Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has attracted criticism for his recent refusal to condemn China’s atrocities against Uyghur Muslims and for his remarks blaming the rise in sexual violence on women wearing “very few clothes” and the fact that men are not “robots.”
Khan also generated controversy last year by describing Osama bin Laden as a martyr, instead of calling him a terrorist, while speaking in Pakistan’s Parliament. His information minister tried to walk back Khan’s remarks about bin Laden last week, a year later, because of their adverse effect on Khan’s recent attempt to renew ties with the United States.
But describing bin Laden as a martyr, linking rape to “vulgarity” and women’s dress, and pretending that China’s brutalities against Uyghurs is not a problem were not merely slips of the tongue; they reflect the Pakistani prime minister’s worldview. Khan has blamed victims before for inviting rape through their behavior. And he has gone to the extent of claiming that he does not know much about the Uyghur problem.
Khan’s reputation as a Westernized former cricketer and playboy sometimes misleads foreigners into assuming that he might represent a liberal vision for Pakistan. In fact, Khan and his PTI represent Pakistan’s further descent into obscurantism and unabashed bigotry.
Not long ago, remarks by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to a CNN interviewer that Jews have “deep pockets” and “control the media” drew attention to the widespread anti-Semitism among the elites of the world’s only Muslim country with nuclear weapons.
After Qureshi’s interview with Bianna Golodryga, an Islamist member of Parliament called for the use of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal against Israel and another minister cited an anti-Semitic forgery to propose that Muslims should plan for world domination like the Jews.
Pakistan is already reputed to have deeply polarized politics and little tolerance for its religious minorities. Khan and the PTI have aggravated the problem with their tendency to normalize prejudice and to use abusive language.
In the first two years of Khan’s administration, 31 members of religious minorities were killed, 58 were injured, and 25 targeted by blasphemy cases. Pakistan’s reality under Khan defies claims, made at the time of his election of office, that he represents an opportunity to reshape Pakistan’s image.
Any reshaping of Pakistan under Khan has been in the direction of indulging and endorsing various extremist prejudices. Even when the current ruling party was in opposition, one of its politicians created a political storm by using an anti-Christian slur in a provincial legislature. Sixteen months into the government’s term, a senator from Khan’s party declared on a TV show that he and Khan considered the Ahmadiyya Muslim community as worthy of their curse.
The senator also used a pejorative appellation for the Ahmadiyya. Neither the PTI nor the prime minister bothered to disassociate themselves from his statement.
Khan’s supporters are often quick, especially on social media, to try and erase the effect of prejudiced statements. For example, Qureshi insisted after being called out on his comments in his CNN interview that he was only talking about the state of Israel.
Pakistan, it is argued with some justification, has a right to support Palestinians and criticize the conduct of a state and government it does not recognize. But Qureshi’s remarks were clearly a reference to Jews and not the government of Israel.
No one says that the tiny state of Israel, with a GDP of $370 billion, has deeper pockets than Turkey (GDP $778 billion), Iran (GDP $454 billion), or various Arab countries. Pakistan’s foreign minister would never say that Saudi Arabia, with its GDP of $793 billion, had “deep pockets.”
For almost two centuries, anti-Semites have claimed that Jews have deep pockets and control the media and Qureshi repeated that anti-Semitic trope. His colleague Ali Muhammad Khan, Pakistan’s minister of state for parliamentary affairs, directly quoted from the source of the epithet: “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” an anti-Semitic hoax about a grand Jewish plan for global domination.
Outside Parliament, a leader of the fundamentalist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which recently rioted to demand the expulsion of the French ambassador over blasphemy against Islam by his countrymen, declared that “Pakistani Muslims will sacrifice their youth and lives, but they will not accept the filthy feet of Jews in Jerusalem.”
This is a far cry from when Pakistan, after its birth in August 1947 as a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims, was home to a religiously diverse community. Its then-capital, Karachi, boasted mosques of various Muslim denominations, several Catholic and Protestant churches, a Jewish synagogue, Parsi (Zoroastrian) fire temples, as well as Jain and Hindu temples devoted to various deities.
Although Khan claims the mantle of Pakistan’s secular founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, his government has allowed Pakistan’s ranking in global indices of human rights, women’s rights, and religious freedom to continue to slide.
The Pakistani prime minister has often expressed admiration for Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is known for his sexist, anti-democratic, and anti-Semitic remarks. Khan has been trying to substitute U.S. and moderate Arab influence in Pakistan with closer ties to Erdogan’s Turkey.
Khan’s statements, and those of his party colleagues, must not be ignored. They reflect a worldview that, when translated into policy, will only make Pakistan less tolerant for its citizens and more difficult for its international partners.