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  Global Viewpoint



Imran Khan, the famous Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician, speaks candidly and passionately in this interview with Atif R. Khan (no relation) of Islamica Magazine about everything from politics and Pakistan to Sufism and Islamic democracy. They spoke recently at Imran Khan's home in Lahore.

By Imran Khan

Global Viewpoint: Much is made of Islam and democracy in the media today. What role has Islam played in the political reality of Pakistan, and what role do you see it playing in the future? 

Imran Khan: Well, let us just say that a lot of lip service has been paid to Islam. Without any substance in it, people have used Islam for political gains. It is more a slogan here. I am talking about the rulers, people who have been in power. No one has sincerely worked toward Islam, to instill Islamic values in this society.

We have been so defensive about Islam, like this current government of General Musharraf’s, under the slogan of “enlightened moderation.” It is basically a term to appease the American government. Their whole “Islam” is defined not by enlightened Islam as considered by the great scholars, but what the American government perceives to be enlightened Islam, which is basically a Muslim who is Westernized. It has nothing to do with his liberal or moderate mindset about Islam but how he comes across as a Westernized Muslim. And secondly he is a Muslim who accepts American hegemony.

In Pakistan, I have never in my life seen that a country whose only purpose for coming into being is Islam to be in a situation as it is today. This whole thing about changing the curriculum of the country, under pressure from the Americans, that is another bizarre thing. We should be constantly reviewing our curriculum. It is common sense that we should be reviewing it. But education should be taken as a whole. Why are the madrassas — which are only a very small percentage of the education system — being targeted? What about this unfair system of education where there is one syllabus for the rich, Westernized elite, the English medium syllabus, and the rest for the common man? And the common man, what does he receive in government education? It has completely collapsed.  

I stand for an overall reform of education. So why have they just taken the madrassas? Why not the overall education system, which is in a state of decay in Pakistan? What I am saying is that all this is done under American pressure. So we are not even sovereign in the country, where now our every move is meant to please the Americans. This is the so-called doctrine of “enlightened moderation.” 

GV: You talk about applying Islamic principles. Political accountability and transparency are among your strongest political messages. According to what standard of justice do you actually recommend such reforms be implemented: Islamic law, Pakistani law or some combination of the two?

Khan: Justice knows no laws. Justice is justice. It is a very straightforward thing, justice. Islamic justice and any other justice is the same. What is justice? Justice means that everyone stands equal in front of the law.

What was it that propelled the Islamic civilization into the greatest one ever? The Rightly-Guided Caliphs in the state of Medina established complete justice. Everyone was equal before the law. Two of the four caliphs actually went to a court of law, with Hazrat Ali (may God be well pleased with him) losing a case against a Jewish subject. That was Muslim justice.

Muslim justice was such that the Christians in Muslim states had greater protection and freedom of religion than they had in their own Christian Byzantine state. So a Muslim state should be based on a system of justice, above all.

Number two: welfare. A state should look after its underprivileged. The weak, the old, the orphans, the widows — which is what was started at the time of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs. And a state should be sovereign. Because when you accept the sovereignty of God, you do not accept any false gods. And look at the state of the Muslim world today, where they just bow and scrape in front of foreign powers. 

GV: You have talked about the importance of creating a dialogue between the Westernized elite and the rejectionist extreme. Where and how do you see such a dialogue developing? 

Khan: Basically what we have is a Westernized elite which, on the whole, has no idea about Islam, and they look upon Islam through Western lenses. Their Islam is like General Musharraf’s Islam. It is not original. It is how the West perceives Islam. That is unfortunately why we have a situation where we are so defensive about Islam.

Our Westernized elite are defensive about Islam. Why do you invent a ridiculous term like “enlightened moderation?” What is it supposed to mean? Every human society has its fanatics, its liberals, its moderates, its fundamentalists. Why should Muslims always be saying “we are moderates”? Why this defensive attitude?

Look at the Hindu fanatics in India. Look at the United States, the Christian fanatics. Look at Israel, the Jewish fanatics. But you do not see their heads of state going on and on about how they are moderates and how they are enlightened. The biggest problem the Muslim world faces today is that we have not been able to project, in our states, what a truly enlightened Islamic state should be. That is the biggest problem here. Unfortunately, no great examples — maybe Malaysia? We could say that Malaysia is sort of developing into a modern Islamic state. 

GV: What are the sources of extremism that have riddled the country over the last 20 years? Why is there so much inter-religious and sectarian conflict in a region where historically people generally lived quite peaceably?  

Khan: We have to thank the CIA-sponsored Afghan jihad for it. These militant groups were developed to fight in Afghanistan, which most people here believe was a just war because it was against a foreign occupation. But after that, I am sad to say, our establishment patronized certain groups, which were militant groups, which were clearly extremist groups. And these were officially patronized by our establishment for their own motives. And these groups, unfortunately, are responsible for all these killings. Before that we never had this sort of extremism.

So we are responsible because it started these groups that were supposed to fight in Afghanistan, but once the war was over these groups were then used by the establishment for whatever ends they wanted to use.

Pakistanis have always been basically very moderate. We have always had moderate Islam here. We have always had the soft version of Islam because of Sufism. All you have to do is look around.

We do not have a “hard” version of Islam. People are basically very tolerant. I grew up never seeing fundamentalism and all this intolerance. Unfortunately, it is a combination of a few things. One: this culture of the Westernized elite whose insensitivity sparks off reaction. These fundamentalists, some of them are reactionaries; the proper word is reactionary. They react to their culture coming under threat. Then, two, there was this Afghan jihad which brought this version of Islam.

And now we have a system where, unfortunately, we have this so-called War on Terrorism, which is basically this neo-con, Zionist agenda of putting client regimes in the Muslim world, and they equate the Muslim freedom struggle with the terrorism of 9/11. So this War on Terrorism is evoking a reaction in Pakistan.

GV: Do you see Muslim reform as being a primarily political one or also a spiritual one?

Khan: I think that if you have political reform in the Islamic world, the spiritual reform would follow.

GV: How about the other way around?                                       

Khan: “The other way around” is something I am not sure can happen because if you have a system where you have such governments as exist today in the Muslim world — that do not allow freedom of expression, freedom of thought, that do not allow debate on Islam — how are you going to have an Islamic renaissance? What you need is proper, pure, democratic governments. Remember, there is no substitute for democracy. And when you have democracy and an open society and debate, automatically you will see the real scholars coming up.

GV: What is your impression of Islam in North America?

Khan: I think there is great hope in North America about Islam, mainly because there is a spirit of inquiry there. The educational institutions are good, people are equipped to do research, there is freedom of expression. Certainly before 9/11, there really was freedom of expression for Muslims. It was easier for Muslim scholars to debate views on Islam in America than it was in their own country.

In our sort of world, you have fanatics attacking you on one side, and the moment you spoke about Islam, and it was against the leaders of the day, the government would squeeze you from the other side. In most of the Muslim world, the government does not allow freedom of expression. If you do not have freedom of expression, you cannot have evolution of thought.

GV: The case of Mukhtar Mai, the young Pakistani woman who was raped by men in her village, made headlines all over the world. What steps can be taken to ensure that rural women in Pakistan feel that they have legal recourse when these horrible crimes are committed against them?

Khan: I feel bad for Mukhtar Mai and so many other Mukhtar Mais in Pakistan. But the fact is that it is not just one Mukhtar Mai. It is a whole judicial system that does not protect the weak from the strong. It is not just Mukhtar Mai. All the jails are full of poor people. No rich people ever end up in jail.

There was a survey in Pakistan: The two most crooked departments in the government of Pakistan are the police and the lower judiciary. Only the poor go to jail while the rich buy their way out. It is a question of justice in Pakistan. It should not be isolated to Mukhtar Mai.

What about the 20-year-old man who was put to nine years in jail for a crime in which it turned out he was innocent? The sentence for the crime was a six-month punishment, and he ended up spending nine years of his life in jail. His family was destroyed by the time he came out.

There were three people in Sindh who were in jail for 22 years. Twenty-two years and then they discovered these men were innocent. There was a man, Muhammad Hussain in Lahore, he spent 15 years in jail because they lost his file. What happens to all these people? It is not just one Mukhtar Mai. It does not happen to an influential woman in Pakistan. If a woman is influential, from a rich family, she would be OK. It is only these poor people. It is a problem of justice. If you are powerful, you are safe.

GV: First Afghanistan, then Iraq, and now American administration voices are being raised against Iran and Syria. What do you see as a practical Muslim response to the U.S. hegemony?

Khan: There is only one response. The Muslim world should speak as one voice and ask the U.S. to end its double standards. Whatever it asks of Iran, why does it not ask of Israel? The U.S. has asked Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and yet there is Israel occupying so many territories of Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon.

Why is a U.N. resolution not effective when Israel is concerned? It is these double standards that are causing incredible anger, and then they talk about democracy in Iraq. And they are saying that Lebanon cannot have democracy if there are 14,000 occupying Syrians. What about 140,000 Americans while holding elections in Iraq? And what about other countries: There may be no democracy, but because they are pro- U.S., they’re fine.

These double standards are causing so many problems. In the Muslim world, the only hope is democracy. The sad thing is that the only way the Muslim world will be able to represent the aspirations of the Muslim masses would be if you have proper democracy. But we have puppets. We all know that most of the Muslim world is headed by puppets.

GV: What hope does any new leadership in Pakistan have of wresting power from institutions as heavily entrenched as the military and the feudal barons?

Khan: The problem we have is that the elite people, the well-to-do, who have more money than the rest, who have better educations, are totally depoliticized. Including the youth. They are totally depoliticized. And the common man is just fighting for his survival.

Normally it is the educated youth in a country, the students, they are the ones who are at the forefront of change. Like in Indonesia, the change was brought about by the youth. In the United States, the strongest antigovernment protests during the Vietnam War were on campuses. Here you have a youth that is totally depoliticized, especially the Westernized elites.

The youth on whom you spend the greatest amount of money, all the values that are indoctrinated in them are material values. All they are interested in is their material well-being, the jobs, going to the land of milk and honey, going abroad. There is no sense of nation-building, or fighting for your country, or changing it. That kind of vitality does not exist. The youth and the Westernized elite need grounding in their religion.

GV: You mention grounding in our religion. What do you think is the best forum for such grounding?

Khan: The education system needs to be reformed as a whole, and religion is a very important part of education. Do not listen to these secular people who say that religion should have nothing to do with education. Absolute nonsense. Muslims produced the greatest scientists for 700 years. And in those education systems, everyone was also taught their religion. Everyone understood it.

In fact, it is the only protection against the negative side of the clergy, or what you call “mullah-ism.” You can only protect yourself if you understand the religion. So how can it be bad to learn religion, because it teaches you of ethics, of values, of being a better human being, being selfless, being charitable; all the great values in a human being are imparted by religion, not just Islam, but other religions also. People who say we should remove religion completely from education are talking nonsense. You need morality in society, whatever you do.

GV: How should Muslims deal with the perception that there is a conflict between Islam and democracy?

Khan: The problem we are facing is that they keep telling us that democracy and Islam do not go together only because there is no democracy in the Muslim world. Yet we all know that the first city-state of Islam, Medina, had very strong democratic institutions. Elections alone do not mean democracy. Democracy means democratic institutions, which means a strong independent judiciary. That is the key.

Apart from that you have elections. But that independent judicial system is the key institution that ensures democracy. The first Islamic state had an excellent judicial system. For a long time in the Muslim world, the judiciary was independent of the executive branch.

We suffered because instead of developing on that state, we ended up back in monarchy with no checks on the executive. And when the West was changing and constitutions were developing in the United States, during the French Revolution, when Oliver Cromwell asserted the parliamentary control over the executive, we here were still having absolute monarchs who invariably degenerated that system. It is meant to self-destruct. So this is our biggest problem: a problem of perception, because the impression is that Islam is an outdated religion. Look at the Muslim world, there are no democracies.

The second challenge we face is that, because we do not have, like the Catholic Church, a spokesmen speaking for all Catholics. We have a book in Islam. And every Muslim can make up his own mind and decide which scholar to follow. We have no single voice to speak from. So the result is that instead of the best voices speaking for Islam, we have those voices speaking that the Western media decide should speak, and the media can pick anyone. And they prefer the fanatics to come forward, who make no sense at all, who reinforce the stereotypes of Islam in the West. We need people like Hamza Yusuf (a North American Muslim scholar), enlightened people who can speak with the same expression and language of the West. We need scholars.