Imran Khan’s PTI: The New Face of Liberalism in Pakistan

Although people often conflate democracy and liberalism, there is a fine distinction between politics and culture; a democratic system of governance falls in the category of politics while liberalism, as a value system, falls in the category of culture. When we say that Islam and democracy are inconsistent, we make a category mistake as serious as the Islamists’ misperception that democracy is somehow un-Islamic. They too mix up democracy with liberalism.

I do concede, however, that there is some friction between liberalism as a cultural temperament and Islam as a religion. But democracy isn’t about religion or culture. It is simply a multi-party, representative political system that confers legitimacy upon a government which comes to power through an election process which is a contest between more than one political party to ensure that it is voluntary.

Thus, democracy and politics are mostly about matters of governance and economics, while culture is mostly about the social and moral values and the kind of social matrix that we, as individuals and families, would like to construct around us. There is some overlapping between politics and culture but as a heuristic principle this distinction holds true.

When I will discuss the political pragmatism of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the reader will further appreciate the fact that realpolitik is mostly about power and rarely about cultural matters.

Let us admit at the outset that Imran Khan is an educated, well-informed, articulate and charismatic leader. Being an Oxford graduate he is better informed than most of our domestic politicians. And he is a liberal at heart. Most readers would not agree due to his fierce anti-imperialism and the West-bashing demagoguery but I’ll try to explain.

Like I said earlier there is a difference between politics and culture; anti-imperialism is a political stance and liberalism is a cultural temperament. There is a theory called “Reflective Equilibrium.” It states that our minds try to create a harmony between our different sets of beliefs and actions. If there is a divergence between our beliefs and actions, it leads to cognitive dissonance. To avoid this cognitive disequilibrium we try to attune our beliefs and ideology to bring them in conformity with our actions and vice versa.

Now, if Imran Khan is supposedly a conservative Islamist, then his mind must be a psychological singularity. A playboy, cricketer-turned-politician who spent most of his youth in the West chasing famous celebrities all over the world, how could he be an Islamist or a conservative? How would his mind create a reflective equilibrium between his beliefs and his adulterous actions? It is just not possible for him to be an Islamist or a conservative. The only ideology that suits his temperament and actions is the freewheeling liberalism.

A clarification here is needed: when I say that he is not an Islamist, I mean that he is not a political Islamist; I am not questioning his personal faith as a Muslim. He seems like a secular and liberal Muslim.

Additionally, it’s not just Imran Khan’s playboy nature that makes him a liberal. He also derives his intellectual inspiration from the Western tradition. The ideal role model in his mind is the Scandinavian social democratic model which he has mentioned on numerous occasions, especially in his Karachi speech in December 2012. His relentless anti-imperialism as a political stance may have partly to do with his personal experience of encountering racism in the West and partly because it is based on facts. What neocolonialists did, and are doing, in Afghanistan and the Middle East evokes strong feelings of resentment among Muslims all over the world. Moreover, Imran Khan also uses anti-America rhetoric as electoral strategy to attract the conservative masses, especially the youth.

Notwithstanding, if Imran Khan is a liberal at heart, what is PTI then? Some of its stalwarts like Assad Umar, Jahangir Tareen, Khursheed Mehmood Qasuri and Shah Mehmood Qureshi also have liberal credentials. Additionally, we need to keep in mind the fact that PTI derives most of its support from women and youth. Both these segments of society, especially the women, are drawn more towards liberalism, than patriarchal conservatism, because liberalism protects the women’s rights and its biggest plus point is its emphasis on the equality, emancipation and empowerment of women who constitute more than 50% of the population in every society.

Regardless, I think that a better way to determine PTI’s position in the Pakistani political spectrum would be to break it down in various components and then analyze them. The Punjab and Karachi chapters (urban centers) of PTI are quite liberal in their outlook; some right-wing politicians even accused the PTI rallies in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad as obscene in a Pakistani social milieu. Those rallies weren’t obscene in any sense but in a segregated, patriarchal culture the mere intermixing of men and women at public places is also frowned upon.

However, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) chapter of PTI casts some aspersions on the liberal credentials of PTI, where it swept the elections from NA-1 to NA-20 and formed a coalition government with the religious hardliners. But the elections in KPK were fought on a single issue: Pakistan’s stance on the war on terror and its relationship with the US. KPK is the war on terror’s worst affected province of Pakistan; in the 2013 general elections PTI stood for dialogue and political settlement with the militants while Awami National Party (ANP) favored more military operations in KPK and tribal areas. But since the residents of KPK have witnessed firsthand the sufferings of internally displaced people of Swat and tribal areas, therefore they chose a pro-peace PTI over a pro-war ANP.

Finally, it appears that the PTI’s supporters in Punjab, Karachi and even KPK’s urban areas have a more liberal outlook while the PTI’s supporters in the rural areas of KPK are somewhat conservative. Therefore my conclusion would be that Imran Khan himself is a liberal but PTI is a hotchpotch of electable politicians from diverse political backgrounds; though it has a potential to emerge as a liberal political party on the Pakistani political scene. In the nutshell, compared to the certified liberal party, Pakistan People’s Party, I would place PTI as right-of-center; but in relation to the right-wing, Pakistan Muslim League, I would categorize PTI as a left-of-center political party in the Pakistani political spectrum.

Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based geopolitical and national security analyst focused on geo-strategic affairs and hybrid warfare in the Middle East and Eurasia regions. His domains include neocolonialism, the military-industrial complex, and petro-imperialism. He is a regular contributor of investigative reports to alternative news media. Read other articles by Nauman.