Pakistan is on the edge — Imran Khan’s shooting could tip it over

Khan has popular support and a wave of sympathy. But Pakistan is a tinderbox. One tiny spark could mean more violence.

Supporters of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, chant slogans next to a burning tire during a protest to condemn a shooting incident on their leader's convoy, in Karachi, Pakistan, Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. A gunman opened fire Thursday at a campaign truck carrying Khan, wounding him slightly in the leg and killing one of his supporters, his party and police said. Nine others were also wounded. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)
Supporters of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, chant slogans next to a burning tyre during a protest to condemn a shooting incident on their leader's convoy, in Karachi, Pakistan, on Thursday, November 3, 2022 [Fareed Khan/AP Photo]

It was foreshadowed.

Thursday’s assassination attempt on former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was shocking, if not surprising. In a rally in his home constituency of Mianwali in early October, he had asserted that he had information of a plan to kill him. If it were to happen, a video revealing those names would be released, he said, adding that the motive would be religious.

He blamed Maryam Nawaz, daughter of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) chief Nawaz Sharif and niece of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, and other leaders from her party of accusing him of blasphemy. In Pakistan, the mere whisper of blasphemy can carry an executioner’s sword.

confessional video of the alleged gunman on Thursday, Naveed Ahmed, appears to support Khan’s accusation. A resident of the area where the rally was attacked, he offered no remorse, instead regretting that he did not manage to kill Khan, who received a bullet wound to his leg.

“Imran Khan thinks he is the Prophet,” Ahmed said. On his phone reportedly were videos of the leader of the extreme-right political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP). The TLP has weaponised blasphemy for votes and protests, with assassinations embedded in its DNA.

The TLP’s icon is Mumtaz Qadri, who shot dead the governor of the Punjab Salman Taseer in 2011. Taseer had been publicly campaigning for a presidential pardon for a Christian woman Asia Bibi, who was on death row after being convicted of blasphemy. When Qadri was executed for assassinating Taseer, the massive crowds at his funeral portended the subsequent rise of the TLP.

But the story of Thursday’s firing did not start with Ahmed: it’s murkier than it seems.

Before the 2018 election that brought Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) to power, it was the PMLN — in power then and now — that was being peppered with accusations of blasphemy over a law that had been passed in parliament.

The TLP had held protests, while Imran Khan and his party leaders cheered and egged on protesters from the sidelines. Just before elections, the PMLN’s Ahsan Iqbal, a former interior minister, survived an assassination attempt. The accused was allegedly affiliated with the TLP. When I followed the campaign trail in central Punjab, PTI leaders were continuing to play the religion card against their rivals even after the shooting.

Indeed, the TLP has mainstreamed both blasphemy and the rightward shift of major parties. Religion sells in Pakistan, on TV, at the mall, and at the polling booth. More worrying is that it isn’t right-wing parties – which have effective street power but limited electoral power – that are cashing in, but more mainstream ones such as PTI and PMLN.

Khan himself has used religion effectively on the comeback trail after he was ousted from power through a parliamentary vote in April by a coalition of parties led by the PMLN and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). He has framed his struggle to return to power as a jihad, a battle between good and evil.

Arrayed on the side of evil is the current political set-up – a coalition of parties representing the old guard and the military establishment – who removed him from power allegedly at the behest of the US.

Khan’s recipe of victimhood — a dollop of righteousness, a sprinkling of anti-Americanism, a dash of nationalism and a spoonful of corruption allegations against his opponents — is being lapped up by a fiercely loyal supporter base, young voters and fence-sitters. He has pulled in the votes in by-elections, and the crowds at rallies across Pakistan. Indeed, the PTI and Khan have been able to resurrect themselves after an unpopular turn in government.

Khan was on day seven of his long march to push the military establishment and government to call elections, when he was shot. With inflation at eye-watering levels and no story of hope or hate to tell, the current government and the powerful military have been unable to dent his rising popularity.

The march coincides with the likely announcement of a new army chief this month. That’s no coincidence. Khan has said he doesn’t think the current leadership has the moral standing to appoint the head of the most powerful institution in Pakistan.

He has also accused members of the top and mid-tier military brass of being traitors for supporting the “crooks” in power and ordering the torture of key aides. But he held off announcing a march during backchannel talks with the army under General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who is on an extension in his tenure. Khan’s subsequent announcement of the march indicated that those talks had broken down. It was clear that the focus of Khan’s onslaught had shifted from the usual political rivals, to also include his former benefactors — the military.

Although Khan’s playbook is new in Pakistan, his falling out with the military establishment that helped him to power in 2018, and the questions around the assassination attempt against him follow all-too-familiar patterns.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s repeated fallouts with the military have led to a coup and two exiles. Benazir Bhutto was removed from power several times with the assistance of the military. She also accused former military dictator Pervez Musharraf of threatening her prior to her return to Pakistan and subsequent assassination. While Bhutto’s killers were allegedly the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Musharraf acknowledged potential state involvement in her death. He was declared a fugitive in her murder case. The subsequent investigation smacked of a cover-up.

Since the attempt on Khan’s life, there have been pockets of protests across Pakistan, most notably in front of the Peshawar Corps commander’s residence. In a video message on behalf of Imran Khan, senior PTI leader Asad Umar accused a serving general of being behind the attack, as well as Shehbaz Sharif, the current prime minister. PTI’s former information minister Fawad Chaudhry has called for revenge. Khan may no longer have the army on his side, but he certainly has both popular support and a wave of sympathy, and his party seems to be looking to press the advantage.

Pakistan is on the edge — of something old and something new. In this tinderbox of religion, hate, populism, an unequal civil-military relationship and poor governance, one tiny spark could also mean more violence. Perhaps it was foreshadowed.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.