In 18th-century Europe, philosophers began to note a steady degradation in the influence of Christianity. Sectarian conflicts and corruption within the sacred and political manifestations of this influence, devastated Christian Europe. This set in motion an urgency to reform Christianity. It spawned a process that gradually began to undermine the political role of the faith. The process also encouraged religion to equip itself with ideas through which it could embrace the economic and social products of modernity. The political product of this modernity was secularism that sought to build a wall between the state and religion.
Delivering redemption in the-here-and-the-now and promising paradise in the afterlife was how organised religions in the ‘pre-modern’ world had accumulated social influence and political power. Modernity criticised this as a corruption. This ‘corruption’ exploited individuals who, according to modernists, could explore spirituality through their own interpretations of faith.
The faithfuls did not require agents or religious institutions for this, nor did they have to exhibit it in public spaces (or outside their homes or places of worship). The public space needed to be free of religious decrees for it to fully incorporate the many strides that modernity was making in the fields of economics, science and politics.
Modernity offered an ‘enlightened’ age, devoid of disease, poverty, oppression and superstition. An age helmed by scientific progress, and powered by reason. Modernity was suspicious of messianic impulses which it censured for being exploitative, irrational and cultish. But whereas societies embraced modern ideas and products and also began to shun the pre-modern modes of faith, they retained their longing for messianic figures who would transform their lives, both materially and spiritually, especially in times of crisis.
Modernity was quite successful in transforming the materialistic aspects of everyday living. But the transformations were not always as pleasing as modernity had claimed they would. So, the modern state took on the role of the ‘divinely-ordained’ monarchs and the Church, and secularised them. This gave birth to a secular religion, no matter how idiosyncratic this may sound. Pre-modern rituals of faith that evoked a sense of emotional fulfillment and ‘spirituality’ were replaced with exhibitions of reverence towards the nation-state.
Raising the national flag, singing the national anthem, emoting about national myths of sacrifice and of past glories, became the rituals of the secular creed. The nation-state demanded to be venerated. But the idea of God did not vanish. Instead, revering the nation-state promised a materially and spiritually fulfilling life, and the best way to please God because he had bestowed his blessings upon the nation-state.
Established religions, in a bid to sustain themselves in the face of modernity’s onslaught, began to encourage their disoriented followers to acquire modern education so they could understand their place in the world and the universe. They began to perceive the cosmos as an ‘intelligent design’ conceived and engineered by God. This was their way of ‘scientifically’ understanding God as an active entity who had created a universe that worked like clockwork.
Major religions also went through a hectic process of reflection and self-criticism. This led them to conclude that they were once ‘pristine’ and untainted by corruption and adulteration. And that, they were exploited and distorted to meet the needs of greedy rulers and the priests. By the 19th century, many Christian, Islamic and Hindu theologians were claiming this.
They advocated a move forward through the adoption of modern education, as well as a look backward to a time when their faiths were pristine and pure. This dual outlook produced narratives in which ancient societies were understood through the lens of modern ideas and experiences. In a way, perceptions about ancient societies were formulated as if these societies were nations. The fact is, the idea of nations, or nationalism, or the nation-state, was largely a product of modernity. There was nothing known as a nation, or a nation-state, prior to the 17th century (L. Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, 1992).
The modern state usurped the role of a redeemer, server and provider from conventional religious institutions. This resulted in what is often called ‘civic religion.’ Civic religion insisted that the best service to the whichever God that one believes in, was the fulfillment of duties to the state and nation (M. Alpaugh, The French Revolution: A History in Documents, 2021).
Established religions, in a bid to sustain themselves in the face of modernity’s onslaught, began to encourage their disoriented followers to acquire modern education so they could understand their place in the world and the universe
Civic religion devised its own rituals that were closely tied to nationalism and the nation-state. The modern state became sacred, after expelling pre-modern modes of faith from the public and political spheres. But established religions responded by ‘modernising’ themselves. They then tried to find a place within the state’s civic religion.
The arrival of modern political messiahs
Whereas nation-states have enjoyed continued successes in various fields, a crisis often creates an opening for mainstream religions to climb into spaces from where they were once ousted. Even when a crisis is resolved, bits and pieces of religions that had come in during the crisis, mange to stay. This is mainly because when a nation-state is engulfed by an economic, political or social crisis, people tend to look towards a time when, supposedly, societies were pristine and pure.
From the 19th century, mainstream religions acquired modern communication tools and ideas. They used these to create a new purpose that looked to reshape the nation-state as a modern manifestation of a (largely imagined) pristine past. Such a past is appealing in times of crisis faced by modern states. These crises can be the result of devastating wars and severe economic downturns. The crisis may also leave the polity feeling vulnerable and believing that society was crumbling under the weight of ‘too many freedoms,’ moral degradation, corruption and rising crime. Societies that ‘God had abandoned.’
Of course, the pre-modern past was anything but pristine. People had short life-spans, diseases were rampant (and mostly incurable), an entirely superstitious understanding of one’s surroundings and existence was rife, and the idea of morality was often enforced through brutal means. It was in this context that prominent messiahs had emerged in the ancient world. Their aim was to lessen the impact on their people of the brutalities of life. Yet, once their movements were formalised after their demise, these movements became organised faiths and very much part of brutal pre-modern realities.
But messiahs continue to be shaped and emerge in modern times as well.
The context of their emergence has changed. Modernity was able to overcome various malaises that had plagued the pre-modern world. Cures for many once incurable diseases were found, standards of living improved, life-spans increased, science stumped superstition, and people became polities with rights and powers to form or remove governments.
These drastic improvements raised expectations too. For example, in the pre-modern world, a crisis would mean a widespread plague wiping out large portions of the population. In the modern world, a crisis often appears in the shape of issues arising from severe economic inflation or recession, political instability and polarisation, modern warfare, and racial or ethnic tensions. In the pre-modern world monarchs, landed elites and priests could not do much to resolve major crises and, instead, the people were encouraged to adopt fatalistic views. Modern societies, however, expect the state to come to their rescue.
In China, a grave crisis, though, triggered by Mao himself, was turned on its head when Mao reinvented himself from being a communist leader into becoming a communist messiah
The modern state exists as a result of a ‘social contract’ or an agreement between the rulers and the ruled (JJ. Rousseau, On the Social Contract, 1762). Citizens of a nation-state agree to provide certain powers to the state and government as long as these would protect freedoms and rights of the people and work for the benefit of the society. If the state/government fails to deliver on this, the contract is considered to be breached and the people have the right to make the state accountable or remove a government in whatever way they deem fit.
But the weight and reach of the modern state increased. Whereas, in developed democracies, constitutions (a written manifestation of the social contract) have somewhat been able to keep the state’s overreach in check, in nation-states where democracy is weak, or where dictatorships were/are frequent, the state has often exaggerated its role of an entity that is to be revered, just as the Church or ‘divinely-ordained’ monarchs were in the pre-modern world.
Such nation-states are therefore often engulfed by economic and political crisis and tensions, because the social contract continues to be breached by the state. The constant stream of crises compounded by an overreaching state, either begins to erode the idea of a civic religion (e.g. Türkiye, India) or it never allows a civil religion to take root (Pakistan). The state begins to act like a Church. French secularism and nationalism, too, have turned the state into a Church, but it is a more aggressive manifestation of civic religion that monitors and regulates the ‘threat’ of conventional religion occupying public and political spaces.
In nation-states where democracy is weak or non-existent, the state can either become theocratic, or it may remain secular but demand overt levels of civic reverence. In both cases, societies are fed utopian myths about imagined pasts or possible futures; the greatness of the state; and how that state is protecting the people from enemies that want to corrupt the society and demolish the nation-state. Such myths and conspiracy theories create a worldview born from a curious mixture of Utopian illusions, nationalistic/ideological narcissism, and outright paranoia. This mindset also equates strong rule with the rule of a ‘strongman.’ And often, this strongman is expected to have messianic characteristics.
China since 1949 is an officially atheistic society. It is a one-party state. Whereas the state demolished (and is still demolishing) all manner of religions, the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) engineered a messiah in the shape of Mao Zedong. Mao was already a strongman-ruler after he led a communist revolution in 1949. But due to many of his economic policies, China faced a series of terrible famines that killed millions of people. The party tried to sideline him in the early 1960s, but some radical factions of the CPC, and Mao himself, used state machinery and resources to convert him into a messianic figure.
The dreadful famines had spawned an apocalyptic mindset in Chinese society. However, whereas most CPC leaders saw this as a threat to the communist state which needed to be neutralised through reforms, Mao saw it as an opportunity. He returned from temporary seclusion by posing as a man who was to be revered. Mao encouraged the society’s need to emote. He channeled the outpouring of emotions towards himself (as devotion). He became ‘one with the people’ who, he said, were angry about the corruption and decadence in the CPC. He then unleashed a ‘Cultural Revolution’ in which ‘Maoism’ became a religion and Mao its revered messiah. Over 20 million Chinese were killed in the madness that lasted between 1966 till the time of Mao’s death in 1976.
Hitler is another example. In China, a grave crisis, though, triggered by Mao himself, was turned on its head when Mao reinvented himself from being a communist leader into becoming a communist messiah. But Hitler announced himself as a messiah of the Germanic people on the back of crippling economic crisis triggered by Germany’s loss in World War 1. He did not create the crises. When German society was being pulled in different directions due to a three-way tug of war between communists, conservatives and democrats, Hitler parachuted on the side of the conservatives, even though he was not taken very seriously.
Observing the apocalyptic mood of the polity, Hitler asked a writer, Victor von Koerber, to write a book called Adolf Hitler: His Life and His Speeches. On Hitler’s instructions, Koerber used biblical language, arguing that the book should become the new bible of today as well as the “Book of the German People.” It also directly compared Hitler to Jesus (T. Webber in Smithsonian Magazine, 10 January 2018). The book claimed Hitler was the leader of “the most honest national movement,” who was ready to lead the German struggle for liberation. We all know how that ended.
Severe political and economic crisis make people feel vulnerable, jittery and melancholic. When the modern state as a secular Church fails to address this, men appear disguised as political messiahs who claim to be untainted by corruption and greed. They claim that they would resolve the crisis and create a powerful and morally upright society. They are not like divine redeemers of yore because the context of everyday living has drastically changed compared to pre-modern conditions.
Yet, despite using modern tools and ideas, the political messiahs punctuate their rhetoric with theological vocabulary and symbols. But the rhetoric and symbols are mostly those that were formalised by theologians from the 19th century onwards in a bid to stay relevant in times of modernity. For example, the Indian PM Narendra Modi frequently uses ideas and vocabulary that were formed in the 19th and early 20th centuries by Hindu nationalists.
They used these to explain Hindu societies as being advanced, and ancient Hinduism as a monolithic doctrinal whole. Modi’s supporters see him as a Hindu messiah who will recast India as a pure Hindu whole because, supposedly, the region once was a Hindu whole before being invaded by foreign armies and alien religions. On the other end, rhetoric of Pakistan’s populist politician Imran Khan is a hotchpotch of how Islamic theology and history were framed by men such as Muhammad Iqbal, Abul Ala Maududi and Ali Shariati in the 20th century, and clerics of neighbourhood mosques!
Times of crisis often produce political messiahs who look to recast the state according to a ‘more pure’ ideology. Men such as Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, Russia’s Vladimir Lenin, Mao, and Italy’s Benito Mussolini are a few examples. The ‘pure’ ideology in this context can be atheistic such as communism, or theocratic, such as ‘Islamism.’
States in grip of a crisis are weary of this. As a response, they either begin to co-opt the rising appeal for messianic ideas in a society stricken with existential angst; or the state may begin to engineer a messiah-like figure — one that is dependent on the state and also navigated by it. Pakistan’s Imran Khan is an apt example.
Till the early 1990s, Imran Khan was a star sportsman and a favourite of tabloid press. A lifestyle liberal and a ‘playboy,’ he fell into a personal existential crisis when his mother passed away due to cancer. When the Pakistan cricket team led by him won the 1992 Cricket World Cup, Khan was convinced that his renewed faith in God provided him some impossible victories in the tournament which aided his team’s entry into the finals (The Herald, April 1992).
Khan’s transformation was slow. When he retired from cricket in 1992 at the age of 40, he began to mingle with certain Islamic scholars and military men such as Hamid Gul. Gul had helped organise the anti-communist Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan with generous financial handouts provided by the US and Saudi Arabia. After the demise of the dictator General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88), Gul feared that Zia’s ‘Islamic’ initiatives would be undone by Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
Gul, who was the head of the country’s premier intelligence agency the ISI, at the time of Zia’s demise, used the agency’s considerable resources to stitch together a 9-party-alliance, mainly consisting of Islamist outfits and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) — a party that was formed by Zia in 1985 as his civilian vessel. The PPP managed to defeat the alliance in the 1988 elections. But Gul and the ISI went into overdrive to destabilise the new government, so much so that PM Benazir dismissed Gul from the ISI. But the damage was done.
After his retirement, Khan found himself surrounded by Gul and certain Islamic scholars. Khan’s knowledge about Pakistan’s political history or that of Islam was extremely limited (I.Khan, Pakistan: A Personal History, 2011). This ‘knowledge’ first came to him through the worldview of men such as Gul who believed that all politicians were corrupt and out to dismantle the morally strong Pakistan that Zia had built. Fact is, during Zia’s 11-year-dictatorship, Pakistan had turned into a hotbed of Islamist militancy, and corruption permeated politics and state institutions like never before.
As a cricket star, Khan had cultivated a macho image of a detached strongman, surrounded by beautiful (Caucasian) women. His excellent performances on the cricket field (especially from 1977 onwards) bolstered this image. So, after his retirement from the game, this image and the mindset that came with it, were naturally inclined to be attracted by tales of robust ancient Islamic warriors who were often romanticised by writers of Urdu historical fiction.
Gul shaped Khan’s view of politicians as being measly folk who connived to rob their own people but were submissive towards western powers. On the other hand, Islamic scholars such as late Murtaza Malik, who was close to the military-establishment, helped Khan to ease his way into adopting Islamic ideas and rituals after spending most of his life as a lifestyle liberal and a token Muslim. In fact, according to Khan himself, he was once close to becoming an atheist (Arab News, 14 January 2002).
Khan’s initiative to build a cancer hospital in honour of his late mother received a generous response from across classes, and money poured in to help him achieve this. Khan was overwhelmed by the response. And even though he had told a monthly magazine that he wasn’t interested in joining politics, the response that his hospital initiative had received seemed to have changed his mind. The response also excited Gul. In 1994, Gul, Muhammad Ali Durani, Khan and a handful of corporate CEOs, decided to launch a ‘pressure group’ to undermine and then dismantle the political monopoly that ‘corrupt’ politicians enjoyed (Herald, February 1995). Their main target was Benazir’s PPP.
The group claimed to be representatives of educated classes who would lead a ‘middle-class movement’ against dishonest politicians (Herald, ibid). In 1996, the pressure group transformed into becoming a political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). But by then Gul was out because Khan decided to marry a wealthy British woman who belonged to an influential Jewish family. PTI could not win a single seat in the 1997 elections that were swept by Nawaz Sharif’s PML faction, the PMLN. In 1999, Khan applauded the military coup against the PMLN regime that brought General Pervez Musharraf to power.
Khan fancied himself to become Musharraf’s PM because they both shared a loathing for PPP and PML-N. As the Supreme Court paved the way for Musharraf to become ‘Chief Executive’ and then ‘President,’ Khan was given the chance to prove his electoral appeal during the 2002 elections. PTI could win just one seat. Musharraf stopped entertaining Khan’s longing to become PM. Also, Musharraf, who was positioning himself as an ‘enlightened’ and liberal Muslim, was shocked to hear Khan’s views. Musharraf thought Khan was a closet mullah (P. Musharraf, In The Line of Fire, 2006).
Khan turned against the Musharraf regime and began to attack it for furthering the ‘American agenda’ to undermine the role of Islam in Pakistan.
But his was nothing more than a tiny party which dwarfed in size compared to PPP, PML-N and Musharraf’s civilian vessel PML-Q. Khan did become a regular on TV talk shows, though. Here he posed as a crusader against corruption, and against the ‘western agenda’ that apparently aimed to change the Islamic nature of the Pakistani constitution with help of ‘fake liberals’ such as Musharraf. He decided to boycott the 2008 elections (along with the Jamat-i-Islami). The elections were held in trying conditions.
The economic bubble that the Musharraf regime had created, burst. The economy began to decline. The regime was also facing a rowdy anti-government ‘lawyers movement’ that had kicked off in 2007. Incidents of Islamist terrorism too witnessed a manifold increase. The last two years of the regime saw Musharraf’s popularity plunge. PPP and PML-N returned with force, winning the most seats during the 2008 elections. PPP formed a coalition government, ousting the PML-Q majority in the Parliament. PPP and PML-N then decided to impeach Musharraf. Before the impeachment proceedings could begin, Musharraf resigned.
The two major crises that Musharraf left behind were an unprecedented rise in acts of violence by militant Islamist groups, and a nosediving economy. Then there was also the matter of a judiciary whose ego had been bolstered by the ‘lawyers’ movement.’ Starting with Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Iftikhar Chaudhry, the courts became increasingly populist. They began to intervene in legislative matters and blatantly undermined the sitting government.
The military establishment was under pressure to take the militant Islamist groups head-on. There was dichotomy in the military’s narrative because some groups that had links to anti-state Islamists and harboured similar ideologies, were being nurtured by the military as ‘assets’ that could be ‘strategically’ used in Indian-held Kashmir and US-held Afghanistan (L. Wright in The New Yorker, 16 May 2011). But the military largely seemed paralysed because their narrative explained the militant Islamists as either ‘misguided brothers,’ or mercenaries financed by Pakistan’s enemies.
The ‘new middle-classes’ who were energised by Musharraf’s dictatorship, had felt angry and resentful when he was ousted in 2008. They blamed the ‘corrupt’ political elites, mainly the PPP and PMLN, despite the fact that these always came to power through an electoral process dominated by classes below-the-middle
These narratives also sowed confusion in the polity. The more fearsome the attacks by militant Islamists became, the more society retreated into conspiracy theories. Many people and the media tried to simply ignore the issue, and concentrated on demonising a government already besieged by economic issues, an unabashedly populist CJP, and militant violence.
In 1995, a fringe in the military establishment and some former army men had dreamt of dislodging the two established political parties through a ‘third force.’ But that dream had fizzled out because the third force could not find any political traction among the electorate. PTI had emerged from that dream, but it remained a tiny entity till 2011. Then, by all accounts, some senior officers in the military and the ISI, revived the 1995 plan in 2011 (Javed Hashmi quoted in Dawn, 6 April 2015). Once again, Imran Khan was at the heart of the plan. Maybe this time the conditions to launch a third force were more conducive, with a government struggling to repair the economy, a belligerent CJP hounding the regime, and Islamist terrorism reaching a crescendo.
So, what was the 1995 plan that was regenerated in 2011? Let’s try to explore it through the narrative that was built by the likes of Khan, Gul and Durani. The main premise of the narrative was that the small minority which has ruled the country for most of its existence has exposed itself in the eyes of the people due to its petty infighting, insatiable greed and its utter failure in redressing the problems of the people. The new and much abused middle class now constitutes a formidable force which is ready to challenge the ‘corrupt’ ruling elites and eventually overthrow it along with its colonial trappings (Herald, ibid).
In 2011, this narrative was pulled out again. But this time its main vessel (Imran Khan) was aided in a more aggressive manner. TV anchors on popular news channels were coaxed to invite Khan for ‘exclusive’ interviews. He kept repeating the narrative handed to him. The ‘new middle-classes’ who were energised by Musharraf’s dictatorship, had felt angry and resentful when he was ousted in 2008. They blamed the ‘corrupt’ political elites, mainly the PPP and PMLN, despite the fact that these always came to power through an electoral process dominated by classes below-the-middle.
The ‘strongman’ engineered by the establishment could only manage to usurp the PPP’s vote bank in Punjab during the 2013 elections. This handed PMLN a sweeping victory. After being trounced by the PML-N, Khan congratulated Nawaz Sharif who became the new PM.
This could have been the 1995 plan’s second failure. But this time, the establishment had invested a lot more effort and ego in the project. Secondly, PTI had also found a vote bank in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and in Sindh’s capital city, Karachi. Khan just needed to build on these gains. But, congratulating a ‘corrupt’ opponent was not the way to do it. At least that’s what Khan’s engineers thought when Nawaz began to flex his party’s majority in the Parliament.
This reminded the military of 1997, when PML-N won a large majority and dismissed an Army Chief for interfering in government matters. He then fell out with another military chief, General Musharraf. Nawaz ousted him as well, but Musharraf rebounded by removing Nawaz in a military coup. Nawaz was not even trusted by the new military chief that he appointed (General Raheel Sharif). Apprehensions in the military and disappointment among the ‘new middle classes,’ pushed Khan to make a U-turn and denounce the 2013 elections as being rigged.
He told his supporters that PTI was set to sweep the polls, but certain caretaker appointments made before the election (especially in Punjab) were pro-PML-N and that, they rigged the polls in PML-N’s favour. Fact is: the appointments were all made after consulting Khan. The rigging narrative almost immediately permeated the disappointed ‘new middle classes.’ Many of them were either first-time voters, or previously apolitical men and women, and almost all of them had romanced Musharraf’s dictatorship.
Those who had engineered Khan’s political career, decided to refresh his ‘brand’ by adding the rigging allegation to his anti-corruption narrative. Space was conveniently provided to him to hold long, disruptive sit-ins in Islamabad. He flexed his rhetoric against PMLN and PPP’s ‘corrupt’ ways and dynastic politics, and boasted that he alone had the guts to oust them from the political arena. He also presented himself as a modern manifestation of ancient Islamic warriors. The plan’s third attempt was afoot, even though it was put on hold for a bit when in December 2014, Islamist terrorists slaughtered over 140 school children in Peshawar.
PM Nawaz who had hesitated to green light an extensive operation against the militants, gave General Raheel the go ahead. Khan vehemently opposed the operation. He was literally forced to sign off on it by Raheel Sharif. Once the operation got underway, Khan returned to hammer his narrative of rigging, even though he could not provide any proof whatsoever. But the narrative stuck in the minds of the ‘new middle-classes’ who had been energised again during the 2014 sit-ins.
There was absolutely nothing about increasing cases of Islamist militancy in the narrative. The sit-ins were held when most of the country was being ravaged by suicide bombings and assassinations. Thousands were dying. Khan always saw the Islamist militancy as a consequence of a war that Pakistan was fighting on the behest of the US. As Khan’s rhetoric increasingly began being sprinkled with Islamist lingo and symbolism, the many lifestyle liberals who supported him looked the other way.
By the time the terrorist threat was somewhat neutralised in 2017, Khan’s populist narratives began to find traction in an already populist judiciary. Before the 2018 elections, Khan once again posed as a strongman who would wipe out corruption and turn the country into an ‘Islamic Welfare State.’ Along with various TV anchors, Khan solidified a perception which saw Pakistan as being on the brink of economic bankruptcy. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It was a manufactured crisis, to justify the arrival of a brave, morally upright and ‘incorruptible’ man. With more than a little help from the military, PTI managed to win 116 NA seats (S.Sarin, K.Shah in Observer Research Foundation Special Report, 18 December 2018). Khan had to form a government with various small parties and independent candidates. According to his opponents, these groups were pushed in his camp by his benefactors in the military (BBC News, 23 July 2018).
Khan’s regime was a disaster. The more he failed to fulfill his bombastic promises, the more desperate he became to retain the support that he had gathered from the ‘the new middle-classes.’ The more his ratings plunged, the more bizarre his rhetoric became. Despite unleashing state and government institutions against his opponents, he just couldn’t gather enough evidence (of corruption) to keep them locked. He began to castigate the country’s ‘restrictive’ political system and wished he had more power. Sometimes he glorified China’s one-party system, sometimes he eulogised Iran’s Islamic model, and sometimes the ‘Turkey model.’
Khan’s messianic turn
From the middle of 2021, the military began to distance itself from Khan and his regime. It started see him as a loose cannon. The project was failing. The strongman had begun to look weak and sound confused and frustrated. Khan and his ministers delivered incoherent spiels whenever certain facts and figures about a failing economy was put in front of them. His image of being a dalairmard (brave man), and a relentless anti-corruption crusader was more at home when he was speaking at packed rallies and sit-ins before he became PM. The fawning adulation that he received by large crowds and from certain TV anchors nourished his ego. But the portions of this nourishment began to shrink when time came to do constituency politics, deal with bureaucrats, and attend long boring briefings.
The boredom of these duties, coupled with declining popularity and the fear of losing the support of his well-wishers in the military, tainted his ego. But if he had failed as a strongman-ruler, he consciously or otherwise, bounced back as a political messiah. Like Mao, Khan too looked at his failings not as the result of his recklessness, but as the misdoings of those who were given the task to execute his ‘vision.’ To him, clearly, there were people and institutions colluding with the opposition to sabotage his policies.
If the state created a political messiah to safeguard itself from Islamist violence and co-opt and neutralise the ideology of the militants, then that messiah mutated into becoming a threat to the same state that engineered him. Yet, by all accounts, there are still members within the state who want to keep the project afloat
Here begins Khan’s turn to messianic politics. Indeed, from 1995 onwards, his rhetoric and worldview had already been pieced together from bits taken from certain Islamist ideologues. This also moulded a self-orientalist mindset in him. Self-orientalism is when people discard the ‘slavish’ symbols of ‘western modernity’ and adorn local symbols, but only in a bid to attract the attention and admiration of Westerners.
In the last months of his rule, he wanted to turn Islamic spiritualism as a ‘super science.’ He stuffed the curriculum with self-orientalist images, and myths about Muslim strongman-rulers who had conquered large swaths of land. The idea was to bring what was taught at private and public schools to madrassas. But in actuality, the new curriculum brought the madrassas to the schools in the name of shaping national unity through a shared faith. The reality of ethnic and Islamic diversity present in the country was conveniently ignored. Khan now wanted to be a messiah who would gel the country together by introducing a modern manifestation of faith that had, apparently, emerged in Medina in the 7th century.
But the idea of that ‘ideal state of Medina’ has no fixed template. So, Khan simply made it up as he went along, mixing governance with ‘piety’ (Afiya S. Zia in The Journal of South Asian Popular Culture, 2022). Then came his great concern that incidents of Islamophobia (and blasphemy) were increasing in non-Muslim countries. Here too, he conveniently ignored incidents of sectarian violence, religious persecution and mad mobs murdering alleged blasphemers in his own country. Yet, he put more effort in ‘saving Muslims’ from global Islamophobia. He was not really committed to restructuring the economy, strengthening civilian democracy, improving state mechanisms, or equalizing power relations. Rather, he wanted to convince the poor that it is past corruption and leaders and western immoral designs that are the reasons for entrenched inequalities (A.S. Zia, ibid).
Just before he was ousted through a vote of no confidence in April 2022, Khan announced that a grand conspiracy was afoot by the US against him. He claimed (and he still does) that since he wanted to create an ‘Islamic bloc,’ establish stronger ties with Russia, and refuse to give military bases to the US in Pakistan, the US conspired with opposition parties to oust him. One pro-PTI TV anchor claimed, the reason that western powers wanted him out was because he was asking the United Nations to frame global blasphemy laws!
His ouster came as a shock to most of his supporters. They had gone very quiet due to the many the failings of his regime. But it was 2014 all over again. In 2011 he had risen to become the ‘only option’ that could save the country from corruption and other moral degradations. His rallies were colourful, and packed with young men and women (mostly urban middle-class). They were sure that he would sweep the 2013 election. But that did not happen. It was an anticlimax. Before his support base could disperse, he rallied it and reenergised it through his charged sit-ins.
He expanded his narrative too. But he was still posing as a strongman.
But the strongman image was dashed by the weaknesses of his regime. So, he began to fortify it with messianic and apocalyptic rhetoric. Once ousted, he jumped out onto the streets and all over the social media, decrying the ‘US conspiracy’ that had ousted him. He supporters claimed the US was trying to stop him from turning Pakistan into a truly Islamic Republic. They gave the impression that the West was threatened by Khan because he was rising as a ‘leader of the Islamic world (ummah).’
This was music to the ears of his supporters. From feeling beaten, now they had a myth to hold onto. They had invested so much emotion in him that he became a father figure to some, and a manifestation of a mythical warrior archetype to others. His collapse from power felt like an emotional collapse within his supporters. This kind of emotional investment in a leader is usually reserved for messianic figures. Nothing else matters, other than to see him restored to how they imagine him. That’s why, when scandals about Khan and his cronies began to leak out after his ouster, they did nothing to dampen the revived enthusiasm of his more emotionally invested supporters. Critical thinking is one of the first casualties of hero-worship.
Khan now accuses those who betrayed his party and him (by siding with the opposition) of shirk – a Quranic term meaning a sin of worshiping more gods than the One. This should tell exactly how far Khan is now stretching his messianic appeal. Such ridiculous claims do bother a lot of his followers, but there is always an explanation ready to rationalise his balderdash.
If the state created a political messiah to safeguard itself from Islamist violence and co-opt and neutralise the ideology of the militants, then that messiah mutated into becoming a threat to the same state that engineered him. Yet, by all accounts, there are still members within the state who want to keep the project afloat. Either they want to continue using him to keep in check those that the state wanted to overwhelm through its creation, or worse, many within the military and judiciary have started to actually believe an illusion that they themselves painted. Nevertheless, no matter how successful Khan is in reviving his support base, it will always hinge on him being reckless, anarchic and a terrific fibber. The state is highly unlikely to allow such a character to return to power.