Imran Khan may be punished for his anti-Western rhetoric at the ballot box
“What a time to come, so much excitement,” declared Pakistan’s Prime Minister, upon landing in Moscow. It was the day Putin ordered the invasion on Ukraine. Imran Khan had been pushed by Western states to reconsider his trip, especially given its timing; in the week that followed, after receiving Western envoys’ message to call out Russia, Khan publicly castigated them, asking if they considered Pakistan their “slave”.
Pakistan, like much of the Muslim world, has accused the West of “double standards” in its reaction to the Ukraine conflict — given the catastrophic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the West’s role in exacerbating crises in Syria and Palestine. Race-baiting frequently underlies this narrative: the West is accused of standing up for “white Ukrainians” and not for other victims of conflict, purely because of their ethnicity. Khan has been quick to incorporate all this in his populist rhetoric.
It hasn’t gone well for him. Imran Khan dissolved Pakistan’s National Assembly on Sunday, to block a no-confidence vote brought against him by the opposition parties. But the decisive blow to Khan’s government came on Saturday, when Pakistan’s all-powerful army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, unequivocally condemned Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, undoing Khan’s cozying up to Russia, and satisfying those in the West who were pressing Islamabad to condemn the invasion.
Pakistan may be a traditional ally, but war against the West is something that Imran Khan has long been engaged in — at least on the ideological front. He says there’s an ongoing “genocide” of Muslims in the West, pointing to the fact that free speech laws allow satire against Islam. He wants to suppress this freedom by exporting murderous Islamic blasphemy laws.
Khan, of course, has been quiet on Russia’s own anti-Muslim policies or its military stranglehold over the Muslim-majority Central Asian states. Even more ominously he’s been an apologist for China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims, which has been described by many as genocide.
But, of course, Khan’s shift towards Russia, much like Pakistan’s subservience to China, was motivated more by economic and geopolitical gains than any ideological consideration or moral position. Khan’s Moscow visit, for instance, immediately got him wheat and gas imports from Russia.
With the US no longer paying billions for the war in Afghanistan, Khan wanted to offer other bidders Pakistan’s USP: its location and a mercenary military establishment running the country. He felt that the losses from the West, including potential isolation, would be covered by China and Russia.
Today, the mass support for Moscow in Pakistan is rooted in its rivalry with Washington, more so than any direct support for Russia itself. This is the natural corollary of the widespread antagonism against the West, which has been fuelled for decades by a monolithic narrative focusing on its imperialism alone.
For instance, Putin has noticed the discourse spearheaded by the likes of Imran Khan, and condemned critique of Islam’s prophet Muhammad in the West, practically upholding the gruesome Islamic blasphemy laws. The Russian president is clearly aware of the priorities of many Muslim-majority states, with condemnation of satire against Islam likely to allow Putin further space to push his nationalist, autocratic, agenda in the Muslim-majority areas such as Tatarstan.
Putin is also unlikely to face any resistance from these countries over the war in Ukraine, because much of the narrative here is likely to remain on wars elsewhere, not perpetuated by Moscow. Even that selectivist, and deflective, approach is unlikely to include accountability of Muslim states. And the irony is most likely to be lost on those accusing others of whataboutism, duplicity, hypocrisy, or of holding human plight hostage to political agendas.
Nevertheless, with an upcoming election Khan has already softened his stance on the US. The all-powerful military does not want to alienate the US and the West, and it has made this clear to Khan. If Khan wants to win his election, he will have to play a very delicate balancing act between the two sides.