The speech delivered by Prime Minister Imran Khan after the commotion stirred by a sectarian religious outfit after the verdict by the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) was brave and timely. Therefore, PM Khan received wide praise for his extemporaneously delivered address to the nation on October 31. The contents of the speech as well as its coming from the prime minister of Pakistan and a politician like Imran Khan are so important because it reveals the policy direction of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government regarding countering religious extremism in the country and ensuring human rights, particularly of religious minorities.
Prime Minister Khan’s address to the nation was quite timely as it was made soon after widespread violence and fiery speeches by leaders of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), reacting to the acquittal of Asia Bibi, the alleged blasphemer of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). PM Khan demonstrated statesmanship qualities by choosing the timing, contents, diction and style of address. The contents of the speech were succinct, the choice of words apt and the style of address gave the impression of a concerned but committed leader.
PM Khan minced no words and unequivocally said that Pakistan was founded “in the name of Islam” and the verdict given by the SC was in accordance with the Constitution, which was in line with the teachings of the Holy Quran and Sunnah. Therefore, he castigated the language used by the leaders of the TLP and certain other religious groups against SCP judges, the raising of questions against the army chief’s faith and the call for a rebellion amongst the armed forces.
Thus, PM Khan conveyed a very strong impression to everyone of unity of command in state institutions. PM Khan raised a very pertinent question by asking “Which government can function when people say to kill the judges, rebel against the army chief?”
In a sense it was a rare show of leadership qualities by a democratically-elected Pakistani head of government. As a head of government any prime minister ought to take responsibility of every action of the state and this what Mr. Khan did. In the past we saw that even prime ministers with two-third majority in the parliament could not adopt a firm stance on matters of key policies of the state, specifically regarding allowing the level of freedom to religious groups.
PM Khan very rightly said during the speech: “It is my belief that the principles on which Pakistan was founded… if they are not adhered to Pakistan has no future.” Obviously ensuring freedom to every citizen of Pakistan, including religious minorities, to have access to justice and obtain it without discrimination is the fundamental duty of the state. If these principles are not adhered to, then there is not an iota of doubt that the existence of the state would be threatened. The fact of the matter is that when the so-called religious groups demanded to hang Asia Bibi for her alleged blasphemy without substantial proof, that is even in conflict with the golden principles of Islam. What the radical minded clerics wanted is not the adherence to the laws and principles of Shariah but to promote their vested interests.
With sincerity, PM Khan demonstrated his love for the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) so that no one could have any doubt about his or his government’s intention. He said: “Our faith is incomplete if we don’t love our Prophet [PBUH].” This was really needed because elements such as the TLP and others always question the religious credentials of rulers when a decision is taken that is not to their satisfaction. He also clarified to the miscreants that Prophet Muhammad (SAW) respect was more sacred to him than anything else; therefore, they must not exploit the issue for their petty social and political interests.
Another very important aspect of PM Khan’s October 31 address to the nation was that he strongly countered those involved in challenging the writ of the state and inflicting damages on the lives and properties of innocent citizens. “I appeal to you, don’t harm this country in order to [increase your] vote bank. . . If you continue doing this… let me make it clear to you… the state will fulfill its duty [and] protect people’s properties and lives. . . We will not allow any vandalism [or] blockage of traffic.”
The highest point of the address was that when he said, “I appeal to you… do not take the state to a point where it has no option but to take action.” These words cleared whatever misperception existed in the minds of anybody regarding the leadership qualities and the personal association of Mr. Khan with religious groups. It must be mentioned here that PM Khan has been dubbed by his detractors in the foreign media as a Taliban apologist and thus labeled “Taliban Khan.” The only reason for that is that he once suggested having a dialogue with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). His suggestion was opposed by the entire government of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) but acted upon by the then prime minister and Khan’s strongest political foe, Mian Nawaz Sharif. The ensuing negotiations with the TTP led to the division of the TTP on the basis of pro-and anti-negotiations elements. This was the beginning of the end of the TTP. Unfortunately, hardly anyone has given credit to Imran Khan for his sagacious suggestion. So the address to the nation would go a long way in clearing the impression about PM Khan as being an apologist for the Taliban or any other militant or terrorist group. This is not only good for the personality of Mr. Khan and the PTI, but the government of Pakistan would dispel the impression in the world particularly the West, that there is a government in Pakistan which is sympathetic to Islamist militant and terrorist groups. The benefits of dispelling such an impression would be extensive.
The wholesome repercussions of PM Khan speech were soon revealed, as the majority of Pakistanis did not become part of the protest by a section of religio-political groups to denounce the SCP decision in the Asia Bibi blasphemy case. Even the bitter political antagonists of Khan, specifically the Pakistan People’s Party co-chairman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, applauded him and assured him of his party’s full support in this regard. The speech was received with such praise even outside Pakistan that a known scholar, Michael Kugelman, a Pakistan expert at the Woodrow Wilson Centre for Scholars in Washington, remarked that Khan’s speech “suggests that the state may finally be changing course in terms of how it deals with these dangerous and destabilizing elements,” while referring to religious groups.