Imran Khan: Defender of Islam or political opportunist?

On 17 September 2021, less than a month after seizing control of the country, the Taliban effectively banned girls from secondary schools in Afghanistan after they ordered schools to resume classes for boys only.

The move marked a realisation of fears that had been raised ever since the Taliban regained power, and was met with widespread and routine international condemnation from countries and human rights organisations alike. One of the more surprising critics however was Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who told the BBC that preventing women from accessing education would be ‘un-Islamic’.

The reason for such surprise is that while Prime Minister Khan has expressed somewhat mixed feelings regarding the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, he has encouraged the international community, and particularly the United States, to recognise their authority. In addition, his own government has entered into talks with the organisation, and Khan himself has pledged to ‘forgive’ members of the group if reconciliation is achieved.

Developments such as these already start to make Khan’s criticisms of the Taliban ring hollow, but they are made even more interesting when considered in conjunction with his own rhetoric regarding what is and isn’t un-Islamic in his own country.

A dangerous bedfellow

Since his election in 2018, Prime Minister Khan has repeatedly cosied up to the country’s more conservative Islamic elements, such as the Council of Islamic Ideology, a group who describe themselves as “a constitutional body that advises the legislature whether or not a certain law is repugnant to Islam.”

In keeping with this, and no doubt with one eye firmly on upcoming elections in 2023, Khan recently met with Islamic scholars in Karachi, where he stressed that no new law would be enacted under his rule if it was deemed to be “in direct conflict with the teachings of Islam.”

His comments came partly in reference to a Bill which would have criminalised forced conversions of underage non-Muslim girls in Pakistan, and which was rejected by a parliamentary committee during a debate on 13 October.

Much like Khan’s own findings regarding the Taliban’s activities in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony termed the Bill un-Islamic during the debate, with multiple parliamentarians voicing their opposition to a law which would have criminalised a practice Khan himself deemed un-Islamic in July 2019.

A grim outlook

While legislation prohibiting conversion is opposed to the full realisation of the right to freedom of religion or belief, Prime Minister Khan and his government’s stated resolution to block anything they consider un-Islamic does not bode well for many of Pakistan’s most marginalised and historically oppressed communities, most of whom are religious minorities.

It doesn’t bode well, for example, for those calling for the repeal of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, which are routinely and indiscriminately used as a weapon of revenge to settle personal scores against both Muslims and non-Muslims, and which Khan has proudly pledged to defend.

Nor does it bode well for Pakistan’s Ahmadiyya community – a group for whom the propagation and practice of their own beliefs has been punishable by law since 1974, and who find themselves regularly subjected to intolerance and violence at the encouragement of radical Islamists who deem them ‘non-Muslims.’

Children from religious minorities in Pakistan, meanwhile, have recently had a Single National Curriculum imposed upon them which requires them to undergo extensive Islamic teaching even in compulsory subjects like English, Geography and Urdu. This essentially leaves them with two choices: either participate in lessons which can reinforce intolerance and discrimination against them, or opt out and risk not only missing on vital aspects of their education, but potentially mark them out as ‘different’ from their Muslim classmates.

A stumbling block

Article 25 (1) of the Constitution of Pakistan declares that “All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law,” but this is not the reality for thousands of Pakistani citizens, and, as long as Prime Minister Khan and his government continue to prioritise the support of groups who espouse and articulate a very limited interpretation of Islam, this reality will not change.

It is clear in his criticisms of the Taliban’s policies towards women’s education that Imran Khan knows religious fundamentalism when he sees it, but unless he starts challenging and condemning the same fundamentalism in his own country, such criticisms cannot be taken seriously.

By CSW’s Public Affairs Officer Ellis Heasley

Featured Image: “Imran Khan – World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2011” by World Economic Forum is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0