous contingencies that cloud all war campaigns. “Wars are always marked by miscalculation,” he had argued, through a carefully historicized account of the catastrophic miscalculations and tragedies made visible during modern wars like the two World Wars, Vietnam, and the ongoing “War on Terror.”
Similarly, in his speech at the OIC summit earlier this summer, Khan rather brilliantly highlighted the failure of Muslim heads of state to communicate to Western audiences the modality of pain that accompanies attempts to blaspheme the Prophet (pbuh). And in this same speech, in a move unprecedented for a contemporary Muslim political leader, he also launched a searing yet sophisticated critique of the insidious politics involved in de-legitimizing Kashmiri and Palestinian anti-colonial freedom movements by branding them as manifestations of “Islamic terrorism.” Thus, in one stroke, he not only established the intimacy of Israel and India as settler colonial regimes that share common visions and tactics of occupation, but also lay bare the hypocrisy involved in reducing political struggle against colonizing powers to religiously inspired violence whenever the agents of such struggle happen to be Muslims. After all, as Khan astutely pointed out, the violence emanating from the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka was never and rightly never attributed to Hinduism.
The Prime Minister’s speech on Tuesday (August 6, 2019) at the joint session of the parliament, called to address the brewing crisis precipitated by India’s draconian annexation of Kashmir, represented in many ways a continuation of these two speeches earlier this year. In a situation ripe for the expenditure of nationalist jingoism and theatrical bravado, as was in ample supply in Opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif’s speech at this session, PM Khan must be commended for taking a measured and thoughtful approach that both contextualized the current crisis and offered a path forward for its resolution premised on the utmost avoidance of violence. In many ways, the Prime Minister upheld his long-running commitment to seeking resolutions to conflict situations that privilege dialogue over military operations, as was and remains his position on the war in Afghanistan. One may note in passing that this was precisely the position for which, in an act of rabid caricature and misinterpretation, he was accorded the moniker of “Taliban Khan.” Time has indeed proven the architects of this label as intellectually wanting buffoons.
Imran Khan’s central argument in this speech is that the repeal of section 370 by the Indian state is not some sudden or random exception to the rule, as much as it constitutes an exception to the law. Rather, India’s brazen annexation of Kashmir is firmly grounded in a principled Hindu nationalist ideology animated by racism and racist assumptions of civilizational superiority. Hindu nationalists, he further argued, are conceptually analogous to Nazis in Germany and white supremacists in the U.S., glued by their common conviction in eviscerating difference. In contrast to this racist ideology, Khan presented and advocated a radically opposite vision of engaging difference, one inspired by the prophetic path of the generous treatment of minorities in the seventh-century community of Madina.
In a curious move, Khan also claimed that the much cited (and often contested) August 11, 1947 speech of Qa’id-i A‘zam in which he had promised freedom of religious practice to minorities was not a product of his commitment to secularism, but was rather inspired by the Prophet’s model of the Madinan community in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims participated as equals in a common political venture. While one might reasonably quarrel with specific aspects of this formulation, what is instructive about Khan’s invocation of Madina as a model of emulation is the way it charts a genealogy of hospitality for the religious ‘other’ that does not pass through Europe, and that also avoids the suffocating calculus of modern nationalism that thrives on dividing humanity into calculable majorities and minorities.
In what is arguably the most poignant moment of this speech, the Prime Minister juxtaposed his indictment of the BJP’s racism towards Muslims and other minorities with a reminder to his own citizens that the prophetic path requires them to engage minorities in Pakistan in the exact opposition fashion. As he put it, pithily yet powerfully: “when we are unjust to minorities in our country, we go against our founding ideology. We go against our religion.” Thus, one can read this speech as not only a fierce critique of Hindu nationalism and other such ideological formations anchored in the corrosive fiction of racial superiority, but also as a challenge to Pakistanis to overcome the harrowing shadows of their own histories and present of cruelties towards minority communities by aspiring for the prophetic ideals of justice and equality. The cynical reader might raise a number of ambiguities and empirical contradictions haunting Khan’s argument. But in the current global political context and historical moment, it is difficult to not laud his vociferous appeal to higher rather than baser human instincts. If anything, this speech crystallizes the ridiculousness of any substantive comparison between Khan and the likes of Trump and Modi.
Finally, while less emphasized in this particular speech, one would be remiss to not mention that Imran Khan is perhaps the first Pakistani Prime Minister to have so explicitly and forcefully foregrounded the aspirations of the people of Indian Occupied Kashmir in any discussions on the resolution of this conflict. He could not have said it more plainly than he did at the United States Institute of Peace during his recent visit to the U.S.: “It does not matter what the people of Pakistan think, what matters is what the people of [Indian Occupied] Kashmir want.” Pakistanis will do well by following the lead of the Prime Minister in this crucial gesture of unconditional solidarity with the people of Kashmir and their right for self-determination.
SherAli Tareen is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College in the U.S. He is the author of Defending Muhammad in Modernity, University of Notre Dame Press. firstname.lastname@example.org
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