NOTE: On Friday, Oct. 14, SAJA & the Columbia Journalism School hosted Imran Khan, Pakistani politician, cricket legend, Chancellor of the University of Bradford (UK) and author of a new book, "Pakistan: A Personal History," in conversation with TIME's Bobby Ghosh. This is one of several SAJAforum reports on the event.
By Hiten Samtani (@HitSamty), a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Additional reporting by Suhrith Parthasarathy (@suhrith) and photographs by Purvi Thacker (@purvi21), both of Columbia J-School.
Cricket legend and Pakistani prime minister hopeful Imran Khan spoke about his party's vision for Pakistan, the country's need for rule of law, and the implications of the War on Terror to a standing room only crowd at the Columbia Journalism School on Friday evening. In conversation with Bobby Ghosh, World Editor of TIME, Khan showcased his trademark swagger and charisma, but sidestepped tough questions in what was a crowd-pleasing but ultimately unfulfilling talk.
Ghosh gave the audience a lesson on how to do a refreshing introduction of a public figure; he mentioned Khan’s book, “Pakistan: A Personal History,” and said he felt “a twinge of sadness” that he could no longer see Khan as simply the heroic sporting icon of his youth. Ghosh asked Khan about a statement in the book in which Khan says that he could always see an opponent in his grasp on the field, and that he had now begun to feel the same way about politics. “The opponents are on the mat and they won’t be able to get up,” said Khan, with a touch of arrogance and his familiar thrusting palm gesture. “The public wants change and they want PTI,” he said, referring to the upcoming elections and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party.
Khan said he wrote “Pakistan: A Personal History” for the youth of the country. “Never have I seen them so confused, about secularism, Islam, etc., ” he said. “There needs to be a direction.” Khan drew zealous applause from the crowd when he said that the one positive thing Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari had done is that “he had exposed all the political forces in the country, by buying them.” Khan hailed the vibrant independent media in Pakistan as vital to promoting Pakistani interests, rather than those of the politicians. When Ghosh asked him about the Arab Spring and why there was no parallel in Pakistan, Khan said that the 2007 “Lawyers’ Movement was the Pakistani version of the Arab Spring, but it was hijacked.”
The discussion moved on to the U.S.-led "War on Terror," a phenomenon that Khan said was the other reason he wrote the book. Khan--in a statement that will likely thrill Republicans--said “people don’t use guns just because they carry guns,” referring to the “million armed men from the tribal areas. You win the war when you win the people’s hearts and minds,” he said. “The Pakistani government should have asked the men from the tribal areas to isolate al-Qaida right in the beginning.” Instead, Khan said, “Musharraf made a blunder; under pressure from America, he sent the army into the tribal areas in 2004.” This was, Khan said, “an insane and immoral way to war, with artillery, F-16s, and helicopter gunships bombing villages. As a result, thousands have died, more than 3.5 million have been internally displaced, and the economy has lost $70 billion, compared to the $15 billion in foreign aid we received.” He also said that these were the reasons why “80 percent of Pakistanis perceive the U.S. as a bigger enemy than India.”
Khan took a stand against U.S. aid to Pakistan, saying, “if you do not respect yourself, no one will respect you.” He insisted that the Pakistani economy was “not poor, just mismanaged,” and drew a comparison to the election patterns in the country, stating that “35 million people were unregistered to vote, and 37 million votes out of the total 80 million cast were bogus.” He promised that his party would root out this type of corruption and establish a robust and independent justice system.
The talk was organized by the South Asian Journalists Association, and Khan’s cricketing and philanthropic appeal had drawn a large number of Indians. The conversation moved towards India-Pakistan relations. “Does India represent an existential threat?” Ghosh asked, and Khan said, “No. But it’s in the military genes, and hence the army has played a disproportionate role.” Khan said that relations between the two countries would remain fragile “unless we are confident that our intelligence agencies will not play a part in cross-border violence. One act like Mumbai will bring us back to square one.” When asked how India and Pakistan--countries that began in such similar circumstances--had taken such different trajectories, Khan said “Jawaharlal Nehru embedded democracy in India, while we (Pakistan) lost our only great leader (Mohammad Ali Jinnah).” Khan also referred to the East Pakistan crisis (which led to the eventual creation of Bangladesh in 1971) and cited these incidents as reasons why “our democracy never took off.” When asked by an audience member about Track II diplomacy and the difficulty of cross-border travel, Khan diverted the conversation to a more entertaining but less difficult answer about a cricket series in 2005.
Khan was then asked about whether he would repeal the blasphemy law, which erupted into controversy following the January 2011 assassination of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, who spoke out against abuse of the law. “I was the only politician to side with Taseer,” Khan said. He then went on to give a history of the blasphemy law, and condemned the death of rational dialogue in Pakistan. But he did not definitively answer the question of whether he would repeal the law.
When asked about politics, religion, and the rural people of Pakistan, Khan said that people in rural areas tend to be more politicized, because their “lives depend on it. But they were petrified that they’d be on the wrong side, and so they would go with the powerful criminals.”
In the most insightful exchange of the night, Khan said that rural people do not think about the secularism issue, and that it was a topic more often heard “at dinner parties in Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi." In response to an audience member’s question about extremism in the tribal areas, Khan said that collateral damage from this war is what created the Pakistani Taliban. “If someone killed my family, I could become a suicide bomber,” he declared. He assured the audience that a robust rule of law would be a core mandate of his party’s time in office, but did not offer any specific policies towards this goal, other than insisting that the War on Terror had to end.
There were the inevitable questions about cricket, notably about the spot-fixing scandal. Khan fielded these with aplomb, and obliged a few of the swarm of supporters eager for a handshake and a photo op. But while he showed an acute understanding of his people and his desired place in their history, tonight, even with Ghosh and others pressing him, there was little straight talk about Imran Khan’s strategies to fix Pakistan.