Friday, 23 December 2011

“Pakistan: A Personal History” by Imran Khan – Book Review

Almost two years ago, I had blogged about Imran Khan and my comments weren’t exactly very flattering to the former captain of Pakistan’s world cup winning squad.

I have now just finished reading a book by Imran which combines Pakistan’s history with Khan’s own story. Khan writes well and tells a simple story of how Pakistan has evolved since its independence, the challenges it faces and how Khan’s political party Tehreek-e-Insaf can offer a credible alternative to the established parties. One may not agree with everything that Khan has to say, but one is forced to admit that Khan has passion, drive and determination for his cause.

Khan has a view on a number of issues, ranging from Pakistan’s founders Jinnah and Iqbal to the Taliban to the path which Pakistan should take to get out of the morass it is currently in. Hardly surprising, I guess, otherwise Khan wouldn’t be in politics or write a book for that matter. Khan comes across as a conservative man, one very proud of his Pathan origins, his religion worn on his sleeve. I initially thought Pakistan: A Personal History would be addressed to and meant for young Pakistanis, ones who would vote in the next elections, but no, by the time I finished this book, I got the feeling that Khan was trying to explain Pakistan to the West, to ask for greater understanding (not sympathy- Khan is too proud for that) and respect.

The broad contours of Khan’s story would be known to most people in the sub-continent. As a youngster, Khan had a privileged childhood, went to one of the best schools in Pakistan, had a dream career playing international cricket for Pakistan, led Pakistan to its one and only world cup victory, built a world-class cancer hospital in memory of his mother with public donations, got married to the very pretty and very young Jemima, got into politics, initially made a hash of things, got divorced and has managed to stick around in the political arena till now. Mind you, there isn’t too much about Khan’s rise to fame and glory in cricket, other than occasional references to various incidents, both good and bad ones. If one expects a cricketing biography, one’s going to be disappointed.

Similarly there isn’t much about his courtship of Jemima. Khan tells us that he was all set for an arranged marriage when he met Jemima. He doesn’t use the words ‘fall in love” though he does say that he ‘found her attractive and intelligent and was particularly impressed by her strong value system and the fact that despite her young age she already had a spiritual curiosity.' I though Khan’s account of the reasons for their divorce much more honest and straightforward. I’d say this book is 8/10th about politics and ideology, 1/10th about cricket and the remaining 1/10th is other personal stuff.

There are quite a few interesting anecdotes about Khan. One is set during the 1965 War with India when Pakistanis expected the Indian army to land in Lahore where Khan lived. Some of Khan’s older cousins formed a junior defence league and were armed with guns. Two of Khan’s ‘overzealous cousins almost ambushed, shot and killed two innocent people, mistaking them for Indian paratroopers.’ It is not cleared if the two innocents were “killed” or “almost killed”. There is no mention of any punishment and so I presume it was only “almost killed”, but then you never know in Pakistan. There is another story of how Khan’s tips helped his brother-in-law Ben Goldsmith, who had lost about 10,000 pounds spread betting on cricket, recoup his losses. After the losses were recouped, Ben made enough money (in two days) for Khan to pay off his party’s debts. Mind you, Khan says he never gambled in his life till then and there is no mention of Khan repeating such a performance.

Khan mentions how Zia declared the Ahmediyas to be non-Muslims, but doesn’t comment either in support or against that declaration. Clearly, Khan doesn’t want to lose any votes over this issue. However, in the matter of Salman Taseer's murder, he takes a clear stand calling it tragic. Khan also takes the view that Tasser’s assassination and the subsequent killing of Shahbaz Bhatti is a result of the polarisation in Pakistan brought about by Pakistan’s involvement in the War on Terror. ‘Before 9/11, Taseer’s remarks recommending a change to the blasphemy law in order to prevent its misuse might not have even got a mention in the newspapers. At worst they might have roused a few statements by clerics wanting to mobilise public support among their constituencies, but in the current polarised climate everyone and anyone is at risk if they happen to be on the wrong side of the divide.

Khan goes out of his way to explain Islam, Pakistan and the Pashtuns (who can do no wrong) to the outside world, sticking his neck out in the process. Most of what Khan has to say is sensible and correct – to an extent atleast, such as that Islam has had a glorious past when it produced a number of scientists and geometricians and the like (when the West wallowed in darkness), that a genuine Islamic state would necessarily be a welfare state which would tolerate minorities, that the Taliban were fundamentalists, but never terrorists, that no Pakistani had taken part in the 9/11 attacks, that the Taliban could have been persuaded to have Osama bin Laden tried in an Islamic court of law, that it is still possible to make an honourable peace with the Taliban. Khan leaves one in no doubt that if his party comes to power, the Pakistani army will stop participating in the War on Terror. Khan doesn’t want Pakistan to get American aid, he feels it makes Pakistan aid-dependent and most of the aid money lines the pockets of the rich and powerful.

When Khan talks of the honour system, yes the very same idea which causes fathers to kill their daughters who fall in love before marriage, he says, ‘the concept of honour has received a bad press because of the deeply offensive honour killings, but by upholding one’s honour impoverished people living hard lives can maintain a sense of dignity and command respect. In the tribal area, the highly decentralized form of democracy is based on the jirga system – local councils of village elders, similar to the Athenian democracy of the city-states of......’ I’m going to leave this at that.

Again when Khan talks of opposition to women’s liberation, we are told, ‘While the masses in Pakistan are impressed by the tremendous technological progress of the Western world, their understanding of the Western moral value system mainly comes from watching television and they do not respect what they see. Therefore they are deeply suspicious of any attempt towards westernization – particularly women’s liberation. They don’t regard this as women having the right to fulfil their potential, but rather as having the right to be sexually permissive. Therefore westernised Pakistanis are considered to have loose morals too. One of the many derogatory things which people say about westernized couples is that "he does not get angry and she has no shame." It is because of this attitude that sometimes modernization is resisted because it is perceived to be westernization. People are also therefore wary of foreign NGOs dealing with women.

Khan’s sense of righteousness and destiny shine forth brightly, as Khan discusses Pakistan’s current political dilemma and the role he would play if he could win political power. We find statements like ‘that left only my party and the religious parties to take a stand.’ Khan wants Pakistan to ‘reclaim the vision and wisdom of the modernist reformers who paved the way for the creation of Pakistan. We need to do this because we badly need a cultural, intellectual and moral renaissance in Pakistan so that we are able to create societies and communities that are educated and enlightened, just and compassionate, forward-looking and life-affirming. We need to utilize our rational faculties and engage in scholarly discussion and reflection to find a solution to contemporary issues such as the blending of the positive aspects of Western culture with Islam. The new renaissance must also offer an alternative to the Western materialism and consumerism that has been totally imbibed by our ruling classes and which our country cannot afford.

Khan is quite clear that it is the current ruling classes of Pakistan who are at the root of Pakistan’s misery. Not only do they covet foreign aid money, which they then siphon off, they also ape the West and do not subscribe to the values which Pakistan’s founders had espoused. The English language schools of Pakistan, which follow a curriculum different from that of state schools come in for some severe criticism for creating brown sahibs. ‘When Pakistan became independent, we should have rid ourselves of these English medium schools,’ Khan sermonises and then adds, ‘in other post-colonial countries such as Singapore, India and Malaysia, they set up one core syllabus for the whole country.’ I can’t speak for Singapore, and Malaysia, but Khan should have done some more research on India before making such a flattering statement. If India had done away with all English language schools, yours truly would not be posting this piece on Winnowed and Khan would not have written Pakistan: A Personal History in English if Pakistan had done away with all its English language schools.

Khan doesn’t want Pakistan to have the Western form of secularism. While noting that ‘Islam gives all the freedom of a secular society – yet an Islamic state cannot be secular. To understand secularism as it exists in the West today, it is important to remember the evolution of Christianity within the Roman Empire. When the Roman Empire became Christian, the State and the Church had their distinct boundaries. Over the centuries, many other influences have shaped modern-day secularism. But the separation of Church and State could not happen in Islam since it has no concept of a Church.’ I don’t think the Church and State were so distinct during the days of early Christianity. Also, I don’t see how Islam not having a Church should prevent the State from disassociating itself from religion. Khan does offer an explanation by quoting Iqbal who said that ‘when a State is governed without the moral values that are rooted in religion then naked materialism is likely to replace it – exactly the observation made by Mohandas Gandhi when he remarked, ‘those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.’ The two greatest institutional tyrannies of all times, the Nazi Reich and the Soviet Union, were Godless constructs.

Khan ends his 364-page (sans le index) tome on the most positive note, telling us that his political party Tehreek-e-Insaf is the only party which can get Pakistan out of its current desperate crisis. ‘For the first time I feel Tehreek-e-Insaf is the idea whose time has come,’ Khan tells us.


Anonymous said...

what a amazing life journey. 10 pints

Anonymous said...

The best book by a Pakistani.

Surely, the only hope for/of pakistan.

Be God with you in your endeavours Imran Khan