Pakistan: Islamists Reject Imran

Imran Khan, the former cricket star and now a strident opposition politician in Pakistan, knew he was running a serious risk by finally appearing in public. He had successfully eluded Pakistani security forces for 11 days after the police had burst into his Lahore house at 1:30 a.m. on the day after President Pervez Musharraf declared emergency rule. Rather than surrender, Khan had bolted out the back door, vaulted over two walls and escaped to a relative's house. Working underground and moving daily to a different house to avoid arrest, he was determined to unite the divided opposition and to motivate seemingly indifferent university students to join what he hoped would be a concerted street protest movement against the president and his unpopular emergency decree. In an exclusive interview with NEWSWEEK on Tuesday, he sounded particularly keen about organizing students who until recently had been quiescent. "I think the students are ready," he said.
The students at Punjab University may have been ready, but they were not united in his favor. Khan has miscalculated badly. As a result, the police arrested Khan just over an hour after he made a dramatic appearance at Lahore's largest university. In an ugly scene, militant Islamist students roughed him up, detained him and handed him over to the police. Khan knew he was taking a big risk by announcing that he would address students in a campus auditorium today. In his NEWSWEEK interview he said he was concerned that an Islamist student group named Islamia Jamiat-e-Taliban (IJT) had issued a warning saying he was not welcome on campus. The reason, the radical students said, was that politicians were banned from the school. That was just a pretext. As Khan explained, their real beef was that they feared his presence could break their "monopoly" on campus political life. Still, he had hoped, wrongly it turns out, that cooler heads would prevail.
Ever since dictator Zia ul-Haq's Islamist reign in the 1980s, the IJT has enjoyed a stranglehold on political life at Pakistani universities. All other groups are banned. The IJT is pugnacious and stresses a hard-line Islamic agenda. It attempts to forbid music and the fraternization of the sexes and to impose strict Islamic dress codes on women. Given Khan's popularity, especially among relatively idealistic Pakistani youth, the IJT were reluctant to welcome him, fearing that he could spark a competing secular student movement. Even though the IJT is affiliated with the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party of Qazi Hussain Ahmed, an ally of Khan's and a fellow Musharraf critic, and is also opposed to Musharraf and his emergency rule, the Islamist students were in no mood to put the joint struggle against Musharraf above a possible threat to their campus political base.
At first it seemed Khan would not appear. Small groups of relatively secular students stood around in the hope that Khan would show up. They kept their distance from the IJT students, who made it clear to reporters that Khan, being a politician, would not be allowed to speak if he did turn up. It was their show for the Pakistani and international media gathered at the campus, and they didn't want any interference from Khan or his more moderate followers. Several dozen IJT students began marching and chanting "Go, Musharraf, go!" Still, against the din of the shouts, the more secular students quietly talked fondly of Khan. "He's someone we look up to because he's vocal, straightforward and blunt," said Medeeha, a 21-year-old political psychology student. "We definitely need a leader like him who has the courage to help us mobilize and let the government know that we are not happy with what it is doing to us." "Imran is the best of all the politicians against Musharraf," added student Hamza Salick.
As the Islamists marched around shouting "God is great!" and "Go, Musharraf, go!" the more moderate students began following, chanting "Long live Imran Khan!" Then suddenly the crowd started running. Students began shouting, "Imran is here!" Alone, smiling, wearing a white salwar kameez, Khan waded into the cheering crowd. Some students momentarily lifted him up. Then, just as quickly, Khan and his supporters were overpowered by the more aggressive IJT militants. Pushing him roughly, they bundled him to the nearby Center for High Energy Physics building, forced him inside and slammed and chained the gate shut. Outside the red brick building, several IJT activists disingenuously argued that they had saved him from the clutches of plainclothes police and intelligence agents who were trying to arrest him. "He is not captured," said one bearded IJT militant who declined to give his name. "We are just protecting him." No one was buying that. "Imran Khan is very popular here," said Mohammad Ikran, 22. "But the IJT doesn't want him here."
About an hour later a large white van owned by the school backed up to the chained gate with the rear door open. Suddenly one man jumped up on top of the van and began shouting "Long live Imran Khan!" Many in the crowd joined in. A few minutes later an IJT activist also climbed onto the van, violently threw the pro-Khan student to the ground, and began yelling "God is great!" Khan was then forced into the rear of the van, and it sped away. At the university gate the IJT militants threw Khan out of the van like "cargo," according to one of Khan's supporters, and into the arms of the police, who then tossed him into a police van and whisked him off to prison. The local police later confirmed that he had been arrested under a previously issued warrant.
Khan's attempt at spurring a student revolt against Musharraf had ended in abject failure. "They [the IJT] have made a big mistake," said Amirul Azim, the spokesman for Jamaat-e-Islami, Khan's political ally. He lamented that had been unable to prevent his party-affiliated students from manhandling and betraying Khan, who, he said, was on campus with the JI's full support. "This act has strengthened Musharraf." Indeed it has.