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EFSAS Commentary

The unmistakable bluster in Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s harangue at the UNGA


Allocated a fifteen minute slot to address the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on 27 September chose to embark upon a fifty minute diatribe with absolute disdain for the sanctity of the time of the other participating world dignitaries. Despite the passion that appeared to engulf the Pakistani leader as he delivered his self-perceived magnum opus, much of its contents were already stale, having been repeated ad nauseam in past weeks by Khan at the slightest opportunity that presented itself to him. Khan’s reiteration of some of his more sensational, divisive and dangerous thoughts and views in the hallowed halls of the UN were exclusively aimed at eliciting much more attention than they deserved. They, alas, came across as exaggerated rants that were discordant and highly out of place at the exalted forum at which they were delivered. As Al Jazeera's Jonah Hull described it, Khan's “was a deeply impassioned, dark and really quite grim speech … railing against the injustices of the world”. Khan’s speech was, in essence, a classic example of casuistry, bigotry, and pretension.

Khan devoted a considerable amount of time to accusing the western world of Islamophobia, announcing at the outset that he had long harboured the desire to educate the audience at a prominent global stage on Islam and its followers. He said, “There are 1.3 billion Muslims in this world. Millions of Muslims are living in the US and European countries as minorities. Islamophobia, since 9/11, has grown at an alarming pace. Human communities are supposed to live together with understanding among each other. But Islamophobia is creating a division. Muslim women wearing hijabs has become an issue in some countries as if a hijab is some kind of weapon…. This is happening because of Islamophobia. Why did it start? Because certain western leaders equated terrorism with Islam, calling it Islamic terrorism and radical Islam. What is radical Islam? There is only one Islam. This Islamic radicalism has been the main reason behind Islamophobia. This has caused pain to Muslims”.

Islamophobia, without doubt, is unhealthy and needs to be addressed. Khan’s impassioned plea that it be eschewed cannot, in isolation, be faulted. However, Khan did not waste much time in exposing his doublespeak on the matter when he astonishingly admitted on the floor of the UN that his country’s armed forces and intelligence agencies had been training Islamic fighters. He even ventured so far as to attempt to take some credit for acting against the dozens of terrorist outfits that had been propped up, trained, and sponsored by Pakistan by claiming, “So when we came into power, we decided to disband all militant groups”. Khan, in effect, attacked Islamophobia brazenly but simultaneously conceded in the very same speech that his country had been responsible, in no small measure, for the birth and growth of Islamophobia.

Pakistan’s role in promoting and sponsoring terrorism, especially against its immediate neighbours Afghanistan and India, is now common knowledge and a widely accepted fact. So are the linkages with Pakistan of most major terrorist attacks that have taken place across the world in the last few decades. Unsurprisingly then, just a few hours prior to Khan’s speech, Alice Wells, US acting assistant secretary for South and Central Asia, speaking on the prospects for improvement of relations between India and Pakistan, said, “Obviously, that is going to hinge off of counterterrorism, off of Pakistan's seriousness of effort in ensuring that (terrorist) groups don't take advantage and engage in cross-border infiltration (into India), that there are serious steps to implement the Financial Action Task Force action plan that Pakistan has committed to, and which includes the prosecution of UN-designated terrorists. So whether it's Hafiz Saeed who currently is in custody and under prosecution, but also leaders of Jaish-e-Mohammed, like Masood Azhar, who long have been able to exploit their presence on Pakistani soil”. Similarly, Afghan National Security Advisor (NSA) Hamdullah Mohib, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) think-tank on 2 October, described the Taliban as a proxy of Pakistan and its intelligence agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and added that his country would never accept being ruled by the “proxy” of a backward country that has a “hard time feeding its own people”.

As for Khan’s credentials to speak for Islam, Wells questioned why he was not calling out China, which has detained an estimated one million Uyghurs. She said, “I would like to see the same level of concern expressed about Muslims who are being detained in Western China, literally in concentration-like conditions. And so being concerned about the human rights of Muslims does extend more broadly than Kashmir, and you’ve seen the administration very involved here during the UN General Assembly and trying to shine a light on the horrific conditions that continue to exist for Muslims throughout China”

The situation in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) was the other issue that Khan dwelt at length on in his speech. In a most appalling display on the floor of the UN of blatant encouragement of terrorism by the leader of a country, Khan thundered “You think Kashmiris will accept a new status quo under revocation of Article 370 (of India’s Constitution)… What will happen when the curfew is lifted? (Indian Prime Minister) Modi says this is done for the prosperity of Kashmir. But what will happen when 8 million Kashmiris come out of a lockdown and face 900,000 troops? I fear there will be a bloodbath”. As though this pointed call to violence to the Kashmiri people was not enough provocation, Khan doused the wood in barrelfuls of highly flammable liquid by personalizing the matter. He added, “I picture myself... I'm in Kashmir, I've been locked up for 55 days... Would I want to live this humiliation? Would I want to live like that? I would pick up a gun. You're forcing people into radicalization. When people lose the will to live, what is there to live for?” It is incomprehensible how such barefaced, vile endorsements for picking up the gun, for bloodbaths, for becoming suicide bombers, all on the highest floor of the UN, was condoned by the world body.

Another notable aspect of Khan’s speech was the ease, almost eagerness, with which he repeatedly invoked an India – Pakistan war, despite India not having displayed any inclination in that direction, and postulated its degeneration into a nuclear war because Pakistan would lose to the numerically, militarily and economically superior India and would then have no option but to shower nuclear weapons on its arch enemy. Khan said, “If a conventional war starts (over J&K), anything could happen. But supposing a country seven times smaller than its neighbour is faced with a choice: either you surrender or you fight for your freedom till death. What will we do? I ask myself this question. We will fight and when a nuclear-armed country fights to the end it will have consequences far beyond the borders, it will have consequences for the world. Nuclear war is not a threat, it's a fair worry”. Even if Khan’s bluster is seen for what it is – a desperate scream for attention – and the existing tensions between India and Pakistan do not spiral into a war, much less a destructive nuclear war, the reality is that it is irresponsible statements such as these that not only entice the specter of war, but also serve to encourage the most violent jihadist groups to continue terrorism. Alice Wells’ caution just before Khan’s speech that “A lowering of rhetoric would be welcome, especially between the two nuclear powers” seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. 

In a tone entirely contrary to Khan’s, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who addressed the UNGA an hour prior to Khan, dwelt mostly on larger global issues. His fifteen minute speech, in consonance with his country’s position that dilution of Article 370 of its Constitution was entirely an internal matter, did not contain even a single mention of Pakistan or J&K. Nevertheless, his contention that India's “voice against terrorism ... rings with seriousness and outrage” was meant squarely for Pakistan. Modi also asserted, “We belong to a country that has given the world not war, but Buddha's message of peace. Today the message from the world's largest democracy for the international community is still the same: harmony and peace”

India did avail of the opportunity to hit back at Khan for his provocative statements by exercising its right to respond. An Indian diplomat tore into Imran Khan by saying, “Unfortunately, what we heard today from Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan was a callous portrayal of the world in binary terms, Us versus Them; Rich versus Poor; North versus South; Developed versus Developing; Muslims versus Others. A script that fosters divisiveness at the United Nations, attempts to sharpen differences and stir up hatred, is simply put a ‘hate speech’. Rarely has the General Assembly witnessed such misuse, rather abuse, of an opportunity to reflect. Words matter in diplomacy. Invocation of phrases such as ‘pogrom’, ‘bloodbath’, ‘racial superiority’, ‘pick up the gun’ and ‘fight to the end’ reflect a medieval mindset and not a 21st century vision. Prime Minister Imran Khan's threat of unleashing nuclear devastation, qualifies as brinksmanship, not statesmanship. Even coming from the leader of a country that has monopolized the entire value chain of the industry of terrorism, Prime Minister Khan's justification of terrorism was brazen and incendiary… Can Pakistan confirm the fact that it is home to 130 UN designated terrorists and 25 terrorist entities listed by the UN as of today. Will Pakistan acknowledge that it is the only government in the world that provides pension to an individual listed in the Al Qaeda and Daesh sanctions list. Can Pakistan explain why here in New York, its premier bank - the Habib Bank - had to shut shop after it was fined millions of dollars over terror financing. Will Pakistan deny that the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has put the country on notice for its violation of 20 of the 27 key parameters. And finally, would Prime Minister Khan deny to the city of New York that he was an open defender of Osama bin Laden”.

Imran Khan returned back to Pakistan on 29 September, where emboldened by the lack of an appropriate censure by the UN he proceeded to remove even the thin, barely translucent veil that his country had thus far symbolically draped around its policy towards J&K. Addressing his party workers at the airport, Khan openly appealed for violence by saying that those standing by Kashmiris were doing “jihad”. He added, “Whether the world is with the Kashmiris or not, we are standing with them. It is jihad. We are doing it because we want Allah to be happy with us. It is a struggle and do not lose heart when the time is not good. Do not be disappointed as the Kashmiris are looking towards you. Kashmiris will win if the Pakistani people stand by their side”.

In line with Pakistan's track record, Prime Minister Imran Khan has once again proven not be a friend of the people of Jammu & Kashmir, for whom he deceitfully is pretending to agitate. In his speech at the UNGA, he desperately tries to exculpate Pakistan from any past or future wrongdoings vis-à-vis Jammu & Kashmir and mischievously instigates the Kashmiri youth to pick up arms, while he keeps threatening the world of a nuclear war.

There is one important thing that Khan has not yet revealed, though, and that is who exactly it is that has given him the authority to speak for the Kashmiris, to exhort them to spill their blood and lay down their lives. If the answer is the Pakistani military establishment, as is almost certainly the case, it is about time that it recognized that the days of it fraudulently empowering itself through pulling wool over the eyes of Pakistani citizens on Kashmir now appears to be a thing of the past. It would also do well to acknowledge and imbibe the reality that it is now confronted by an Indian government that, unlike in the past, is able to see through the bluster and not get drawn in; one that does not appear to be itching for a fight, but has displayed beyond doubt on several occasions would unsparingly go the whole hog should it be forced onto the battlefield.