Lord of all the djinns, Iblis al-La’in, lurks deep in the bowels of the Bodleian Library, his head crowned in a thicket of great ram-horns, and his lower body covered in a hot-pink izar skirt. The ghul, with the talons of an ostrich or the hooves of a mule and a beak instead of a mouth, glowers out us. Al-Malik Ahmar, scimitar in hand, rides his lion to war. The court of the cursed one includes Kabus, who infiltrates our nightmares, and Sil’ah seducer of hapless men, making them dance madly before she devours them.
Ever since a phone call made by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf politician Uzma Kardar leaked online two years ago, the critical role djinns and black-magic play in shaping Imran’s imagination has become well-known. Former prime minister Imran Khan’s wife, Bushra Riaz, kept two meat-eating djinns to guard her family, and gather the secrets of its enemies, the tape revealed.
The djinns Bushra Riaz has kept in her sprawling Bani Gala home are, among other things, agents of insurrection that can subvert the order, set up around deference to the Generals, official custodians of the will of God. And the djinns are winning: Facing deep fractures in the Pakistan Army’s ranks, the Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence has been forced to emerge from purdah, to defend the army.
For generations, coalitions of Generals and subservient politicians have collaborated to use religion—and, when necessary, bayonets—to maintain the Islamic Republic. Imran and his djinns have upended that order: a new Pakistan is being built around a utopian pop-Islam that recognises no authority but his own.
The Prophet of pop-Islam
The stunningly-illustrated manuscript of the medieval Kitab al-bulhan, or The Book of Wonders, the scholar Stefano Carboni reminds us, isn’t just a catalogue of our inner terrors. There are images on astronomy, philosophy and astrology, on the riches to be found through distant expeditions, as well as the hard work involved in economic production. The state and society, the book seems to suggest, also involve the magical and improbable, powers that can turn our world upside down.
Imran Khan might one day consider writing an autobiography—perhaps to answer the accounts of freewheeling sex, cocaine-use and casual corruption by his former wife, Reham Khan—but until then the Kitab al-bulhan isn’t a bad source of insight.
The cricket star turned politician is a genuine populist—committed not to the construction of a particular political or economic system, but to an Islamic zeitgeist that fuses together social conservatism and aspirational yearning.
The Generals and the Feudals
Through its four periods of military rule, Pakistan’s army has sought to build the Republic of God—each time, in a kind of strange pax-de-deux with the politicians: The Islamic Republic that emerged from the embers of Partition was meant to be a modern ideological State. Following a period of chaos—with seven prime ministers falling in the year from 1951 to 1957—Lieutenant-General Ayub Khan took it upon himself to provide the state with the structures of power political parties might have created.
In essence, a praetorian class allied itself with feudal élites, building a strange political order that stood somewhere between tyranny and democracy.
Even though General Ayub appointed himself Field Marshal and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, the scholar Stephen Cohen pointed out, the civilian bureaucracy remained his principal tool for administration. Generals, it is true, became minister and governors, but the Field-Marshal increasingly turned to politicians like then-foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto for political counsel.
The regime saw itself as modernising: the term ‘Islamic’ was excised out of the country’s 1956 self-description as an Islamic Republic—though this would prove short lived.
In return for ceding management of political institutions, the military received western military equipment, and generous subsidies. Foreign minister Zulfikar—not the Generals—would design the plan to seize Kashmir using irregular forces in the war of 1965. Fears raised about the conceptual wisdom of this plan by General Muhammad Musa, the army chief, were brushed aside.
Following Pakistan’s military defeat, the political actors asserted themselves. From 1967, Zulfikar set up a socialist-leaning mass movement among the disenfranchised working-class of Punjab and Sindh. In the East, the Bengali-nationalist politics of the Awami League flourished.
The tensions unleashed by these new forces required firmer military management. In 1969, General Yahya Khan staged a counter-coup, removing Ayub. Yahya had planned to act as arbiter between the Left-leaning populism represented by Zulfikar, and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Bengali nationalism. The new policies of Ayub, though, threw the weight of the military behind Zulfikar—setting the stage for the war of 1971, Lieutenant-General Gul Hassan Khan, the chief of general staff, now did to Yahya what the General had done to his own predecessor.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto got his opportunity to rule. He instrumentalised religion, proscribing the heterodox Ahmadi faith, and vowing war-without-end over Kashmir. The prime minister’s excesses—he would parade army chief General Zia-ul-Haq before foreign visitors describing him as ‘my monkey’—had the inevitable outcome. As the economy began to splutter, Zulfikar was led to the gallows by his monkey.
General Pervez Musharraf, the fourth army chief to stage a coup, threw Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif into prison and then exile. Sharif had sought to install Lieutenant-General Khwaja Ziauddin in place of the Kargil architect. Things weren’t well planned: Brigadier Javed Malik had to tear a star off his own uniform, so General Ziauddin could have the required complement of four bits of brass. General Musharraf had little difficulty crushing Nawaz, and forcing him into exile.
The counter-coup against General Musharraf would eventually come in 2007, when a movement by protesting lawyers allowed General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to ease the Kargil looser out of office.
Imran’s disruptive witchcraft
Imran’s rise came about at a time of profound crisis in the civil-military relationship. The killing of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden provoked efforts by President Asif Ali Zardari’s government to displace the military from political decision-making altogether. General Qamar Javed Bajwa, in turn, proved profoundly reluctant to cede influence to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on significant questions of strategic policy. The civilian-military relationship had deadlocked.
The manufacturing of Imran by the military as a trusted proxy has been superbly-documented by the scholar Christine Fair. The military believed they had created the simulacrum of a Sultan, charismatic, grand and victorious. The simulacrum, though, imagined himself to be the real thing.
Imran’s pro-Taliban policies divided the army down the middle, pitting pro-jihadist commanders like Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed against more cautious, pro-Western commanders. The prime minister’s hawkish language on Kashmir and India sometimes undermined his military’s efforts to seek peace on the Line of Control.
The cricket captain, most important, succeeded in building himself an independent power base, drawing on pop Islam. Imran’s pietist postures reached out to a lower middle-class, whose ambitions had been frustrated by the élites who controlled both the politics and military. Islam was more deeply embedded in school curricula; To commemorate the month of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth, he ordered that “no music/movie or obscenity be tuned in all forms of transport vehicles.”
Imran cast himself as a global culture-warrior on the blasphemy issue—battling countries from France to Norway to protect the honour of the Prophet—and set up a new clerical council to guide the course of national policy.
Likely, Bushra helped set the stage for these developments. Even though she has no ritual status among Barelvi clerical networks, she opened doors into a world of small-town pop Islam, and the new social classes who had coalesced around it.
Even as Imran battled General Bajwa, the PM insisted on the release of violent blasphemy-movement leader Saad Hussain Rizvi, from prison, vocally backed peace deals with the Taliban, and allowing the leadership of the Lal Masjid, which engaged in armed insurrection against the state in 2007, to reemerge. These were closely-guarded military domains, which Imran was seizing. The confrontation had become inevitable.
General Bajwa and his successors would like to be done with the nightmare they gave birth to—but its reluctance to move beyond harsh words to actual action shows Imran has real support and influence. Large numbers of senior officials—among them, anti-Taliban war hero Lieutenant-General Tariq Khan, and serving Lieutenant-General Asif Ghafoor—have made no secret of their sympathies for Imran. Families of army personnel have come out in his support.