Imran Khan's Charismatic Authority Fuels A Dominant Political Cult

Imran Khan's Charismatic Authority Fuels A Dominant Political Cult
In a video clip available on Capital TV’s YouTube channel, a small boy of around five-seven-years expresses his adulation for Imran Khan. The boy is so young that he is sitting on the shoulders of an elderly person. In response to the question that why has he come there. The child replies in Punjabi that he has come for Imran Khan (he might not know PTI at all and many people don't support the PTI but they cannot resist the charisma of Mr Khan). The innocent young boy, wearing a turban of the PTI flag and holding a large portrait of Mr Khan in his tiny hands, says that Imran Khan is his ‘Murshid’. The boy warns the nation in his message to the nation that he would cut off the hands that touch his murshid (with bad intentions). Murshid is a term used mostly in the Islamic Sufi tradition for a spiritual guide or teacher. The diehard fans of Mr Khan now prefer to call him murshid instead of the previously glamorous title of ‘captain’ for their leader.

From his glorious days of cricket to doing philanthropic work to displaying an untraditional political leadership, Mr Khan has numerous features and characteristics that magnify his charisma for the young and old alike. In recent years, it seems that the glitz of his charisma is making his followers blind, resisting the temptation to question while hating the dissenters. This raises Mr Khan to a type of leadership that the Sociologist Max Weber calls ‘charismatic authority’. According to Weber “Charismatic authority is power legitimized on the basis of a leader's exceptional personal qualities, or the demonstration of extraordinary insight and accomplishment, which inspire loyalty and obedience from followers”.

One comes across all sorts of emotional supporters, nay cult followers of Khan that include young and old, men and women, labourers and bosses, students and teachers but the growling pain and blazing love that 14-year-old Abubakar Marwat showed for his ‘Jaan’ in Abbottabad Jalsa was incomparable. In a howling voice, shedding tears and loud cries, the little Abu Bakr complains that he has travelled all the way from Lakki Marwat to Abbottabad, reached around 2 am that night, and tried his best to meet Khan or at least have a closer look at him, but the guard did not allow him. He wails that the words he utters don’t come from his mouth, rather they come straight from his heart and that Mr Khan is his Jaan and love.

The examples mentioned here are just the tips of the iceberg. Everyone reading this piece must have come across multiple individuals who have locked their rational faculties and have devoted themselves completely and solely to their Murshid. Imran’s protégés have made a cult around him because whatever the murshid thinks is enough, whatever he says is undisputable, and even whatever he wears is imitable like the Peshawari Chappals, the waistcoat and the prayer beads.

This phenomenon is known in the canon of political psychology as the cult of personality. A cult of personality or personality cult is defined as an “exaggerated devotion to charismatic political, religious, or other leaders.” Personality cults usually grow as a result of the manipulation of mass media and other social engineering techniques to present the charismatic leader to his followers as a messiah, often someone having divine qualities.  The cult leader is supposed to materialize an imagined, utopian future.

Neuroscientist and physiologist Kathleen Taylor in her 2004 book “Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control” explains “Cult followers typically consider their leaders divine or, at least, mandated by some supreme authority (God, fate, the forces of history, or whatever ethereal idea fits their particular world view) to change the universe.” She further argues “Many followers tend to join (the cult) in their teens or early twenties when they are still unformed adults—individuals not yet fully at ease in their own skins, seeking a sense of identity and security which the cult is able to provide.”

Since 2013, the Pakistani nation and its worldwide diaspora have been subjected to continuous brainwashing by some Private TV channels, social media activists and pseudo-journalists cum intellectuals. Today, when the original cultivators of the cult may have backed off their project, the amateur devotees are busy to promote the cult in every field of life, public and private. Just a few recent occurrences will elucidate this point better.

On the day Mr Khan was shot in the leg, we were travelling in a rickshaw in Peshawar. While my friend was telling me the news about the incident, the driver asked if Mr Khan had won another election. “No, he has been shot by someone” my friend replied. “What? The rickshaw driver looked back angrily. “You should have better shot me in the head instead of telling me this, Khan sahib is a friend of God and God will protect him; if he wasn’t, Got wouldn’t have removed him from the government a year earlier to proide him with a chance of being re-elected” the rickshaw driver claimed in an assertive voice. We had no choice but to nod our heads in agreement.

Two days later, a former civil servant turned journalist turned intellectual cum Khan’s devotee tweeted “This man’s (IK’s) escape from such a planned murderous attack is one of the signs of Allah. Surely Allah must have wanted to do something with him. Indeed, such a high-spirited person must be the chosen one”. Till the writing of this piece, his tweet has more than 31K re-tweets and 107K likes.

Brainwashing is in full swing in educational institutes as well. A schoolboy told me that whenever his math teacher comes across ‘absolute value’, he forgets math and shifts his lecture’s direction to the famous slogan of ‘absolutely not’ and spends the rest of the class enumerating the extraordinary traits of the exceptional leader. Likewise, a PhD student of Pharmacy told this writer of a professor who dedicates more than half of his class time lecturing on the legendary leader who is set to bring true freedom to the country.

To add an anecdote from my personal experience, during a lesson on Mr Jinnah- the founder of the country, I asked a student of intermediate that in his opinion, who was the greatest leader in the history of Pakistan; he replied “Imran Khan!- not only in Pakistan but in the whole world- even if Mr Jinnah was alive, he would have joined the PTI himself” the student said confidently.

Loving a leader is not condemnable but elevating a mortal to such reverence that he becomes a deity is dangerous. It is dangerous for the social cohesiveness of the people; it is dangerous for a democratic society because it poisons the mind and eliminates diversity, stops critical thinking and makes opposing views intolerable, all of which are the essential ingredients for growth and development in a pluralistic society.

Just think over the words of Abubakr, the teenage boy who was crying out of his intense love for his hero. When he was asked why he wanted to meet Mr Khan, he replied “he (Khan) is my love; one doesn’t need a reason to meet his love”. Abubakr’s words represent a large segment of Mr Khan’s supporters. They just love him, and therefore they don’t need any reason for supporting their love. Nevertheless, history tells us that hero worship and blind love in politics have mostly yielded dangerous consequences. The Washington capitol riots of January 6, 2021, are a recent example.

It has taken around a decade of investing resources and energies to creating the cult around the personality of Mr Khan; it will take perhaps more than that to de-program the minds of the youth who have joined the caravan of devotees to achieve their utopian dreams.

Though the PTI superhero has got tremendous victories in the by-election polls, we must not forget that Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers' Party had also won the largest number of seats in the 1932 elections. Eight years before that, Mussolini had sought to win legitimacy through an election as well, while the unprecedented electoral victories of Modi in the neighbourhood are there for everyone to see. However, people realize the symptoms of the populist syndrome when, after assuming power, these leaders speedily snuff away political and individual freedoms. When they consolidate all power in their own hands and gradually develop dictatorial characteristics.

With the production of carefully designed attractive and appealing slogans, one could not help but to think that the PTI activists have been faithfully following the advice of Hitler's Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) who had strategized “A lie once told remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth,”.

The writer has studied English literature, History and Politics. He can be reached at and @Nadeemkwrites

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