The Confusions of Imran Khan

The confusions of Imran Khan provide us the opportunity to bring together two themes we have covered recently – the functions of religion and the coherence of analysis.

You would enjoy this post more if you took out a little bit of time and read what Imran Khan has to say in his article Why the West Craves Materialism and Why the East Sticks to Religion. But even if you don’t, you will get a sense of the issues and the problems.

Imran Khan starts by saying that his generation “grew up at a time when colonial hang up was at its peak.” Islamic studies were not taken seriously and our role models were from the West. When he arrived at Oxford he discovered that not just Islam, all religions were considered an anachronism. Science had replaced religion and the terrible experiences of religious bigotry and conflict had turned the Western mind away from theology. 

Imran then returns to himself and says that what had turned him away from religion was the selective Islam practiced by its preachers and the exploitation of Islam for political gains by groups in society.

And then he goes on to explain how he became a born-again Muslim:

First, our family life is superior to that in the West. Second, science cannot tell us what is the purpose of our existence and what happens to us when we die. Third, the absence of religion leads to a materialistic and hedonistic culture in which only money matters causing psychological problems and an imbalance between the body and the soul.

This is certainly a case that can be argued. To support his case, Imran cites the following evidence: In the US 60 percent of the population consults psychiatrists; Sweden and Switzerland have the highest suicide rates; plastic surgeons are having a field day in the West; immorality has progressively grown there since the 1970s and in the UK the divorce rate is 60 percent with over 35 percent single mothers; the crime rate is rising in almost all Western societies with an alarming increase in racism; between 1991 and 1997 there were racially motivated attacks all over Europe while in Pakistan despite the influx of over four million Afghan refugees there was no racial tension.

I leave it to you to decide if this evidence is convincing that the West is rotten because it has no religion while we are better off because we do.

Whatever the logic, the end result is that Imran claims rediscovering Islam has made him a better, more humble, tolerant and giving human being who feels compassion for the underprivileged.

This is to be lauded and Imran is to be congratulated for having arrived at this state of enlightenment. But here Imran swings the ball the other way and turns his entire argument on its head by stating that: “in Pakistan we have selective Islam. Just believing in God and going through the rituals is not enough. One also has to be a good human being. I feel there are certain Western countries with far more Islamic traits than us in Pakistan, especially in the way they protect the rights of their citizens, or for that matter their justice system. In fact some of the finest individuals I know live there.”

So what was the whole point of the article? The West has given up religion and gone down the path of hedonism and immorality while we have religion and are much superior in the values that matter. Now suddenly, there are Western countries with far more Islamic traits than us in Pakistan and some of the finest individuals live there. What is one to believe? The only conclusion that I can deduce is that perhaps being a good human being has very little to do with religion and a lot more to do with the norms of society.

Here it also becomes obvious that Imran has generalized too much in talking about the materialistic West and the religious East. There are many staunchly Catholic countries in the West and there is China in the East without any traditional religion at all. And yet, China is doing quite well in the absence of religion with just as high a proportion of good human beings as anywhere else and few of the problems that Imran attributes to the absence of religion.

So, Imran’s antagonism towards the West must be emanating from somewhere else. Let him state it in his own words:  “What I dislike about them is their double standards in the way they protect the rights of their citizens but consider citizens of other countries as being somehow inferior to them as human beings, e.g., dumping toxic waste in the Third World, advertising cigarettes that are not allowed in the West and selling drugs that are banned in the West.”

This is fair enough but it has nothing to do with the presence or absence of religion – this is a purely political argument about clash of interests. So, it seems Imran is annoyed with Western powers, as many people are, for their exploitative policies with regard to developing countries. But instead of following through with the political analysis, Imran finds it easier to go off on a religious tangent condemning the West for its immorality and irreligion and congratulating his own side for its high moral values.

This is very much like the illiterate and bigoted Mullah holding forth at the Friday sermon. Except that Imran is plagued by doubts at the end and concludes by being totally confused. He has to thank the rational education given to him by the colonial masters for this ability to question his own logic. It is far better to be confused than to have the certainty of the Talib – Imran should thank his stars he didn’t go to a madrassah and become a true Muslim.


  • Vinod
    Posted at 05:35h, 06 May Reply

    It is far better to be confused than to have the certainty of the Talib

    That is a quotable quote. I’m going to steal it from you.

  • yayaver
    Posted at 06:42h, 06 May Reply

    South Asian,Thanks for such though provoking article.I like the analysis done to the post of Imran Khan autobiographical post on religion in context of west and east.I consider any faith devoid of logic is reason of the crusades or jihad.The last line particulary struck me stating -“the rational education given to him by the colonial masters for this ability to question his own logic. It is far better to be confused than to have the certainty of the Talib.”I consider lack of reformation or renaissence in Islam is hurtening it more than any Talib.I don’t have any sound knowledge of Islamic theology but Wahabism is really promoting hardliner Islamic culture. The culture of Iran and Indian subcontinent is of sufism diverted Islam.Not only war will sweep out Taliban, a massive study of Islam with logic is needed for better cross culture education.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 23:06h, 06 May Reply

    Yayaver, In the context of your comment, you might find three earlier posts of interest (Governance in Pakistan – 5, 6 and 7). I have used the writings of Professor Ralph Russell to explain the roots of religious intolerance in Pakistan and the choice of Wahabism over the indigenous Sufi traditions of the subcontinent.

  • yayaver
    Posted at 03:32h, 07 May Reply

    It was astonishing peice to read those articles.The amount of knowledge gathered at one place is really depicted well.Thanks again.

  • tahir
    Posted at 13:50h, 14 May Reply

    The writer himself is showing his confusion.Imran when termed some individual as good human beings,that clearly was about individuals.
    As far as western society is concerned,it does stick to materialism.
    Please stop showing me that you have never read Quran.Please grab a copy of it.
    According to your definition of politics,Imran can kill anyone to grab power or enhance it….How idiot you are!!!!
    Imran believes in right and wrong.God doesn’t ask human beings to forget the difference between right and wrong for power or political matter.
    Hazrat Omer by the way never did that.Imran has now started following Omer in whose era not even a single dog died beacuse of hunger…….

    The difference between you people and Imran is quite clear
    1-You can do anything for power whereas Imran can not.
    2-You lack spirituality which Imran has.It is required to understand the complex issues,and that’s why you have failed to understand all this….
    3-Imran is credible person whereas you have yet to prove that you are pakistani.
    4-Imran doesn’t kill anyone as God doesn’t want him to be killer.MQM does that perhaps they were born for that.What is the differnce between MQM and Taliban when both are killers?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 00:06h, 15 May

      Tahir, Your comment raises two issues:

      1. What do you mean when you say that Western society sticks to materialism? Is there no materialism in Eastern society?
      2. Since the article criticizes the West, we have to allow a Westerner the chance to respond. Also, we want all South Asians to participate in this discussion. We cannot expect all these people to read the Quran before they can join the debate.

    • tahir
      Posted at 12:40h, 29 June

      1-Answer to your first question is:
      Eastern society was never materialistic.To the people in East,life is not just about earning money.They observe fasting,go to mosque,and have faimly values.The majority in east devote their life to their faimly.How many indivuals in west devote their life for faimly?Why don’t they have faimly values?
      Yes,I admit things are changing in east as well.People in urban areas have become materialistic.As the majority lives in rural areas so one has to pass judgement on the basis of majority.In rural areas of pakistan,people are on average earning six or seven thousand rupee.

      2-Whatever any westerner says,there is always a possiblity he may be lying.

  • Jimmy
    Posted at 23:11h, 20 May Reply

    Tahir Bhai,

    There is no need to get upset just because somebody has a different perspective. As a matter of fact, I thought SouthAsia really did a remarkable job in bringing out the basis of our ideas, perceptions, and believes and their implications. Regarding Imran Kahn, I am not sure if he has closed his eyes or just want to see what is pleasing or comforting to him. My experience says, people are people, regardless. We see great examples of humanity and sacrifice in east and west. We see examples of hate and cruelty in east and west. Then, how can I say one society is better than the other. As for Imran’s spiritualism, he ain’t got it. Spiritual people do not divide people, let alone societies, into good or bad or right or wrong. They just participate in life. Prophet Mohammad once said, ” Go and acquire knowledge, even if you have to go to China”. Hazrat Ali used to say,” Do not destroy the books of other believers. If the books are no good, these will be useless for us anyway”. These statements give us food for thought. And, we are spending energies on how good we are and how bad the others are…

    • tahir
      Posted at 12:47h, 29 June

      Jimmy Bhai
      Yes,people are people.Goods and bads are everywhere,then where the differnce lies.what makes the difference is,somewhere most of the people are good while at other place most of the people are bad.I don’t want to indulge in the discussion that whether we easterns are better human being than westerners,but Imran is absolutely right in saying westerners are more materialistic.Despite east sticks to religion,we see bad people because the religion is not being followed in true sense:Secterianism,and thefts was once being witnessed by westerners till 19th century.

      This is beyond my understanding how Imran is dividing people.As far as religion is concerned,this division has been done by God.As you can curse God for that so you can not hold Imran resposible for that.

  • commonspeak
    Posted at 13:12h, 24 May Reply

    I think Imran Khan picked on some easy victims in the West – the single mothers, the divorced couples,etc. and the connection between lack of religion and this state of affairs is not clear.

    What is so great about South Asian “culture”? we have repressed, depressed and violated women in families, “open” marriages where husbands and wives tolerate each other’s physical presence but have their minds elsewhere, honor killings, over valuation of the son,etc. I could go on ad nauseum but will refrain. In fact I dislike the word and value “culture” being assigned to this planned program of violence against the dignity of life. Bah!

    I believe the question of God remains pertinent and interesting but am not so sure about religion.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:33h, 24 May

      CS, You will enjoy this piece on what Einstein thought about religion and God and how he got to thinking that way.

  • Tazeen
    Posted at 09:02h, 12 June Reply

    Ah …. finally!

    Some smart discourse on the confusion called Imran Khan.
    Let me add my two cents to this. Its not just religion that Imran Khan is conffused about, he is just as clueless when it comes to judiciary and democracy. While he championed the cause of free judiciary in Pakistan, he also supports tribal jirgas which are about as inclusive as a klu klux klan. These tribal jirgas exclude poor men and women from all decision making process and often use women to settle disputes but Mr. Khan thinks that they are the recipe for judicial crisis in the country. When I confronted him in a forum over this, he had no logical answer to that started hurling abuse. In my opinion, Imran Khan has not grown humble after he discovered religion. He is still the self righteous know-it-all prick that he was before.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:26h, 12 June

      Tazeen, Thanks for the comment. Imran Khan’s relationship with religion is his personal choice but one can be a good Muslim (whatever that means) and still be confused. One cannot afford a person who is confused as a leader especially when that person is unwilling to debate his/her views respectfully with those who hold contrary opinions. I don’t know how being a good Muslim can be reconciled with arrogance and intolerance.

      Regarding the judicial system and tribal jirgas, I can sense what Imran might be trying to articulate but there is need for a nuanced discussion of the issues. The point is that the judicial system in its present form does not work for the poor. Is there something that can be taken from the jirga system that would help in the ultimate objective of getting timely justice for the marginalized?

      It was refreshing to hear a US President formulate the problem in this framework: Governments need to reflect the “will of the people” but “each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people.”

      The challenge for us is to build on our traditions in such a way that the will of the people is reflected in our institutions. This is a challenging task that requires both humility and thoughtfulness and it is disappointing that Imran Khan is falling short on both counts.

      I hope you saw the sequel to the post – The Peculiarities of Imran Khan.

    • tahir
      Posted at 12:58h, 29 June

      Dear Tazeen:
      You desperately need to know few facts:
      1-How many people in tribal area can afford a lwayer?
      Facts show only ten percent people can afford a lawyer.Only 1 percent can afford a good lawyer like Aitzaz Ahsan.
      In such scenerio,anyone who asks for court system in these areas is either insane or an American agent.
      2-Jirga system has got some demerits but it is not without merits.One doesn’t have to pay even a single penny as charges for his case to be presented.
      A sane person would demand to eliminate all the demerits in Jirga syatem rather replacing it with a system which majority can not afford.One only has to pay money if he is found guilty.That happens all over world.

      What amazes me is the mentality of the people like you who are imposing westernized ways on a society which has its own culture since centuries.

  • TheAmerican
    Posted at 15:35h, 18 June Reply

    Nikita S Khrushchev of the now defunct USSR was quoted in New York Herald Tribune in 1962, “[Politicians] are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river”.

    So Imran’s confusion can be explained to some extent. He is issuing contradictory and divisive statements as means to an end. Just like any other politician or a politician wanna be.

    As to who he is and what makes him tick, it is nothing but a gigantic ego. That adds to his “confusion”. His so called contribution to the world history literature is a pathetic attempt to elevate him self in his own eyes- as is the case with every ego maniac (read dictator), I am referring to the book “The Warrior Race”. Has he ever heard about The Gurkhas, Jaats, Marhattas, Scotts, English etc. ( If he did mention these war like people in his book, my apologies. I have not read his book as I tend to be a bit discriminatory when it comes to my reading list).

    He is populism at worse. His every sentence starts and ends with an anti-American statement. In his distorted mind all the ills that are festering in his country are America’s doing. And then last I heard he is in USA to “raise funds” for the displaced people. Confused??

    He has done good work for his people as a philanthropist and should stick to that.

    One last word that has to be said, did he forget about his own divorce while criticizing single mothers.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:12h, 18 June

      I would make a distinction between politicians. There are politicians who know that they are using contradictory and divisive statements as means to an end. There are also those who really do not know that what they are saying is contradictory or divisive. I would put Cheney in the first group and Bush (perhaps) in the second. The former can do more harm; the latter can be more dangerous. Imran is better categorized in the latter category. The distinction applies equally to individuals.

    • tahir
      Posted at 13:03h, 29 June

      You need to be a bit realistic.
      You must admit that America has done damages to all the countries inculding Pakistan.
      Why did they keep supporting Musharaf,a dictator, for almost 8 years?
      Why did not they support another dictator in a country called Burma?

      What Imran says about America is not baseless.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:15h, 29 June

      Tahir, You have raised a number of different points. It is easier to discuss them in a separate post. See More and Less of Imran Khan.

  • imran sharif
    Posted at 12:19h, 05 January Reply

    come on now man ur being a little too hard on the guy………… ur actually assuming what he means behinds his words thts not fair…….. and he actually make sense……….there is no contradiction in the first adn the second parts you quoted in the first he says western values with respect to family strutcure are impractical otherwie he likes your justice system and thiks the value you give each and every individual is excellent and the same is preached according to him in islam………… see no contradiction between the two…………. its like ur trying to find fault with him

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 13:54h, 05 January Reply


    1. Why is it not fair to assume that he means what he says? What should be assumed instead?
    2. There is a contradiction because article starts by wanting to show that the East is superior to the West and concludes by saying that some things are good in the East and some in the West. It turns out that there is no correlation with religion. So what was all the fuss about Islam? How was it relevant to the argument.
    3. If family structure is impractical in the West, the family and society should have decayed. On the contrary, that family structure has produced people who are dominating the world in every field. What is the criterion for impracticality that is being used?
    4. Family values are not divinely ordained. They are man-made which is why they vary from society to society. This article explains why family values are human values:

  • Taimy
    Posted at 15:47h, 28 February Reply

    Hi SouthAsian,

    Imran Khan is the only politician in Pakistan that presents a real hope for the future of this country. His contributions as a philanthropist speak for themselves and he has proven credentials of serving his people and his country. I have no doubt that he will make a great leader and will put Pakistan in a positive direction.

    I am a very secular kind of person and I may not agree with Imran’s religious views, but my religious views do not blind me to see through this man with an objective eye. And when I do this, I find a man of character and action, someone who can do something positive.

    His article in question is his personal opinion and views towards religion and non-religion. It did not contain anything offensive in concerning non-Muslims or people of the west in general. In fact, he praises the system of the west many a time as he has the courage to admit good no matter where it comes from. He does the same in the article in question, but you found a way of pointing it out in a negative manner. You may not agree with him on his opinion but implying that this makes him a confused person not fit to lead Pakistan, a country suffering from generations of corrupt politicians, is rather misleading the people reading your article.

    Nobody is perfect, and neither is Imran Khan. But his positives and his contributes far outweighs any negative aspect of his personality and this is what matters in a person and in a leader. Nobody should be in doubt of his capabilities.

    I should inform you further that on many issues, the confusion lies with the person attributing the confusion to Imran Khan.

    Liberalism, as a genuine tradition, has never gained foothold in Pakistan. Many self-proclaimed liberals in Pakistan do not know what liberalism actually means. They think being slavish to the west or just opposing Islamic religious extremists is being liberal, no matter what your other stances are. Our self-proclaimed liberal’s narrow view of seeing liberalism only in the dress of a woman, is very similar to the extremists view of making religious furor revolve around the same. So Musharraf, who at the end of his term locked up media and judiciary and assassinated political leaders like Bugti, became a “liberal” and “enlightened moderate” in the eyes of self-proclaimed liberals by allowing marathon in which women were allowed to run in shorts.

    Liberalism is not this – and you may be surprised at my assertion – but I think that the only truly liberal leader in Pakistan, which is prominent on political scene, is Imran Khan. His personal conservatism is one thing (although he is no way overtly religious), but his sense of justice, his sense of proportion, his acceptance of humanity and human beings, is liberalism in its purest form.

    I should tell you that his opposition to military action in Tribal areas, war in Afghanistan and Iraq, has not stemmed from anything reactionary or attempts at political point scoring, but it stems from the same thinking which makes a Jewish intellectual in America, Noam Chomsky (and you can easily know about him on the internet if you don’t already) condemn American foreign policies and the same wars.

    In the west, liberals are those who oppose war in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Pakistan, like everything else, self-proclaimed liberals have turned it upside down – liberals are those who call for open military actions, while those who oppose them, are called Taliban supporters (though I agree that there are some Taliban supporters like Jamat-e-Islami who oppose the war out of ulterior motives but you can’t generalize).

    Our self-proclaimed liberals’ ideas consist of western mental slavery. So American government announces this and that terrorist, this and that war just, our self-proclaimed liberals jump on the bandwagon and start speaking the same.

    Do you know what our self-proclaimed liberals in Pakistan mirror in the west and America? The Neo Cons. And you can search for them to know what kind of “liberals” are these Neo Cons.

    You should also know that Imran Khan was the only political party leader who came out with strong condemnation of Salman Taseer murder, another thing showing his sense of justice and standing with what is right. No major leader of a political party was as vocal, and most were keeping quiet.

    His credibility is so strong that extremists will think ten times before issuing a fatwa against him.

    What more do you need if you are a genuine Pakistani, when one judges him against other politicians who are a source of shame for the whole nation? He is the pride of Pakistan and he can actually stand in front of any politician of the west or east in terms of character and honesty.

    We should educate the public and tell them the truth – Imran Khan is the only option for Pakistan as for now and maybe for many decades to come. Don’t lose this gem of a person. It would be Pakistan’s loss.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 21:39h, 28 February

      Taimy: If Imran Khan is the only politician in Pakistan that presents a real hope for the future of this country does it follow that he can never be or should never be criticized? Many feel that Obama is the only hope for America’s future or Manmohan Singh is the only hope for India’s future yet both are criticized from within their countries when people feel they are mistaken on particular policy positions. That freedom to criticize is an integral part of a healthy society. It keeps leaders conscious that they are being evaluated on their policy positions and therefore they cannot be cavalier or arbitrary in what they say or do. It is ironic that you commend Chomsky for criticizing American leaders when he believes their policy positions are wrong but you would like to deny that freedom to this blog. Let us engage in the argument (in which we could very well be mistaken) but let us not declare anybody sacrosanct and beyond questioning.

      On liberalism, there was a post on this blog some time back that may address a few of the points you have made:

  • Asif
    Posted at 06:33h, 24 May Reply

    what ever imran khan says about pakistan that if my government will come so i will do it inshallasha he will change the the whole system of pakistan and we need to change our system because we have spent 60 years of our liberty but what we get in these 60 years i really support imran khan and tahir bhai you discussed religion very well western people are materialistic people they have every kind of technology but they do not possess morality they have no values and norms as some of the sociologist has said that the middle class is society because in meddle class society they have feeling sympathy love for each other and help each other while in western a wife can leave his husband in the way and he can take divorce if she like another person so is this according to morality humanity whatever er are doing this is because of our religion Islam which tells us do this and avoid this

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 08:57h, 25 May

      Asif: Some questions:

      1. How do you know Imran Khan will do what he says he will do?
      2. What do you mean Western people have no values and norms? Everyone has some values and norms. Whether others approve them or not is a different matter; they are not asking for that approval.
      3. Are only Western people materialistic?
      4. A Western woman can ask for divorce if she likes another person. A Pakistani man can just pronounce divorce if he likes another woman. What’s the difference?
      5. Every religion tells what to do and what to avoid. Have you heard of the Ten Commandments? Whether people adhere to this advice is a different question.
      6. Have you looked at the ranking of corruption by Transparency International? Is Pakistan ranked above or below most Western countries? Is Imran Khan more powerful than Islam?

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