Anti-Americanism fuels Imran's political rise

A 68 per cent approval rating makes him Pakistan's most popular politician

Imran Khan
Image Credit: AFP
Imran Khan addresses a protest rally in Islamabad.
13 Gulf News

Karachi: Imran Khan once won glory for his country as its most successful cricket captain. After making an unspectacular debut in Pakistani politics as leader of the Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice) party 15 years ago, he positioned himself as a maverick outsider calling for sweeping reform within Islamabad's murky corridors of power.

Now, it looks as though he might be about to make a comeback on the wave of anti-American sentiment that's sweeping the country.

Khan's political life appears to be experiencing a new high thanks in part to his unique brand of anti-Americanism, which finds support among Pakistan's professional classes, youth, and women.

According to research carried out by Pew polling in Pakistan, he enjoys a 68 per cent approval rating, making him Pakistan's most popular politician, up from 52 per cent last year. The relationship between the US and Pakistan, meanwhile, has sunk to new lows in recent months, following the Osama Bin Laden raid and the release of a CIA agent who killed two Pakistani citizens.

Long derided as a non-serious candidate in an electoral system dominated by two major parties, Khan surprised political pundits last month by attracting thousands of supporters to a major protest in the northwestern city of Peshawar against US drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas, before going on to stage a sit-in to "symbolically block" Nato supply lines for Afghanistan that pass through the port city of Karachi.

With his good looks and seeming willingness to speak plainly, Khan is to Pakistan what Sarah Palin is to the US: controversial, an antidote to current administration, and, some say, a force to be reckoned with.

Playing to the gallery

American officials in Islamabad concede they are watching him closely, and Khan's antics often dominate local news coverage. But while Khan's rising stature may be indicative of rising anti-American sentiment among Pakistan's educated classes, analysts still aren't convinced of how seriously to take him.

"The whole world knows that an accused is innocent until a court says you are guilty. He who takes the law into his own hand and kills is himself a terrorist," he said at the Peshawar rally, referring to US forces.

Such rhetoric is common among Islamist hardliners and religious party leaders, but Khan's urbane appeal as a former cricketer who won international acclaim means he can reach a wider, less religious audience and position himself as the acceptable face of anti-Americanism, says Badar Alam, editor of Pakistan's Herald magazine.

When clerics talk, people don't stop to listen. "But when a western-educated clean-shaven man does the same, it does suit them," Alam says of Khan, who was educated at Oxford and maintained a reputation as a playboy throughout his cricketing career, before his nine-year marriage with British heiress Jemima Goldsmith.

Khan's support base of Pakistan's middle class, women, and the youth (who make up 70 per cent of the country) are exactly the groups the US has targeted in its battle to win hearts and minds.

The country's youth are particularly rapt by Khan, who appeals to their sense of national pride, says columnist Fasi Zaka.

"The youth of this country think politics is entirely rubbish," he says. Therefore, Khan's message of bringing about a "revolution" appeals to young people turned off by traditional politics.

Clean image

Another part of Khan's appeal is his squeaky-clean reputation in a country where allegations of corruption are rampant. His Shaukat Khanum hospital, established in memory of his mother, is regarded as one of the best in the country.

Last year, he was active in fundraising after the worst flooding to hit the country. And in 2008 he set up a college in his home district of Mianwali. "When compared to the other personalities in Pakistani politics, he is a saint," says Zaka.

According to a US embassy cable leaked by the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks, Khan made "often pointed and critical statements on US policy, which he characterised as dangerous and in need of change" in a meeting with former US Ambassador Anne Patterson last year.

That's in stark contrast to other leaders like Nawaz Sharif, the country's main opposition leader, and Maulana Fazlur Rehman, its most powerful Islamist party leader — both known for their hostile stances toward the US in public. Leaked US embassy cables showed their tone in private meetings to be far more conciliatory, to the point of fawning.

Though his party has never won more than one seat (his own) in previous elections, Khan is treated by the media as one of a handful of top political leaders, and was offered the position of prime minister in 2002 by Pervez Musharraf, according to his former wife.


From cricket to public service

  • Imran Khan Niazi was born on November 25, 1952, in Lahore.
  • He was educated at Aitchison College, the Cathedral School in Lahore and the Royal Grammar School Worcester in England.
  • Khan is chairman of Pakistan's Tehreek-e-Insaf political party, in addition to being a cricket commentator and Chancellor of the University of Bradford.
  • He played cricket for Pakistan from 1971 to 1992 and served as its captain intermittently through 1982-1992.
  • Khan helped establish the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre in 1996 and the Namal College in Mianwali in 2008.
  • On May 16, 1995, Khan married English Socialite Jemima Marcelle Goldsmith, later known as Jemima Khan. They had two sons — Sulaiman Eisa and Qasim. They divorced in 2004.

What critics say

Imran Khan oft-stated desire for the Pakistani state to cut deals with, rather than fight, the Pakistani Taliban, resulted in Khan being out of touch with the public after it began to back the Army in its fight against the Taliban after 2009.

Critics say that Khan's penchant for citing the US as the only major factor behind terrorism in Pakistan is flawed, if ridiculous. Khan has also been accused of being simple-minded — he has long been a vociferous supporter of Pakistan's Chief Justice Ifthikar Chauhdry, while at the same time advocating for the Pashtun jirga courts, which often push for harsh and collective punishments.

Badar Alam, editor of Pakistan's Herald magazine says, "historically, those who comprise Imran's support base are the people who never bother to vote."


  • Syed

    Jul 2, 2011 5:34

    Assumption that Imran has become popular among "voters" is doubtful. Poles may depict some picture, however, he has to prove his popularity winning some elections. Pakistanis need some "extreme" bias either in the name of language, region or religion etc etc. Apparently, he does not have those "attractions". Personally, I am convinced, in hope hungry nation, he can lift hope of people for some time. however, he has to come up with soild programs on some key issues like his vision about "relationship with india", Economy, education, extremism, intra provincial rivalry etc.

  • ahmad

    Jul 2, 2011 4:12

    Imran should not be seen with people like Zahid Kazmi, ( standing left ), who has a very bad reputation in Rawalpindi. Imran should know better.

  • Ahmad Bilal

    Jul 2, 2011 4:06

    Bottom line .... Do We Have a choice other than Imran Khan? We have already demonstrated how foolish we are by voting for the same corrupt political parties over and over again. If Pakistan hasn't yet learnt its lesson then I agree with the critics who call Pakistan an emotional, self-centered, divided collective of individuals. We don't need a silver spoon fed leader, but rather a person from the middle or lower class. Only he can know the meaning of suffering and the importance of basic necessities of life.

  • saeed

    Jul 2, 2011 3:43

    It’s not anti-Americanism which made him that popular...the thing which made him popular is his humanitarian work and tunes of his character. In Pakistan, clerics and maulvis have been preaching anti-Americanism for ages but they have never found an audience like this guy. he speaks truth...when America started talking with Taliban then what is wrong when he says the same? Pakistanis want this terrorism finished from their country. We don’t care if talks bring that or something else....may ALLAH give him the chance to serve Pakistan..

  • Ali Rahmatullah

    Jul 2, 2011 2:52

    I think his main factor is not his view on terorrism rather his squeaky clean image. He calls for the declaration of assets and the payment of taxes along with increased transparency... if the people catch on to this aspect of his political views then there is no party that can even compare to his clean style of politics....after all, the people care about food, fuel, and price hikes and if the current politicians are not credible to collect taxes, only Imran Khan's party is left as all the party leaders are educated technocrats that are in politics for pakistan's betterment not to make money like the other two mainstream parties.

  • Yawar Hassan

    Jul 2, 2011 1:54

    Clearly Issam Ahmad the reporter has not watched Khan's speeches well enough to draw a comparision with Sarah Palin. Just because he's got good looks doesn't mean he is to Pakistan what Palin is to US. Totaly irrelevant comparison. if he was to observe Khans speeches he would know better.

  • qasim

    Jul 2, 2011 1:26

    We need Imran Khan as our leader. We hope that he will bring revolutionary change to the country, which other parties have failed to do.

  • Adnan

    Jul 2, 2011 1:17

    He is only a leader in Pakistan who is well educated, honest and patriotic. Now it is our duty to create awarness among the people and handshake with him to save our beloved country.

  • Ali Shaikh

    Jul 2, 2011 12:40

    Thank you Gulf News for feeling changing political scene in Pakistan. It may not happen in these polls but future is for Imran Khan as political maturity continues. This time he may become a strong opposition even with few seats in assembly. Being simple minded is not a bad thing.

  • Dr. Salaria, Aamir Ahmad

    Jul 2, 2011 12:12

    There is no doubt in the hearts and minds of ordinary Pakistanis that Imran Ullah Khan Niazi (full name, often unreported in the domestic as well as global press) is a highly patriotic, dedicated, honest, hard working, enlightened, educated and excelling individual in the 'land of the pure' as they say. Almost all educated Pakistanis also agree that in the dirty 'pond of politics' in Pakistan, he is amongst the few distinguished and unique politicians who could be called 'Mr. Clean' and has been climbing the ladder of popularity since last few years, especially among the youth of the country. Nevertheless, most analysts, writers, academics, scholars and experts of politics ignore one tangible fact that Pakistan is still a predominantly agriculture country where majority of of the population, to the tune of at least 70 percent, lives in the rural areas. It merits mention that no politician could come to power in Pakistan unless and until he/she has overwhelming support of the rural voters. Whereas Imran Khan might enjoy the support of 60 percent or even more people in urban Pakistan as the writer has said, the million dollar questions to be pondered into are as following: (i) How much popularity does Imran Khan enjoy amongst the rural population of the country in general and rural registered voters in particular? (ii) How many of those 60 percent urban supporters of Imran Khan, mostly based in big cities, are registered voters? (iii) How many of his urban supporters would actually go to the polling station on the day of elections to vote for the ex skipper? (iv) Can he and his party beat the current ruling and opposition parties in Pakistan? I leave the answer to the enlightened readers of this great Gulf News forum.

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Assumption that Imran has become popular among "voters" is doubtful. Poles may depict some picture, however, he has to prove his popularity winning some elections. Pakistanis need some "extreme" bias either in the name of language, region or religion etc etc. Apparently, he does not have those "attractions". Personally, I am convinced, in hope hungry nation, he can lift hope of people for some time. however, he has to come up with soild programs on some key issues like his vision about "relationship with india", Economy, education, extremism, intra provincial rivalry etc.


2 July 2011 18:00 jump to comments