Much has been written about Imran Khan’s departure from power. It is still early, but, at some point, Pakistanis will have to come to terms with the damage that Khan’s four years of misrule did to the country. As someone who has been keenly interested in the debate around Pakistan and its genesis as a modern nation-state, I fear that the damage that Imran Khan has done to the country’s national narrative will take decades to fix.

Consider that in 2015, Venkat Dhulipala, a relatively unknown Indian-American professor, who let his nationalism and personal antipathy towards Pakistanis get in the way of academic honesty, wrote a book titled Creating a New Medina to paint Pakistan as a ‘millennial theocratic dream’ that harked back to Medina. This is despite the fact that some of the biggest opponents of the ‘Pakistan idea’ during Partition were Muslim clerics.

The truth is, at no point did the All-India Muslim League or its president Mahomed Ali Jinnah invoke Medina or speak of a theocratic State of any kind. The entire idea of Pakistan had to do with a Hindu-Muslim counterpoise on secular issues such as representation, jobs, and so forth. Religion was just not the point. This is the only narrative that explains the enthusiasm for the ‘Pakistan idea’ among modern Muslims in the 1940s and the almost universal disenchantment with it of the Muslim clerics. The latter, in fact, saw the new nation-state as a Kemalist coup against their hegemony, and many of them called Jinnah ‘Kafir-e-Azam’ (the ‘great infidel’) and Pakistan ‘Kafiristan’ (the ‘land of the infidels’).

More importantly, this is the only narrative that can help Pakistan come out of the theocratic abyss it has fallen into since the 1970s.

Thwarting Gen Zia, Sharif’s ‘Islamic’ project

In the 1980s, Pakistan’s military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, left no stone unturned to prove that the nation was founded in the name of Islam. The difference is that Pakistan was founded for the Muslim minority of India, not Islam — you may disagree with it as many Indians do, but the distinction is a significant one. The logical extension of this was that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in his second term, tried to transform Pakistan into a full-blown theocracy. He would have succeeded, given his two-thirds majority in parliament, but General Pervez Musharraf’s coup put an end to it.

Unconstitutional as it was, the by-product of the coup was that the new regime tried — in earnest — to undo some of the damage done by the General Zia government. Columnists and authors began to rediscover the ‘modern Muslim’ project. Ardeshir Cowasjee, a Zoroastrian and Pakistan’s great journalist and philanthropist, famously coined the term ‘Jinnah’s Pakistan’ as the byword for a modern, liberal, and progressive nation-state.

The Musharraf regime fell as all unconstitutional projects do, but the changes it had introduced meant that the civilian political parties once again recalibrated their ideological calculus. The Pakistan Peoples Party government from 2008 to 2013 took several strides toward a socially liberal Pakistan. Other than the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, this period also saw a significant change through the 18th Amendment of the Constitution. It promised minorities in Pakistan the right to freely develop their cultures — a constitutional language that had previously been omitted by General Zia’s tinkering in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif, who, in 1999 tried to turn Pakistan into a theocracy, was greatly chastened in his third term and did not press further with any particular conservative agenda.

Indeed, in 2017, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) government became the target of vociferous campaigning by religious parties because it tried, quite feebly, to extend the right to vote to Ahmadis who had been denied that right since the 1980s. Nevertheless, a broad political consensus was in the offing on the issue of the interaction between State and religion before it was shocked to the core by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) in 2018.

Backtracking on modern Pakistan

Taking a leaf out of Creating a New Medina, Imran Khan ratcheted up the rhetoric of ‘Riyasat-e-Medina’. Even if we put aside the Muslim modernist view and look at it from a purely religious lens, could Pakistan become a new Medina without the Prophet’s guidance? Modern nation-states are temporal entities, not spiritual or otherworldly ones. Pakistan is a multicultural, multiethnic, and multi-religious State. Given the sectarian divisions among Muslims, there can be no consensus on what the idea of a ‘Medina-state’ entails.

It is this rhetoric that has now metamorphosed into a grand conspiracy narrative. Imran Khan’s loyal followers are now painting him as a great Islamic leader who was targeted by the US because he was working to create a true Islamic State, modelled on Medina, with an independent foreign policy. In his numerous addresses to the nation, Khan made it a point to state that Pakistan was founded on the fundamental Islamic creed of ‘La ilaha illallah, that ‘there is no God but Allah’.

The truth is that Jinnah had specifically distanced himself from the famous slogan “Pakistan ka matlab kya? La ilaha illallah” (What is the meaning of Pakistan? And so on). He said that he and the Muslim League had nothing to do with it and that some people may have used it to “catch a few votes”. Yet, such is the potent appeal of this manufactured slogan that in the midst of a grave constitutional crisis, Imran Khan doubled down on it. In Pakistan, it is religion, not patriotism that is the last refuge of an autocrat.

Even before it found itself in hot waters, in August last year, the PTI government introduced a retrogressive educational curriculum called the ‘Single National Curriculum’, which included compulsory recitation of the Quran and teaching of hadith in schools. Contrary to popular belief, the Constitution of Pakistan speaks of the State’s responsibility to enable Muslims to lead religious lives but not enforce it. Much like his ideological predecessor General Zia, Khan was out to remake Pakistan’s future generations in his own mould — the ideal Pakistani Muslim who carries prayer beads with him everywhere and is gripped with superstitions and irrational fears. This is the antithesis of the Jinnah ideal — a modern thinker who does not wear religion on his sleeve and is unfettered by meaningless rituals.

Imran Khan was an immensely popular figure, and his remaking of the Pakistani identity is likely to be more enduring than that of General Zia. Do not expect Pakistan to turn into a normal country anytime soon. This heady mix of faux patriotism and religious populism will plague the country for decades.