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Who’s pulling the Pakistan prime minister’s strings?

A campaign poster for Imran Khan, Pakistan's new Prime Minister. Credit: Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

A campaign poster for Imran Khan, Pakistan's new Prime Minister. Credit: Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

September 3, 2018   3 mins

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has wasted no time in making blasphemy legislation one of his first priorities, empowering militants and initiating international moves, long sought by Saudi Arabia, that would restrict press freedom across the globe.

In his first address as PM to the Pakistani Senate, he said he intended to raise the blasphemy issue in the United Nations and would work to achieve a “common policy” within the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).1

Likewise campaigning before his election, Khan said: “We are standing with Article 295c and will defend it,” referring to the blasphemy clause in the constitution that mandates the death penalty for any “imputation, insinuation or innuendo” against the Prophet Muhammad.

This clause has been used to victimise minorities, including Shiites – who account for up to a quarter of the population – as well as the country’s small communities of Ahmadi Muslims, Christians and Hindus. It has acted as a means to whip crowds into a frenzy and at times turn them into lynch mobs; it has inspired vigilante killings. It is also used to intimidate journalists in the country, threatening freedom of the press and free speech.

The new prime minister’s backing for the clause came as no surprise to South Asia scholar Ahsan I. Butt, who noted shortly after the election that “Khan’s ideology and beliefs on a host of dimensions are indistinguishable from the religious hard-right”.

In fact, Khan’s move was a carefully calculated political gambit on two levels. It caters to the anti-blasphemy sentiment widely shared among Pakistanis, including the Islamist militants whose popularity in the election displaced Khan’s main rival, thereby playing a key role in his electoral victory.2

But it also sends a sign to Saudi Arabia, which has been quietly campaigning for more than decade for a global law that would punish blasphemy.

Pakistan doesn’t want to get caught in the cross-fire from the bitter rivalry between Saudi and Iran, with whom Pakistan, home to the world’s largest Shiite Muslim minority, shares a border. Nonetheless, Saudi is keen that Khan steps up support for the 41-nation, Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition, which is widely seen as an anti-Iranian alliance.

This is key. Saudi financial support for Pakistan – currently caught in a financial crisis that will probably force it to turn for the 13th  time in three decades to the IMF – could depend on the degree to which Khan bends to the kingdom’s will. The Saudi-backed Islamic Development Bank reportedly would be willing to lend Pakistan US$4billion to alleviate the crisis.

Saudi efforts to exploit Pakistan’s precarious financial position so early in Khan’s prime ministership stem not only from Pakistan’s urgent need for assistance indicate a certain uncertainty on their part as to how warm Saudi-Pakistani relations will be.

Indeed, Shameem Akhtar, a veteran foreign policy analyst, columnist and former dean of International Relations at Karachi University, argues: “Imran Khan doesn’t feel personally obliged towards the Saudis, who have long bought Pakistan and considered it their satellite state. If there’s anything that could push his hand it’s the economic support provided by Riyadh, given Pakistan’s fiscal needs.”

But while Saudi Arabia will surely feel reassured by Khan’s ‘blasphemy’ move. There may yet be a problem neither country has considered. China.

For if he is successful in his campaign for a global blasphemy law, Khan will soon find that his credibility and that of the Islamic countries that join him will be undermined if they remain silent about China’s current crackdown on Uyghur Muslims. This is arguably one of the most concerted attacks on Islam in recent history and yet, curiously, the Muslim world has remained largely silent on the subject.

“Many Middle Eastern states have a poor human-rights record themselves — including when it comes to the treatment of religious minorities. Many exhibit a similar understanding of human rights to China’s — that is, that social stability trumps individual rights. This is how the Chinese Government has framed the presence of re-education camps and other repressive measures,” said Chinese politics scholar Simone van Nieuwenhuizen.

Many Muslim nations are also targets of significant Chinese investment, beneficiaries of trade, and in some case heavily indebted to the Republic. This puts Khan in an unenviable position: seeking to bolster domestic and international positions by burnishing his religious credentials, he could be jeopardising the Muslim world’s economic ties with the People’s Republic. Khan may yet come to regret his hasty blasphemy move.

  1. Imran Khan spoke after the Senate adopted a resolution condemning a plan by Geert Wilders, a militantly Islamophobic, far-right Dutch opposition leader, to hold a competition for cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad. Many Muslims see visual depictions of the prophet as blasphemy. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte denounced Mr. Wilder’s plan as “not respectful” and “provocative” but provoked Pakistani ire by refusing to ban the competition on the grounds that he would not curtail freedom of speech.
  2. Khan was once dubbed ‘Taliban Khan’ because of his support of the Afghan Taliban, and his advocacy for the opening in Pakistan of an official Taliban Pakistan office, for allowing government funds to go to militant madrassas, and for enabling Islamists to dictate the content of public school textbooks. His reluctance to confront the militancy problem has recently cost him $300 million of aid from America

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Wuerzburg, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

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