Imran Khan’s career first captivated Pakistanis when he captained their struggling cricket team into a 1992 World Cup victory. Over the 90s, Khan would leave the West to return to Pakistan, and would become a devout Sufi Muslim and politician.
Throwing himself into the ring as a Pashtun outsider, he’d challenge Pakistan’s involvement in the War on Terror (earning him the moniker ‘Taliban Khan’) before overthrowing the ruling PML-N government on money laundering charges with evidence gathered from the Panama Papers leak in 2018. Taking an anti-corruption stance and inheriting a balance of payments crisis, his PTI party allegedly fell out of favour with the powerful military that many allege secured his vote.
Khan would lose power after three years into his term as prime-minister, in a no-confidence vote over economic mismanagement that he and his party attest is politically motivated and driven by the U.S.
In the world of Pakistani politics—like the poor Benazir Bhutto—you could be left permanently breathless after such a downfall. On the campaign trail in the Punjab in 2021, Imran Khan came close: surviving a hail of automatic gunfire on a political rally that cut through his shin. Continuing to campaign for early elections while the presiding PML-N coalition inherited a troubled Pakistani economy that skyrocketed prices, Khan’s party became the clear favourite in 2022's national poll and bi-election. Khan is adamant his anti-corruption stance and criticism against the powerful military establishment have led to institutional attempts to silence him.
After a dramatic courtroom arrest by special force commandos (an action ruled ‘illegal’ by the Supreme Court), Khan was incarcerated for three years. His crime was for undervaluing $635,000 worth of state gifts while in power. Calling for civil disobedience before his arrest, Khan remains imprisoned without access to press. All the while, the elections he campaigned for face allegations of corruption, while the new caretaking BAP government stands accused of continuing the same bitter cycle of military favouritism.
Dark clouds are brewing over Pakistan’s democracy. Before Khan’s arrest, I spoke with the ex-prime minister by phone: discussing politics, post-colonialism and religious faith. Our talk was only meant to be three questions but I’d been told however that brevity isn’t Khan’s nature—when he talks, he talks…
Q: On June 13 2021 the Pakistan Rupee fell to one of the lowest points against the US Dollar since records began. This was under the Sharrif government and they alleged it was a hangover from your economic policies – how do you respond to this?
IK: [Laughs] In our third and fourth year our economy grew from 5.6% to 6% which was the best growth rate after 17 years in Pakistan. What happened was that in our fourth year there was this commodity supercycle where all across the world commodity prices went up, especially oil.
When the oil prices went up it started putting pressure on our external balance of payments. Everyone in the world – particularly in the developing world – is going through this terrible situation because of the oil prices going up. And I warned everyone that we cannot afford any political instability because the moment there would be instability, the economy couldn’t sustain it. It was a very narrow path that we were treading.
Unfortunately, there was a US-backed regime change. They wanted a compliant government and a non-independent foreign policy. The Rupee, just to give you an idea, was 178 to the US dollar when they tabled the no-confidence motion of 8th of March 2022. Now it’s basically nosedived. [299 to the US Dollar].
This is all because of the political instability. But also, it’s because the government who came in are completely incompetent. Pakistan has been governed by the military dictatorship for 30 years and the next 30 years by these two families [the Bhutto’s and the Sharrif’s] who’ve come in. They were the ones who first got us into this mess! And so when they came back they were never capable of handling the situation. With the political instability and this incompetent government, of course the economy crashed.
Q: I know you’ve been interested in trading with China. That June, the Indian government also condemned China and Pakistan for encouraging additional countries to join projects relating to the Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). How would you respond to that?
IK: The problem is that India is being used by Western countries to set it up as a counter-balance against China. Western countries are actually quite threatened by this. What should I say? The mind boggling growth rate of China is unprecedented in human history. In the last 35 years they have taken 700 million people out of poverty because of their high-growth rate.
So while the Western countries are now threatened by this growth – we have a very good relationship with China. The CPEC is a form of connectivity, but it is also a way of bringing in investment. We look upon it differently to India, who feels a little threatened because of India’s and China’s poor relationship and their worries about Pakistan. As does the US – they’re a little worried about it too – and that’s where the problems arise.
Q: Do you see it as a conflict of interest between the US and India, and Pakistan and China?
IK: It’s always been the case – it’s a superpower struggle for dominance. It’s nothing new. At one point there was the Soviet camp during the Cold War and the Western camp. So now they’re already seeing China growing and so you see that rivalry form.
But Pakistan doesn’t want to get caught up in this. We don’t have the luxury of choosing camps. We want to look after the 100 million Pakistanis who are hovering just above or below the poverty lines.
Q: I’ve noted from your biography Imran Khan: A Personal History: ‘Colonialism only works if the colonisers are convinced of their superiority and the colonisers of their inferiority.’ Do China and Pakistan have similar colonial histories and, if so, what’s unlocked China’s ability to grow so quickly?
IK: Slaves are only good slaves, they can never ever become great nations. It’s freedom of mind and thought that makes a nation great.
China got rid of that mental slavery after Mao’s revolution and Pakistan, unfortunately, is still in the process of it – we still haven’t really broken the shackles.
What do you mean by mental slavery? Because I know on the retreat of the US from Afghanistan you said that ‘the Afghani’s had broken free from the shackles of slavery’ and I’d like to hear your thoughts around this term.
I said something different.
Q: What was the exact quote?
IK: For the first time, we had changed the colonial system of education [in Pakistan]. What the British did in India was they had created a small, tiny class of Indians who were taught in the English medium and this became the way the British ruled 40 million Indians…So when we became independent we still had the same system, we still had the English medium for the elite and then there was Urdu medium for the rest of the population. We had a two-tier education system as a hangover of the colonial system.
My government synthesised the education system: starting from class 5 and then going upwards. So I was inaugurating that system and then I said ‘mental slavery is much worse than physical slavery…The Afghan people have got rid of physical slavery but mental slavery is what we are now getting rid of with this system.’ But it was taken out of context.
Q: I know when you lived in the West you’ve had ‘A Playboy lifestyle’. How do you feel your experience in the West led you to your spiritual views around Islam and politics?
IK: What is the difference between a spiritual life and a non-spiritual life? Sometime in your life you will ask yourself two questions: what is my purpose of existence and what happens to me when I die? Only the spiritual world answers these questions.
All the time we have these two choices. One is spiritual. The other is the worldy route which is alluring – and of course I’ve seen both lives.
I didn’t come to the spiritual world because of my own experiences. I was very lucky because I could see what was going on in Pakistan. You see a lot of spiritual life and between the two lives I began to compare them. And I realised all the people I looked up to, the stars, the pop stars, the film stars, when I got to see them from the inside, from behind the veil of their real life, I found that most of them were…terrible! I actually realised that what we were so attracted to was a mirage. You get attracted to the glamorous lifestyle, but you realise behind it is a terrible thing – just a mirage.
Q: Do you think if that lifestyle could lead you to spirituality, then shouldn’t society be open enough to allow people to make these mistakes and find their own path?
IK: If I had to live my life again, I wish I would have got to this path much earlier. Because I was almost 40 when I got to the spiritual path. It’s not an overnight thing. Spirituality is an ocean. The more you go into it, the more depths you can discover.
The Sufi’s describe it as ‘lifting the veil’. And when you see the other side, you begin another journey. And I discovered it more and more, and the more I discovered the more I realised that I wasted a lot of my life. What I was looking for happiness actually didn’t exist! I was mistaking pleasure seeking for happiness and pleasure seeking is transitory - it has diminishing returns. The irony is it took me away from happiness.
Q: How do you see the Prophet (PUBH) as an icon for Pakistan’s identity as an Islamic state?
IK: There is only one Islam we follow. But in Muslim communities — like in English communities or any community – you have your moderates. At either end you have your liberals and your fanatics. Every society has them. In the US, you have these rednecks going around, beating people, killing people, these white supremacists. In Europe you have these racists. When I went to England for the first time there was these skinheads, they were going around beating people up and calling them ‘Pakis’ – even if it was an Asian person.
So all societies have these fanatics. But the real religion – and let me say every religion not just Islam, because we recognize that all human communities were sent a message by God – all religion at the core is always humane. They talk about two things: being humane and being just.
We believe the all-mighty sent all human communities to differentiate us from the animal kingdom, where might is right, and where there’s survival of the fittest. Humans are humans only if they have compassion and if they have justice. The animal kingdom can’t create these. So all prophets gave the same basic message for us.
Q: When you apply these things to the world of politics – which is filled by great powers jostling for control – is there ever a time for compromise? I know when you were asked about continuing relations with Russia [after invading Ukraine], you said the choice wasn’t a privilege you had.
IK: Look you must understand about world politics. The problem is that the powerful decide what moral stance we should take. And they decide according to their own interests.
Today, if the US decide Russia was wrong in going into Ukraine, they’ll condemn it, they’ll sanction it. But then they also want us to do the same!
And yet, when it comes to Kashmir, when 100,000 Kashmiris are killed by the most oppressive Indian government and all human rights there are violated and the UN has even written about mass graves in Kashmir, the US won’t condemn India - because India is an ally!
No - they’ll trade with them, and have no sanctions, or anything. The UN security council resolution has condemned what’s happened in Palestine and Kashmir. They’re very similar. Yet there’s no condemnation! Now we are expected to take sides with what matters to the US.
That is what we object to.
Q: I remember at a 2022 rally you also complained about the diplomatic pressure from Western envoys…
IK: Twelve European envoys wrote me a letter to condemn Russia and all I said was: ‘why don’t you write a letter to India?’ India was importing Russian oil, they’re the strategic ally of the US, yet it’s still trading with Russia. And India abstained! But they asked us to condemn Russia.
So that’s why I objected. And by the way, ambassadors never break protocol by writing an open letter. It’s never done.
Q: So you saw it as a hypocrisy?
IK: Not just hypocrisy – it’s against protocol!
Q: But you also compared it to slavery?
IK: Would they dare to do that to India? We’re in the same embassy as India, why didn’t they say the same thing to India? Because India is a strategic ally and they don’t want to upset them.
Q: On the topic of India, I know you’ve disavowed any military solution in Kashmir…Are there worries about the security situation given a non-violent stance?
IK: Look, I don’t believe in wars. I’m an anti-war person, they never solve issues – the US went into Iraq to stop Al Qaeda and they created ISIS. All wars are miscalculations.
What the US did in Afghanistan – 20 years they spent there. God knows, hundreds of thousands of people died there. What did they achieve? What did they go in for?
Anyone who knew the history of Afghanistan knew the outcome. I kept saying there could be no military solution and they kept calling me Pro-Taliban for that. Because children of a lesser God are not supposed to criticise US foreign policy. You get branded as ‘anti-US’. But actually they realised there was no military solution and it was Pakistan that started the talks between the US and the Taliban…
What the BJP are doing in India it’s terrible – they consider all minorities in India apart from Hindus as inferior.
So, unfortunately, right now, there’s no question of talking to India because India is ruled by this mad, mad ideology. I tried my best in the beginning, I spoke to the Indian prime minister [Modi], I extended a hand of friendship but unfortunately, in 2019 they went into Kashmir and they went against the UN security resolution which clearly says ‘Kashmir is a disputed territory and people of Kashmir require a plebiscite to decide if they want to apart of Pakistan or India’. And they just took away their statehood! They had a special status, in 2019, and they took it away.
But having said that, there will never be a military solution in Kashmir, and there never should be – because the two countries are nuclear armed.
Q: It’s a terrifying state of brinkmanship. Are you still open to a diplomatic solution with India?
IK: Of course. Of course.
And is two steps forward from Pakistan still a policy you want to carry forward?
Yes - but how can we? You see what they have done in Kashmir makes it so hard. It’s a disputed territory. According to the UN resolution India should let the people of Kashmir decide. They’ve refused to allow that for the past 75 years and rather than building on that, they’ve taken away the status and made Kashmir part of India.
Now that – it’s totally unacceptable.
Q: To tie it back to what you said earlier, do you see the conflict as the product of a religious mindset rather than a spiritual mindset?
IK: This is when religion becomes like a football match. The greatest damage is done by those fanatics when they treat religion as the same as extreme nationalism, what the Germans did with the Arayan race...It’s that sort of nationalism that is dangerous.
Right now in India, there is the sort of extreme nationalist government they have which feels that no other human community is equal and India is for Hindus. The ideology is Hindutva – India for Hindus. So 500 million non-Hindus in India are now second-class citizens. They are threatened.
I think it’s unsustainable. You cannot have a government with 500 million people who feel they are second class citizens. If you have such huge minorities, you can only survive as a tolerant, multicultural state.
Q: I’d like to close on just one last question for you. If you were to be re-elected, what lessons would you put into practise when setting up your next cabinet?
IK: First of all I’ve learnt a lot, having three and half years in government, I’ve prioritised a lot of things that needed to be done in the first 90 days.
What I really want to look into is the justice system. We need to beef it up. The problem is in the developing world, you don’t have rule of law. The powerful get away with murder, and they get away with the white-collar crimes you can’t catch. So you need a proper infrastructure and a justice system where you can bring them under the rule of law. That is the key for most of the developing world.
Yet for the first two years we struggled with the economy, and then for the last two years, Pakistan was growing at its fastest in 70 years for sustainable growth. So now we know the steps we need to take – we’re also selecting a dean beforehand so we can hit the ground running.
Q: Has the mood changed since the no-confidence vote given the [PTI bi-election] victory in the Punjab?
IK: The mood here has completely changed. Everyone realised that before I was removed, the country was moving forward. Business was flourishing and there was growth. People could see the difference.
So when we were removed, there was a lot of anger in the country…people turned out in the streets, and millions of people came out in the streets for my support. That’s never happened in Pakistan before when a government is gone. Especially with the Punjab administration, it’s never happened that a sitting government with the entire election commission backing them — with the police and everything — people would still come out in such numbers.
And remember – all the parties are against me. They are all on one side and my party is on the other. And yet we are still beating them.
Disclaimer: This was interview was conducted in 2022.
So yes, the mood has changed.