He spoke of Islam but used references like Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” movie, Monty Python and Japanese kamikaze pilots during World War II. He built linguistic and pop-culture bridges as he carefully made his points.
Pakistan’s enigmatic Prime Minister Imran Khan effortlessly projected his East-meets-West brand from the podium of the United Nations General Assembly on Friday, wearing a navy blazer over a traditional shalwar kameez as he attempted to explain the dangers of Islamophobia and why Muslims are sensitive to attacks on the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
In the end, Khan’s speech reached its destination — a political attack by a politician on India’s crackdown in Muslim-majority occupied Kashmir. En route, though, he delivered an appeal familiar to many Muslims but somewhat extraordinary for a global forum: a full-throated defence of Islam shaped for a Western audience’s ears.
“It is important to understand this. The Prophet lives in our hearts,” Khan said. “When he is ridiculed, when he’s insulted, it hurts.”
“We human beings understand one thing: The pain of the heart is far, far, far more hurtful than physical pain,” he said in his speech, which pinballed between his dual identities — sports-star celebrity and his current role as head of state of the world’s largest Islamic republic.
Similar to his life, much of it lived out in the tabloids through the 1990s, the prime minister’s 45-minute-speech appeared to follow not a script but his own off-the-cuff stream of consciousness.
Even if the messenger was highly political, the message was a humanistic one. It said, in effect, that terrorism, radicalism and suicide bombings belong to no religion or at least not to one religion exclusively.
During World War II, Khan said, Japan deployed kamikaze pilots as suicide bombers. “No one blamed the religion.”
But after 9/11, the world’s Muslims and particularly those in Pakistan and a few other nations found themselves blamed for the hijackers who targeted the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and Flight 93. “Suicide attacks and Islam were equated,” he said.
He said Muslim leaders had failed after the 9/11 attacks to explain that “no religion preaches radicalism”.
Instead, he said, Muslim leaders started wearing Western suits, and even those who didn’t know English would speak English “because they were moderates”. So scared of being labelled radical, Muslim leaders became moderates rather than stand firm in saying that “there is no such thing as radical Islam,” he asserted.
As Khan stood before world leaders, now one himself, he said that he knows “how the Western mind works and how (the) West views religion”. He spoke as a Pakistani Muslim saturated in Western culture and whose children are half British who is now married to his spiritual guide and has ascended to prime minister.
The prime minister said he could understand why “a person in New York, in the Midwest in the US, in a European capital” might equate Islam with radicalism and be stunned by the impassioned reaction of Muslims to ridicule of the Prophet Muhammad.
He recalled, with astonishment, the first time he went to England and heard about a movie that poked fun at Hazrat Isa’s life — an apparent reference to the 1979 comedy “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”, beloved by many Britons and Americans.
“It’s unthinkable in Muslim societies,” he said, to lampoon any prophet. Some in the West who have done so have been targeted by Islamic attackers, most notably the Charlie Hebdo satirical publication in France.
To Prime Minister Khan, it comes down to sensitivity and being “sensitive to what causes pain to other human beings”. To drive home his message, he drew a parallel to one of the West’s few red lines, saying the Holocaust is treated “quite rightly” with sensitivity because it causes the Jewish community pain.
“Do not use freedom of speech to cause us pain by insulting our Holy Prophet. That’s all we want,” he said.
In what was his first address to the General Assembly after taking office last year, the premier reached across the gulf to be a translating dictionary for two cultures that find themselves at odds. For many generations, most Western views of the Islamic world were broad and even lampoonish. Think “Aladdin” or “Ali Baba” from the misinformed to the downright insulting. But globally, what got amplified was the Western view.
The politician in Khan did what was expected during his address: He used his platform to segue into warnings to India for its policies in Kashmir.
But in standing on Friday at the UN with a foot in two worlds, he also raised questions that are more than relevant at this moment in humanity’s journey. So many of us are sure how we feel about those different from us. The message from Friday — intended or not — is that pain and confusion is universal, but interpreters are standing by.