Some English words don’t translate well to Urdu. “Propaganda” is one, and so is “Bush doctrine”—a phrase Imran Khan has been dropping into his speeches with increasing regularity to describe Uncle Sam’s with-us-or-against-us attitude toward politicians in his part of the world.
Khan’s admirers in Pakistan love it—whatever their language. But in Toronto last week, a more prosaic term stirred up the 1,800 partisans who had jammed a cavernous hall off the airport strip to bask in the glow of the Muslim world’s fastest-rising political star. When he uttered the word “fundraising,” a cheer rose from the crowd, as if to confirm that those on hand were more than happy to give. From across the room, amid billowing flags and bobbing signs bearing his likeness, you could see Khan’s white-toothed smile.
The $500-per-plate dinner that followed featured 200 well-heeled guests—grateful for some face time with a man touted as Pakistan’s next prime minister. Out in the lobby, donation boxes quickly filled with $20 bills, while volunteers gathered precious names and phone numbers for future cash drives. Pakistan’s electoral laws don’t allow votes from abroad. But the expats, said Khan at a pre-speech news conference, can exert influence in other ways: “We want donors to back our candidates. That’s the main reason I’m here.”
With looks that summon Julio Iglesias, and the speaking style of a TV news presenter, the 59-year-old founder of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI, or Movement for Justice) is creating as great a stir these days outside his country as he is back home, where numerous polls rate him Pakistan’s most popular politician. Khan’s charisma is undeniable: as a cricket star in the 1970s, he was credited with lifting Pakistan to the top of that most colonial of sports, which granted him a playboy life in London and rarified status as a cross-cultural celebrity. In 1995, he married the prominent British socialite Jemima Goldsmith, a close friend of Princess Di’s, and became a frequent sight in British tabloids. (The pair divorced in 2004.)
These days, Khan is as comfortable in a traditional shalwar kameez as a Savile Row suit. He rediscovered Islam after plunging into politics in the mid-’90s, building a reputation decrying Pakistan’s twin scourges of corruption and bad governance. His electoral progress was slow—he remains the PTI’s lone member in Pakistan’s 342-seat National Assembly. But the U.S. war on terrorism gave Khan a new opportunity: his hard line against U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan’s northern borderlands has resulted in a surge of popularity, so he’s amped up the message in recent public appearances. “Pakistan must disengage from the U.S. war,” he told reporters in Toronto. “That means not taking money from the U.S. Because when it takes money, Pakistan’s army is seen as a proxy army of the United States.”
Khan stresses the nuances in his position when speaking abroad. Military action in Pakistan and Afghanistan has served only to stoke extremism, he says, plunging the borderlands between the two countries into a permanent state of war; yet as long as Islamabad is seen as Washington’s stooge, it will lack the credibility among average Pakistanis needed to bring about a political solution. “The moment you disengage [from U.S. military action],” he insisted in Toronto last week, “the jihad factor disappears. The frenzy of fanaticism will start subsiding.”
That twin-track message has helped cast Khan as an agent of compromise—a man capable of drawing Taliban sympathizers into the political mainstream by offering basics like coherent local government and universal education. “You have to look at the root cause of extremism,” says Masud Raja, the PTI’s finance secretary in Canada, and an organizer of last week’s appearance. “When there is injustice, when there is poverty, radical people will use that for their own purposes. You have to break that cycle.”
But his new-found fondness for Yankee-go-home populism has also tweaked fears in Western countries where Khan has been gathering expat support. Last Thursday, U.S. border security agents boarded his New York-bound flight as he was about to leave Toronto, and escorted him into Pearson International Airport so they could question him about his views on drone warfare. Khan dismissed the episode: “My stance is known,” he said. “Drone attacks must stop.” But he missed a fundraising luncheon in New York as a result. News of the interrogation made headlines around the world.
In Islamabad, meanwhile, establishment leaders and their loyalists have sought to check his rise, disparaging him as “Taliban Khan,” and accused him of meekness in the face of the enemy. One commentator labelled him a “coward” for failing to adequately condemn the Taliban over the shooting of teenage female-rights activist Malala Yousafzai. (Khan said doing so could turn his candidates into targets of the Taliban.)
Together, these attacks highlight what Khan himself acknowledges to be a fine rhetorical line—one where he denounces the excesses that arise from Islamic radicalism without denouncing radicalism itself. For weeks, he has lamented the arrest under Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy laws of an 11-year-old Christian girl with Down’s syndrome, who had been accused of burning pages of the Quran. The girl was released after a worldwide outcry, but Khan has defended the law itself as a bulwark against mob rule and vigilantism, saying the problem lies with an abuse of process, not the legislation. “Had there not been a law,” he told incredulous reporters in Toronto, “the girl would not have been able to go to a court and get acquitted.” (In fact, she was let out on bail.)
Can he walk his political high wire to victory in Pakistan’s next round of elections, expected in the spring of 2013? Not very easily, say observers of the country’s volatile political arena. While more than three-quarters of respondents in recent polls rate Khan the politician best suited to lead the country, his hopes rest on the support of young, poor Pakistanis who feel shut out of the country’s political life, notes Moeed Yusuf, an expert on South Asian affairs with the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace.
“Unless the elections are run completely differently than in the past,” Yusuf says, in reference to Pakistan’s reputation for votes influenced by patronage and intimidation, “I think Khan is the most delusional of all the leaders about his prospects. The traditional politics have changed, but not in a way that the voter will completely give up the old patronage networks.”
To make matters worse, says Yusuf, many young voters have been turned off the PTI in recent weeks because Khan has welcomed former rivals from establishment parties into his inner circle. “He still claims to be an agent of change, but I think a lot of youth voters will look at these old faces and think that’s a bit of an oxymoron.”
Such clouds seemed far off, though, at the rally in Toronto, where supporters chanted Khan’s name and security guards pushed back spectators trying to crowd the stage. Many on hand, including Raja, the party’s local organizer, summoned memories of 1992 when, as captain of Pakistan’s cricket side, Khan famously implored his teammates to “play like a cornered tiger.” The team came away with a World Cup, and Khan won a permanent place in his country’s heart.
Now, as he tours the world, he seems determined to recapture that magic—to the delight of his crowds, but the discomfort of countries wondering how a Khan-ruled Pakistan might behave. The trouble with a cornered tiger, after all, is that you don’t know what it might do next.