Imran Khan

Imran Khan: ‘A Muslim is a Muslim: the terms extremist and moderate apply only to a man’s political views, not to his religious beliefs’

Sixty years ago this week, a British lawyer drew a line across a map and created a country, Pakistan. Nearly a million Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were killed in the civil unrest that followed. In a broader sense, it could be argued, the world is still living with the consequences. Certainly, Britain’s relationship with this increasingly fundamentalist Muslim state has become uneasy in recent years: almost all Islamists charged with terrorism here have had links there.

But a strong bond also exists between the two countries, and no one symbolises it better than Imran Khan, the cricket legend and playboy turned politician. Not only was he educated here, at Oxford, but his ex-wife, Jemima, the daughter of the billionaire Sir James Goldsmith, is British. Although he lives in Pakistan, he visits England regularly, partly because he is the chancellor of Bradford University, partly to see his two sons, Sulaiman, 10, and Qasim, seven.

His dress code reflects this dual life. Today, as he sits on a sofa in Jemima Khan’s house in Chelsea, framed by panther prints and oriental mirrors, he is looking lean and urbane in a silk tie and black suit. In Pakistan he wears traditional Muslim dress, the shalwar-kameez. He seems as good a person as any to ask what it all means, this anniversary of Partition.

Before I can, Sulaiman and Qasim distract me, starting to play cricket with a windball in the long kitchen-cum-dining-room behind us. They look useful, so perhaps this is the place to start. Who would Khan like them to play for, England or Pakistan?

“Well it’s early days but, of course, I would love them to play for Pakistan. I would like them to live with me in Pakistan, too. But that will be their choice in later life. At the moment, they are with their mother. They are being raised as Muslims. They are bicultural. The boys spend their holidays with me.”

Khan says he takes their bedtime stories from the Koran. “Always, always. And much to my ex-wife’s consternation, I still sleep with them in my bed. A favourite thing is talking to them in bed until we fall asleep, all three of us. The moral stories my mother used to tell me in bed have stayed with me all my life and I want it to be the same for the boys. Right and wrong, stories from the Koran. They are part of their identity.”

Which brings us to the anniversary.

“Pakistan had a traumatic birth because the British left in such haste,” Khan says in a low and measured voice. “Most of us blamed Mountbatten. He rushed it. As a result, the Kashmiri question wasn’t resolved and there has been animosity with our neighbour India ever since.

“Another result was that the state became obsessed with its own survival. Security became the first priority. The emphasis was on armed forces. That was where the arms race began: the race to get nuclear weapons.

“And we became a client state, relying on US aid, rather than being non-aligned like India. It left us with the problem of militancy. The mujahideen, on the Pakistan border with Afghanistan, was actually trained by the CIA during the Cold War. Ronald Reagan said the mujahideen leaders reminded him of the Founding Fathers of America. Now America calls them terrorists.

“The legacy of all this is the war on terror, which many in Pakistan see as a war on Islam, that is why there is no shortage of recruits there.”

I suggest that many in the West cannot understand why Pakistan cannot hunt down the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters hiding on its border. Khan sighs. “No one in the West understands that the tribal region of Pakistan has always been an independent entity. They have never been conquered. Every man is a warrior and carries a gun. It is the most difficult terrain. Even a superpower like the British Empire could not control that area. They had to bribe the tribes. To think that Pakistan’s army, which begs and borrows for its survival, could control it is naive.”

What about the posters of bin Laden everywhere on display there, couldn’t they at least be taken down?

“They would go back up, because it is like a football match. Either you are on one side or the other. Once the Pakistan army started this operation at the behest of the US, the whole border area rose up against them. And the US has bombed the area killing many tribesmen – so anyone who opposes the US becomes a hero.

“That is where the war on terror has been so misguided. It has benefited the people who caused 9/11. And it has made Musharraf look even more like a puppet of America.”

I ask what he makes of the fact that the July 7 suicide bombers were all British Muslims who had become radicalised after visits to Pakistan.

“People don’t understand that this war on terror is not a religious issue, it is a political issue,” he says. “I heard John Reid lecturing Pakistani families, telling mothers not to allow their children to get radicalised in mosques. That is the most bizarre thing. It’s like this Cambridge conference of moderate Muslims – there is no point to it. They are not going to have any impact. A Muslim is a Muslim: the terms extremist and moderate apply only to a man’s political views, not to his religious beliefs.”

But Khan does have a theory as to why British Muslims become radicalised in this country.

“The impression I get from talking to British Muslims is that the problem of radicalisation in Britain is a lot to do with Islamophobia. They think it is increasing and is tinged with racism. In those areas in the north of England where Islamophobia and racism is worse, that is where there is more likelihood of Muslims joining a radical Islamic movement. It has compounded the problem. That is what makes it different from the radicalisation that goes on in Pakistan.”

As a former Pakistan captain – and, with 3,807 Test runs and 362 Test wickets, one of the finest all-rounders the game has ever known – Khan understands better than most how important cricket is to the Pakistani sense of identity. Last year, the pitch invasion at Headingley by British-born Pakistani fans was seen by some as a graphic illustration of the Tebbit test. Is that how Khan saw it?

“Ah yes,” he says with a gentle laugh, “the Tebbit test. How bizarre. But should Scotsmen support England? What about British-born Jews who feel upset when Israel is attacked? Sometimes people have these affiliations, they are not something to be worried about. After a period of time, these affiliations weaken and you feel more like a member of a society. But if you keep going on about it and talking about the cricket test, you push people back to their origins. Pakistanis who grow up in the US are much more assimilated.”

I wonder whether his countrymen frown upon the way he assimilates whenever he is visiting Britain.

“Not really. I have been branded as being part of a Jewish lobby, and Musharraf has accused me of aligning myself with fundamentalists because I voted against him. They don’t know how to place me.”

By Jewish lobby he means Jemima, presumably?

Did his marriage compromise his political career?

“They would have found some other issue to hit me with if it hadn’t been that. They couldn’t attack me for being corrupt, so they attacked me through Jemima saying she was part of the Zionist conspiracy because her father was a Jewish multi-millionaire. It put a strain on our marriage – and a cross-cultural marriage was never going to be easy anyway.”

Divorced in 2004, after nine years of marriage, Jemima and Imran remain on good terms. He hated the divorce.

“The last thing I wanted was for my boys to grow up without me.”

Another strain was his political ambition. He is praised for his work for the poor. He founded a £12 million cancer hospital in Lahore, and plans a second hospital and a university. But he is mocked for having groupies (many female) more than a party machine. He is the leader of the moderate Pakistan Justice Party, Tehreek-e-Insaaf, whose profile has risen amid all the recent political instability and the rumours that President Musharraf is on the verge of declaring a state of emergency.

Khan has been meeting Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister now in exile in London. With Benazir Bhutto, the head of the Pakistan’s People’s Party, they are calling for an end to the “dictatorship” of President Musharraf before next year’s general election. Khan says he has never doubted that he will one day lead his country.

“I am ready to become a power in Pakistani politics, not necessarily in power. I only want to be in power if I have a clear majority. Both elections I have fought I had an easy option of joining the established government. But I wouldn’t want to be in a coalition because you have to compromise too much. Musharraf said he would like me as his prime minister. But if you are serious about politics you cannot be associated with corruption or a military dictator.”

But Pakistan is still a democracy, isn’t it? “No, you can’t call Pakistan a democracy. Actually, it is worse than an out-and-out dictatorship because this dictator tries to legitimise himself by dismantling state institutions, like an independent powerful judiciary and an election commission – he has to rig the election – he introduced a controlled assembly, prime minister and media. But a country needs these institutions to function properly. You can’t have one man running a country.

“I want Pakistan to be a welfare state and a genuine democracy with a rule of law and an independent judiciary. To implement this agenda you have to take on all the vested interests that want to stop it happening. You make enemies. I have enemies in Pakistan.”

It is time for him to fly back there. He says goodbye to his boys – with big hugs and fond ruffles of their hair – and we talk in the car to the airport. “Saying goodbye to the boys is the hardest part,” he says, subdued. “I miss them so much when I’m not with them.”