Professor Yasmeen: Radical Islamists and Islamist Populists Employ Similar Tactics, Albeit with Different Objectives

PTI supporter at Jinnah Cricket Stadium during a political rally of cricketer turned politician Imran Khan on March 23, 2012 in Sialkot, Pakistan. Photo: Jahanzaib Naiyyer.

Drawing a comparison between radical Islamism and Islamist populism, Professor Samina Yasmeen emphasized the parallel communication styles utilized by both radical and populist Islamists, highlighting their reliance on simplicity and Islamic references to connect with the populace. However, she pointed out that while radical Islamists aim for a fundamental alteration of the state, populist Islamists, exemplified by figures such as Imran Khan, prioritize the establishment of a “well-governed state.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Samina Yasmeen, the Director of the Centre for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia, delves into the complex landscape of Pakistani politics, exploring the roots of populism and its intersection with Islamism. 

While a coalition consisting of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has agreed to form the next government of Pakistan, thereby preventing the party of former Prime Minister Imran Khan from assuming power despite garnering the most votes in the election, Professor Yasmeen has pointed out that populist Islamism shares certain techniques with radical Islamism in many respects. When asked to differentiate between radical Islamism and Islamist populism, Professor Yasmeen highlighted the parallel communication styles employed by radical and populist Islamists, underscoring their use of simplicity and Islamic references to resonate with the populace. According to her, while radical Islamists seek a fundamental alteration of the state, populist Islamists, exemplified by figures such as Imran Khan, prioritize the establishment of a well-governed state.

Professor Yasmeen begins by shedding light on the historical antecedence and foundational underpinnings of populism in Pakistan, emphasizing the significant influence of the public’s inclination towards charismatic personalities. She attributes the prevalence of populism to the prevailing low level of literacy, creating a susceptibility to external influences and reinforcing the importance of oral transmission in shaping political narratives.

Drawing on historical examples, particularly the emergence of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party in the 1960s, Yasmeen underscores the role of illiteracy and emotional connections in fueling populist movements. She then transitions to the contemporary political landscape, highlighting the disillusionment of a population that feels unheard and a deep connection between populist leaders like Imran Khan and the public.

The interview further delves into the strategies employed by Islamist parties to resonate with the public, with a particular focus on Imran Khan’s use of religious narratives and references. Yasmeen explores the influence of Imran Khan’s populist agenda on elections and his unprecedented success without military backing, analyzing the impact of his narrative on public sentiment.

Discussing the challenges posed by Islamist populism to democratic values, Professor Yasmeen raises concerns about the potential for closed-mindedness and a lack of critical thinking among supporters. She highlights the importance of guiding populist appeal towards constructive messages and fostering a genuine democratic spirit to ensure long-term stability.

Finally, the interview touches on the impact of Islamist populism on the rights and representation of religious minorities in Pakistan. Professor Yasmeen acknowledges the indirect consequences of Islamization, contributing to an atmosphere that may alienate minority communities. She emphasizes the need for a nuanced understanding of the complex relationship between Islamization, democracy, and minority rights.

In addressing the external influence of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s anti-Islam stance on Islamist populism in Pakistan, Professor Yasmeen notes the shaping of negative perceptions about India’s Hindu-centric policies but emphasizes the overarching focus on internal challenges within Pakistan.

Throughout the interview, Professor Samina Yasmeen provides a comprehensive analysis of the intricate interplay between populism, Islamism, and democratic values in the context of Pakistani politics, offering valuable insights into the historical, contemporary, and geopolitical dimensions of these complex dynamics.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Samina Yasmeen with some edits.

Illiteracy Coupled with Emotional Responses Fuels Populism in Pakistan

What is the historical antecedence and foundational underpinnings of populism in Pakistan, and what are the principal factors contributing to the discerned state of political immaturity?

Samina Yasmeen: First of all, populism in Pakistan is significantly influenced by the public’s inclination to gravitate towards certain personalities and follow them. As these individuals gain recognition for offering something appealing, they evolve into populist leaders garnering widespread followership. However, a crucial factor contributing to this phenomenon, especially in contemporary Pakistan, is the prevailing low level of literacy.

In a society where a purported 40% of the population is considered literate but may possess only basic reading and writing skills, susceptibility to external influences becomes pronounced. The oral transmission of ideas gains prominence in such a scenario. This tendency is further exacerbated when populist leaders strategically align themselves with the public’s perspective, utilizing easily understandable terminologies. While their aim may be to engage in meaningful discussions and influence public opinion, the outcome often creates an environment where imagery, emotive rhetoric, and opinion-based communication take precedence over fact-based discourse. In essence, the conditions created by the combination of limited literacy and effective communication strategies make populism a viable and prevalent phenomenon in Pakistan.

Acknowledging this, populism often arises due to circumstances where individuals feel compelled to rally around a specific personality, and concurrently, other influential figures are willing to endorse this inclination. A pertinent example from the 1960s is Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s establishment of Pakistan’s People’s Party. Despite his falling out with President Ayub Khan, Bhutto maintained a favorable relationship with the military. As the demand for an independent East Pakistan grew, the military sided with Bhutto, enabling him to mobilize support from specific factions.

Bhutto adeptly engaged with these factions, securing their support, and effectively conveyed his ideas. The question arises: why did people embrace his narrative? The answer involves the role of illiteracy or insufficient literacy, coupled with an emotional element. In situations where individuals feel unheard or perceive institutions as unresponsive to criticism, populist leaders become iconic voices for their sentiments. This emotional connection transcends literacy barriers, contributing to the emergence and popularity of populist figures.

So, delving into history, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s rallies were monumental, capturing the essence of people deeply swayed and influenced by his ideas. The scale was such that attendees, moved by these ideals, willingly donated their jewelry and resources. This phenomenon continues in contemporary Pakistan, where Imran Khan operates within a similar context, fostering a profound connection with the populace.

In the present, we witness a population that believes their voices have been disregarded, their basic needs unmet, and an acute sense that a populist leader provides a voice to their sentiments. Concurrently, both within Pakistan and abroad, there are groups that not only accept this idea but actively support endeavors, such as those of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Their aim is to ensure that the articulated demands resonate widely and gain popular traction.

Imran Khan Is Perceived as a Genuine Islamist

Enthusiastic Youth going towards the venue Minar-e-Pakistan to attend Imran Khan’s political rally on October 30, 2011 in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo: Jahanzaib Naiyyer

How would you define and differentiate between Islamism (or radical Islamism) and Islamist populism in the context of Pakistani politics? Are there specific characteristics that distinguish Islamist populism in Pakistan from broader Islamist movements?

Samina Yasmeen: If I can delve deeper into the realm of Islamist populism in Pakistan, as it aligns with my area of expertise, it’s essential to recognize its longstanding history. This trajectory can be traced back to the very foundation of Pakistan, rooted in the demand for a state created for Muslims. The very name "Pakistan," meaning “the land of the pure,” embodies an inherent Islamic connotation, derived from combining the initial alphabets of different expected provinces.

Initially, the demand for Pakistan reflected elements of Islamism, and one could argue whether it leaned towards a more progressive or conservative interpretation. However, once Pakistan was established, Islamist groups that actively supported its creation began to assert their vision of Islam, aiming to translate it into reality. This marked the emergence of Islamism in the country.

In its early stages, figures like Maulana Maududi utilized Islamic knowledge to conceptualize and define the idea of an Islamic state. However, as time progressed, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, Islamism in Pakistan underwent a transformation, evolving into a more radical form. In my perspective, these shifts present intriguing parallels that merit closer examination.

Radical Islamists pursue a distinct agenda, aiming to alter the fundamental nature of the state and reshape the global landscape, with the ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic state in Pakistan. In contrast, populist Islamists in Pakistan, exemplified by groups like PTI or figures like Imran Khan, may not share the same explicit agenda, but their approach bears striking similarities.

Both radical and populist Islamists employ a communication style characterized by simplicity, utilizing straightforward language and expressions. They draw upon Islamic ideas, often quoting verses from the Quran or Hadith, repeating them persistently until acceptance solidifies among the populace. This rhetoric is then seamlessly connected to the everyday lives of the people.

Taking the example of groups like Jamat-ud-Dawa or Lashkar-e-Taiba, their initial foray into public discourse involved picking up Quranic verses and Hadith, conveying what Islam expects, including engagement in jihad. Gradually, this narrative expanded to assert that Pakistan’s existing condition is a consequence of its adherence to a Westernized system, weaving in Islamic references and principles to fortify their arguments. This typifies the approach of a radical Islamist.

Populist Islamists employ a similar strategy, though distinct from radical Islamists, using concise phrases that emphasize their Islamic identity. Unlike the extensive repetition of Quranic verses or Hadith, they rely on smaller phrases to continuously reinforce their connection to Islamic principles.

An illustrative example is found in Imran Khan’s communication style. He often begins by invoking the phrase "Iyyake nabudu ve iyyake nastain." While this phrase, translating to "We worship You, and we seek Your guidance," is a recognizable part of Sura Fatiha, the repetition of it in his speeches fosters an association between this specific section of Sura Fatiha and Imran Khan’s persona or worldview. This technique effectively serves to remind people of his Islamic orientation.

This practice serves to convey a powerful message: Imran Khan is perceived as a genuine Islamist, a devout Muslim who not only relies on his personal capacity but also recognizes a higher power, seeking guidance from it. This strategic use of religious phrases, such as beginning speeches with "Iyyake nabudu ve iyyake nastain," effectively contributes to the framework of populist Islamism in Pakistan.

In this particular context, where people widely identify themselves with the notion of an Islamic or Muslim state, despite the presence of non-Muslims, the majority of the populace interprets such gestures positively. When Imran Khan consistently incorporates phrases like "Iyyake nabudu ve iyyake nastain" into his discourse, it reinforces the perception that he is the right kind of Muslim leader they seek for the country. This alignment with Islamic expressions enhances his credibility and resonance among the population, contributing to the narrative of populist Islamism.

I believe that if you examine the trajectory of my thoughts, you’ll find that populist Islamism in Pakistan shares certain techniques with radical Islamism in many respects. However, the ultimate objectives differ; it’s not centered on jihad but rather the establishment of a well-governed state. One could argue that even jihadists, to some extent, discuss the concept of a ‘good state,’ although their perspective differs from that of populist Islamists. While there is a similarity in their approaches, the outcomes are distinct.

Many Islamist parties in Pakistan claim to represent the voice and will of the people. What populist appeals or strategies do these parties employ to resonate with the public, and how do they incorporate religious narratives into their populist discourse? Do you believe that these dynamics played a role in Imran Khan’s electoral success, despite his imprisonment and recent charges on four accounts?

Samina Yasmeen: I believe what I’ve been discussing aligns precisely with your inquiry. Throughout Pakistan’s history, Islamist parties, not only in the present but also in the past, have consistently employed a technique rooted in Islamic principles. They often draw upon Islamic injunctions, referencing the Quran or Hadith, to position themselves as capable of articulating the issues in Pakistan, the role religion can play, and how they can bring about change. This approach is evident across all Islamist parties, whether they are extremely conservative, moderately conservative, or even those that may not be considered conservative. This includes the somewhat progressive populist movement, such as the Islamist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

The reference to justice in the very name of PTI, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, underscores the party’s departure from Western democratic ideals and its alignment with Islamic concepts of justice. This nomenclature serves as a starting point, capturing the attention of the populace and signaling that the party operates within the framework of Islamic justice rather than Western democratic principles.

Furthermore, I highlighted earlier how Imran Khan’s use of "Iyyake nabudu ve iyyake nastain" becomes a key element in communicating the party’s identity. This Quranic reference serves as the cornerstone of any discussion initiated by the populist leader. However, it’s essential to note that this is not where the ideological framework concludes.

Examining Imran Khan’s tenure as Prime Minister and his actions afterward, particularly during his time in office, sheds light on his distinctive approach. His emphasis on the vision of establishing a Riyasat-e Medina, akin to the initial Islamic state in Medina, served to differentiate him from his predecessors. Imran Khan stood apart from leaders like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who aspired to create an Islamic Socialist state, and General Zia Ul-Haq, whose vision of an Islamic state leaned towards conservatism and didn’t universally ensure justice.

Imran Khan, on the other hand, articulated a desire for a Riyasat-e Medina in Pakistan—a model that reflected the principles of justice, equality, and international standing inherent in the Islamic foundation of the nation. During his term as Prime Minister, his frequent references to Riyasat-e Medina, in my evaluation, significantly contributed to his identity as a populist leader and populist Prime Minister. And then, he is ousted from power.

A noteworthy shift lies in Imran Khan’s consistent use of Quranic references and his pursuit of Riyasat-e Medina. Those collaborating with external or internal forces are perceived as steering Pakistan away from this righteous path. During this process, Khan not only invokes Quranic verses but also underscores how Islam functioned in South Asia, emphasizing its historical dominance through the Mughal Empire. The empire’s decline, attributed to internal dissent and hypocrisy, becomes a poignant lesson.

Imran Khan builds on the entirety of South Asian and Islamic history, with a crucial focus on the history of the Islamic state in Medina. This highlights a general pattern among Islamists, but when it comes to figures like Imran Khan and PTI, the process is the same. While there are similarities, the distinctive element lies in the communication of these parallels, notably utilizing social media more extensively.

Imran Khan Has Cultivated an Image Akin to a Cult Personality

Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman, Imran Khan addresses to public meeting held at Shahi Bagh in Peshawar, Pakistan on May 27, 2015. Photo: Awais Khan

You characterize Imran Khan as a populist leader. What impact did his populist agenda have on the elections and his success? Meanwhile, Imran Khan’s electoral triumph marks a significant milestone in Pakistani politics. It represents the first instance in the nation’s history where a politician secured victory without the backing of the influential military. How would you interpret and explain this unprecedented development?

Samina Yasmeen: When I say Imran Khan is a populist leader, it’s not a novel assertion. What I want to emphasize is that Khan’s image as someone worthy of emulation didn’t originate with his tenure as the Prime Minister but began when he assumed the role of captain for Pakistan’s cricket team. The foundation solidified with the significant achievement of winning the Cricket World Cup in 1992, a moment of immense pride for a cricket-centric nation like Pakistan.

The charismatic aura around Imran Khan was not solely a result of his cricketing prowess; it extended to his personal life. His appeal transcended boundaries, evident in Lady Diana’s visit to Pakistan on his account and his marriage to Jemima Goldsmith, a wealthy Western, British woman. Imran Khan’s ability to engage with international figures on equal footing further contributed to this enduring image. This notion was ingrained long before his political career took off.

Upon entering the political arena, it’s crucial to acknowledge that initially, Imran Khan did not enjoy widespread popularity as a politician. In fact, there was a time when he secured only one seat in the Parliament. However, a significant shift occurred when the institutions that either gave rise to PTI or supported its inception began backing him.

Imran Khan’s appeal gained momentum as he received support from influential backers, including individuals associated with the military and retired officials. These entities saw PTI as a potential third force, distinct from the established political parties like PMLN, PML, and PPP, which were perceived as failing to address the people‘s needs. Imran Khan’s emergence on the political stage marked a turning point, and he gradually garnered traction as a populist leader.

Credit must be given to Imran Khan for the 2013 elections when PTI garnered enough votes to form a government. During this period, he introduced commendable ideas, such as the health card, although there were some implementation issues. Overall, the concepts resonated with the impoverished, creating a perception that he genuinely cared about their well-being.

However, in 2018, when he began implementing these ideas, the party faced challenges due to a lack of sufficient capacity and experience in managing the economy. Consequently, a noticeable downward trend emerged. While it could be argued that pre-existing factors contributed to this decline, it worsened during his tenure.

What intrigues me is the rapid surge in Imran Khan’s popularity and his ability to assert himself as a populist leader the moment the possibility of a vote of no confidence became evident. This phenomenon can be attributed to a combination of factors I initially outlined. In Pakistan, where rising prices prevail and a pervasive sense of being unheard is felt, people began perceiving Imran Khan as their chosen representative, even in their discontent. There’s a prevailing sentiment that decisions about political structures are made externally, outside the democratic space.

Imran Khan effectively capitalized on this sentiment through his narrative. As mentioned earlier, he employed terminology, introduced ideas, and communicated in a way that resonated with ordinary people, especially the youth. While this approach may have temporarily fueled a collective expression of frustration, there is concern that, in the long term, it may impede Pakistan’s progress by not encouraging increased productivity or responsibility. Imran Khan’s success in channeling and amplifying public anger underscores the reality that a leader can emerge when there is widespread discontent, and someone can effectively articulate that discontent. So, Imran Khan’s populist appeal surged after his removal from office due to his narrative. 

Another crucial aspect, from my perspective, is that the previous PMLN government and the military might not have fully grasped the extent to which granting Imran Khan an open platform would bolster his ability to mobilize support. They permitted him to conduct rallies consistently, allowing him to reach a wide audience. The PTI’s adept use of social media further amplified his message, disseminating it through both digital channels and oral transmissions. This strategic communication approach played a significant role in transforming Imran Khan into a larger-than-life personality.

Even during his incarceration, he, as you pointed out, successfully altered the political landscape contrary to the preferences of the military or the establishment. Initially, many, including myself, anticipated a coalition government, with the primary choices being PMLN and PPP. Other parties, including PTI, were expected to secure only a few seats. However, the allocation of multiple electoral symbols to PTI suggested that it might not form a cohesive party. There was a prevailing belief that PTI wouldn’t come to power, especially given the numerous legal cases and verdicts delivered just days before the elections. These legal developments sent a clear message that Imran Khan was not welcome in the political arena.

Now, consider this perspective from both the younger generation and those who are not young. What does it signify? Economic conditions worsened further during the 16 months of the PML-N government, leading to widespread suffering. Imran Khan’s narrative, asserting that those who removed him collaborated with external powers and certain sections of the military, resonated strongly with the public. This narrative shaped a perception that Imran was on the right side, while the other side was on the wrong.

Imran Khan has cultivated an image of someone worthy of followership, akin to a cult personality. People genuinely like and trust him. It may be challenging to rationalize, but the upheaval from the pre-election structure to the current state can be explained by the deep trust people have in Imran Khan. Some express this trust to the extent of stating, "if he asks us to lay down our lives, we’ll do that."

However, the significant support for Imran Khan’s PTI, securing numerous independent seats, should not be solely interpreted as unequivocal approval for Imran Khan. It also reflects a protest vote, fueled by dissatisfaction with the crackdown initiated after the events of May 9th last year. While there have been stories circulating, their accuracy may be questionable, suggesting that law enforcement agencies, particularly the military, have targeted anyone associated with PTI. The image of widespread suppression has influenced public sentiment. 

Additionally, there is discontent with PML-N, as people question the perpetuation of dynastic politics. These three factors—unwavering support for Imran, resentment towards military intervention, and frustration with Nawaz Sharif and the PPP for adhering to dynastic politics—all contributed to PTI-supported candidates securing a prominent position. It is evident that Imran Khan’s message, rather than just PTI’s messaging, holds value and resonates with a significant portion of the electorate.

Lack of Critical Thinking and Close-Mindedness Pose a Threat to Democracy

To what extent does Islamist populism, predominantly but not exclusively embodied by Imran Khan, present challenges to democratic values and institutions in Pakistan? Can you identify instances where Islamist populist movements have either bolstered or undermined the democratic process?

Samina Yasmeen: Allow me to refocus on Pakistan, a subject that has consumed much of my attention in recent months. My insights lean towards a more nuanced contribution, honing in on specific aspects rather than broad generalizations. It’s conceivable that others may possess a more comprehensive understanding of the broader context.

Imran Khan’s adept use of populist narratives stands out prominently. His resonance with a significant portion of the youth, as well as individuals beyond the younger demographic, underscores a genuine yearning for a transformative leader who can navigate Pakistan through its current challenges. This widespread acceptance grants him considerable influence. However, the concern lies in whether this influence could potentially undermine democratic norms, as I previously mentioned.

He possesses a certain appeal, which has manifested in various forms over time. However, it is crucial to guide this appeal towards a constructive message for your followers. Encourage them to proclaim, “We are dedicated to the betterment of Pakistan. Our struggle is for a fair and just nation, but achieving this requires every capable citizen to fulfill their responsibilities and strive to be the most productive human beings possible.” Without conveying this message, the risk is promoting mere anger and reactionary responses to perceived adversaries, “the other.” From my perspective, the impact is notably positive when this guidance is provided.

The negative impact that I anticipate in facing these challenges is the tendency to shift the younger generation into a space where they become unwilling to consider alternative arguments. This phenomenon mirrors the divisive political landscape observed in the United States, exemplified by the contrast between Donald Trump and the Democratic representatives. Similarly, I believe that this environment, fostered by certain leaders, encourages the denigration of others, sometimes in ways that are quite embarrassing. Furthermore, there is a lack of responsibility for steering Pakistan in the right direction, beyond merely opposing whatever is in place.

This challenge lies in the fact that it fails to cultivate a genuine democratic spirit; instead, it fosters anger that contributes to long-term instability rather than stability. When I inquire about the reasons behind supporting Imran Khan, the responses often lack a solid rationale, as individuals seem to echo ideas fed to them directly through social media or oral transmission. They unquestioningly adopt these beliefs without critically examining them. This lack of critical thinking and openness to alternative explanations poses a threat to democracy.

In conversations with supporters, the explanations for backing Imran Khan often lack depth, with many simply stating, "because he says so." However, probing further reveals a dearth of substantive reasoning. It appears that individuals adopt ideas disseminated by Imran Khan without allowing room for independent thought. When a society closes itself off to considering alternative perspectives and collaborating for the greater good, the democratic foundation weakens. This closed-mindedness poses a significant challenge to the democratic fabric of the nation.

On a positive note, the substantial recognition from the public, for whatever reasons, serves as a clear message to the military and all those involved in building structures that cater only to a specific group. It serves as a wakeup call, emphasizing the importance of involving the public in decision-making processes.

Acknowledging that Imran Khan himself has benefited from this system, it’s crucial to accept it and move forward. Despite this, with the aid of his populist narrative, he has successfully created space for 90 plus candidates to be elected independently, even in the absence of a unifying symbol. This doesn’t necessarily weaken democracy but prompts a reflection on whether those constructing these structures bear a responsibility to consider perspectives beyond their own.

The challenge is to question if it’s time for those shaping the nation’s future to engage with the public and broaden their understanding of what Pakistan truly needs. This, in essence, conveys a positive message for democracy.

Islamization Has Become Ingrained in Pakistan’s Identity

Considering Pakistan’s diverse religious landscape, how do Islamist populist movements impact the rights and representation of religious minorities? Are there notable instances where the rise of Islamist populism has influenced policies related to minority communities?

Samina Yasmeen: In my perspective, the impact is not direct, especially when focusing on figures like Imran Khan. However, the broader trend of Islamism or Islamisation in Pakistan, prevalent since its inception and particularly intensified since the 1970s, has created an atmosphere that promotes the notion of Pakistan as a Muslim or Islamic state, sometimes to the exclusion of the minority communities you mentioned. The consequence is a situation where the identity of "we, the Pakistanis" is articulated, inadvertently excludes non-Muslims. This dynamic contributes to a sense among non-Muslims that they are not fully part of the national fabric or project. Thus, one notable negative consequence of Islamization lies in its potential to alienate minority communities.

However, there is other problem associated with Islamization in a country with a low level of literacy. The understanding of "what do Islamic teachings really mean?" becomes subject to the interpretations provided by those articulating them. Essentially, the meanings of religious texts are not derived from their inherent essence but rather from what the communicators or prevailing narratives convey. As observed by me and echoed by many scholars, this trend has led to a reluctance to acknowledge the rights of minorities. Additionally, it has introduced elements of irrationality into religious practices. Anyone can assert, "This is unIslamic, and it shouldn’t be done." Consequently, if you are a Muslim, you might face threats; however, even simple words or expressions from non-Muslims can be labeled as blasphemous, leading to instances of mob lynching without due consideration, resulting in loss of life. This represents a profoundly negative threat to Pakistan.

Once again, I want to clarify that I’m not implying that all Islamists occupy a particular mindset. The Council for Islamic Ideology, responsible for examining legislation referred to them, has, on occasions, used Islamic teachings to foster a more inclusive environment for minorities. Similarly, various governments, including Imran Khan’s administration, deserve credit for their efforts in engaging with minority communities. However, it’s crucial to differentiate between these positive steps and the overarching space in which Islamization has become ingrained in Pakistan’s identity. This dominant space has the potential to create challenges for non-Muslim minorities, and it requires attention. Perhaps, using his populist narrative, Imran Khan can play a role in raising awareness about this issue among the public.

Pakistan Lost Ground to India Even in Muslim Countries

Indian PM Narendra Modi has recently opened a Hindu temple on the ruins of Babri Masjid and he is pursuing an anti-Muslim rhetoric according to his critics. How has Modi’s anti-Islam stance impacted Islamist Populism in Pakistan?

Samina Yasmeen: It has had a significant impact in shaping the perception of India among Pakistanis, reinforcing the notion that it is predominantly a Hindu state despite its sizable Muslim population. There’s a growing recognition that Prime Minister Modi is intent on erasing the Muslim identity from Indian history, a sentiment particularly evident when media outlets report any critical developments related to Modi.

However, the question arises: does this influence Islamist sentiments within Pakistan? The answer is uncertain. While Iran might exploit these developments, especially after the revocation of Article 370 and the removal of special status in Kashmir, along with the controversial events surrounding the Babri Masjid and the construction of a temple, the focus of the Pakistani system seems more directed inward. The current internal challenges have led to a limited external reaction, with the emphasis on India doing what is expected of Modi rather than a forceful response.

A noteworthy development is Prime Minister Modi’s inauguration of the largest Hindu temple in the United Arab Emirates, marking India’s apparent ability to extend its influence beyond the subcontinent into the Middle East, even in religious spheres. This creates a perception that India has the capability to project its influence globally, whereas Pakistan, despite being a Muslim state, seems to have lost its historical standing in the Middle East. The weakening of Pakistan’s presence and status in Middle Eastern countries may be attributed to India’s economic prowess and its ability to translate that into religious influence beyond its borders.

Nevertheless, the colossal internal challenges faced by Pakistan currently take precedence. External developments may momentarily capture attention, but they don’t linger on the radar for long, given the magnitude of domestic issues.

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