A Pakistani Cricket Star's Political Move

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 4, 2005

QUETTA, Pakistan At 52, Imran Khan still cuts a swashbuckling figure. The Ray-Bans. The shaggy rocker's mane. The athletic grace of a former star cricket player whose exploits on the London party circuit once made nearly as many headlines as his dazzling plays on the field.

But now he is making headlines of a different sort.

A member of Pakistan's National Assembly and the leader of his own party, the Oxford-educated Khan has increasingly styled himself a champion of Islam, a role that gained worldwide attention in May after he helped fan Muslim rage and violent protests after Newsweek magazine's report that a copy of the Koran had been dropped into a toilet at Guantanamo Bay. (The report was later retracted.)

Khan is perhaps better known in Pakistan for his relentless verbal attacks on Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the president, whom he once defended as the country's savior but now excoriates as a stooge of the U.S. government and enemy of democracy.

"He is a spent bullet," Khan told an audience Thursday in this fundamentalist stronghold in the high desert of southwestern Pakistan. "If a hundred jackals are led by one lion, they can defeat a hundred lions led by one jackal. Musharraf is a jackal trying to lead a brave and courageous nation -- but toward disaster."

Khan's outspokenness has won him attention and some praise in a cricket-mad country where he is still regarded as a national hero -- and where Musharraf's support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism is widely unpopular. But it remains to be seen whether Khan's political formula, blending Islam, leftist economics and an emphasis on clean government and democracy, can translate into significant support at the ballot box or a threat to Musharraf's rule.

Since its founding in 1996, Khan's Justice Movement, or Tehrik-e-Insaaf, has won just one seat in parliament -- his. Political analysts say the party has yet to significantly broaden its base beyond educated middle- and upper-middle-class Pakistanis, who constitute a tiny minority in this impoverished nation of 162 million.

Critics ascribe that failure to what they say is Khan's naivete and aloofness, as well as to what even he describes as a blunder: publicly supporting Musharraf after the 1999 coup that brought the army chief of staff to power, then reversing himself just months before general elections in Oct. 2002. The move smacked to many of opportunism or at least inconstancy.

"Imran is a great cricketer," said newspaper columnist Ayaz Amir. "He was a great playboy. He has a charismatic personality. But he doesn't have that political thing which sets bellies on fire. People react with great admiration to him but they don't react to his politics."

Khan says such criticism is unfair. An opportunist, he said, would not have turned down Musharraf's offer to make him prime minister. And he asserted that the party is gaining strength in the run-up to local elections later this year and general elections scheduled for 2007. That is when Khan hopes to rally the country's fractious opposition, including religious parties that he said have been unfairly labeled as extremist, around a "one-point agenda for democracy."

"I was one of those who was fooled by the glib talk of the general," Khan said of his nearly three-year alliance with Musharraf. "He's got what is called the gift of gab. He was so convincing. We were all charmed by him."

Born into a well-to-do family from the Pashtun ethnic group, whose prickly and independent tribes inhabit the rugged borderlands near Afghanistan, Khan grew up in cosmopolitan surroundings in the northeastern Pakistani city of Lahore. He attended a British-style secondary school before heading to Oxford to study philosophy, economics and politics.

Khan's stellar career turned him into an international celebrity, linked to a string of glamorous women. He retired in 1992 and turned full time to charity work, opening the country's first cancer-treatment center in Lahore.

He returned to the tabloid headlines the following year when he married Jemima Goldsmith, a British heiress half his age, with whom he had two children. The couple divorced last year.

Khan credits his decision to enter politics with a spiritual awakening, encouraged by a mystic from the Sufi sect of Islam, that began in the latter stages of his cricket career. "I never drank or smoked, but I used to do my share of partying," Khan said. "In my spiritual evolution there was a block."

His conversations with the mystic in Lahore "changed me in the fundamental philosophy of life," he said. "I realized I'd been given so much by the Almighty that I had a responsibility to society. I never would have got into politics otherwise."

As a member or parliament, Khan has sometimes made common cause with a bloc of hard-line religious parties, whose leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, he supported for prime minister over Musharraf's candidate in 2002. Rehman is a pro-Taliban cleric who has called for holy war against the United States.

"It wasn't a vote for Fazlur Rehman," Khan said of his support for the cleric. "It was a vote against Musharraf." At the same time, he added dismissively, "This bogey about fundamentalism -- when they come into power, they all become moderates."

Besides his attacks on Musharraf, Khan has reserved some of his harshest words for the Bush administration, which he accuses of creating "a win-win situation" for Osama bin Laden by pursuing policies that are perceived in the Muslim world as hostile to Islam. In that context, he said, it was only natural that he should make an issue out of the Newsweek report after it was called to his attention by a party functionary.

"It's the ultimate abuse of a Muslim's human right," said Khan, who denounced the alleged Koran desecration at a May 6 news conference in Islamabad. "I saw there's a pattern of cultural and religious humiliation against the prisoners."

There were protests across the Muslim world after the Newsweek report, including riots in Afghanistan that left 15 dead. Khan said he does not regret speaking out: "It's like saying if Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International points out an abuse, they shouldn't even say anything."

Khan retains many ties to the West. He travels regularly to London to visit his two young sons, writes opinion pieces for Britain's Guardian newspaper and sometimes appears as a cricket commentator on Rupert Murdoch's Star TV network.

But there is little doubt of his commitment to Pakistani politics. He recently sold his apartment in London's exclusive Chelsea district in order to finance the construction of a palatial new home on a hilltop overlooking a lake near Islamabad, and he travels widely in the country on party-building missions.

At an outdoor meeting at an apricot orchard in Quetta, he exhorted party workers to take a pragmatic approach and forge alliances with whoever can strengthen the party's performance in the coming round of local elections. "Our concern is to win," he told the workers. "We should have an alliance with anyone who is anti-government."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company