By Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
Last week, reminiscences of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden sprung up in two unlikely arenas: Elland Road and the National Assembly of Pakistan.
A Leeds United fan had sent Bin Laden’s image to the football club to be put on their allocated seat in an empty Elland Road, presumably as a prank, as English football resumed behind closed doors earlier this month.
Meanwhile, in the Pakistani Parliament, Prime Minister Imran Khan eulogised the jihadist leader as a ‘martyr’ in the June 25 session, in what is likely to have been the sincerer of the two acts of remembrance.
Leeds United have apologised for projecting an offensive image. Imran Khan has not.
This is despite the opposition parties having repeatedly grilled him over the Bin Laden remark over the past week, during which he has delivered a follow up speech in the National Assembly repeating his rhetoric on transforming Pakistan into a ‘Medina state’.
Anything that could be remotely interpreted as a retraction was Khan’s special assistant completely denying that he even used the word ‘martyr’. Others have even tried to give the Pakistani premier the straw of ‘slip of tongue’ to clutch at.
Khan, himself a long dedicated apologist of the Taliban, however, has silenced his own apologists by simply refusing to offer any superfluous explanation for his perfectly clear words.
Imran Khan isn’t used to retracting any of the unhinged statements he quite frequently churns out, let alone apologising for them. His entire political career is an anthology of taking up outrageously paradoxical positions, and a stubborn quest to live up to every single one of them, ensuring a continuum of volte-faces en route.
In fact, using the word ‘martyred’, a couple of seconds after saying ‘killed’, was a rare instance of Khan correcting himself. Fittingly, Khan’s tribute for Bin Laden came in a speech dedicated to underlining how there hadn’t been any confusion or contradiction in his statements on Covid-19.
Khan has indeed displayed exemplary consistency over the years in refusing to call the al-Qaeda chief a terrorist. If anything, unlike others politicians, he has added more transparency to his position on Bin Laden after coming to power.
This has evolved from silent admiration as an outsider to unequivocal panegyric as the prime minister, standing in the house he is the leader of – a house that, unlike anything he has ever reserved for a jihadist group, Khan has uninhibitedly cursed at as an institution.
It would’ve been bad enough had it just been a case of a prime minister extolling the head of a terror outfit. It just happens that the prime minister paid tribute to a former most wanted terrorist, who had been found hiding in the country that he now leads, having been backed by institutions accused of harboring that very terror chief.
His unapologetic stance on Bin Laden isn’t just a damning revelation of Pakistan’s duplicitous counterterror policies. It is also an exposé on Khan’s own vision for his much touted ‘Medina state’.
Notwithstanding the status of the Sharia-laden Medina state as a religionist utopia, Imran Khan’s own understanding of it can be gauged by how he seems to find its leading manifestation in China – the country, where over a million Muslims are in internment camps designed to ‘cure’ Islam.
If Bin Laden was a ‘martyr’ of Islam, his ideology too must find a place in Imran Khan’s Medina state. And given that he, like his role model Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, believes there’s only one Islam, and that there is no radical version of it – is Khan’s Medina state, then, founded on Bin Laden’s Islam?
If so, given Imran Khan’s prolonged fight against ‘Islamophobia’ since coming to power, do critics of Bin Laden come under Khan’s definition of ‘Islamophobes’?
While he has been completely ignoring some of the most gruesome atrocities against non-Muslims, and unparalleled marginalisation of ‘outlawed’ Muslims, in his own country, Khan has focused much of his energy on urging Indian Muslims to take up arms and wage jihad, echoing other jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda.
Khan’s veneration for Bin Laden came as he was rehashing his rhetoric on the war on terror, which too betrays the Taliban narrative. His singular fixation on pinning the rise of jihadism on the US further underlines that in addition to Islamic history, he is similarly ignorant of the history of South Asia and even Pakistan.
Khan’s condemnation of American imperialism is not a position on imperialism, since he wholeheartedly endorses its gorier Islamist manifestations. In addition to support for jihadism, this is reflected in his reverence for Islamic invaders who led massacres in South Asia centuries before the US was discovered.
Therefore, Khan’s jihadist tilt cannot be misconstrued as anti-colonialism, or upholding of any other reformist interpretation of Islamist militant warfare.
Indeed, it is no coincidence that he was propelled to power by the custodians of the Taliban, who in turn have long wanted Khan to represent them. Khan has rewarded that trust by increasing funds for the ‘University of Jihad’ and allying with the Taliban to bolster election bids.
More than a hub of tolerance, or welfare, as interpreted by far too many fans of his cricketer and/or playboy past, Khan’s envisioned ‘Medina state’ is unquestionably Islamist and Muslim supremacist. In a country pulverised by the jihadist ideology that it has masochistically espoused, Imran Khan is toiling hard to make Pakistan what it already is.
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist and a correspondent for Asia Times and The Diplomat. You can follow him on Twitter.
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