Categorized | Brooklyn, Featured, Pakistani, Politics

Controversial Pakistani Pol Imran Khan to Visit New York


Outspoken reformer and critic of U.S. drone strikes seeks to galvanize his stateside supporters.

Imran Khan with supporters

Supporters of Imran Khan ask for an autograph during his visit to Little Pakistan in 2009. Credit: PAKISTAN TEHREEK-I-INSAF (INSAF.PK)

Pakistani cricket hero-turned-politician Imran Khan will visit New York City this Friday seeking financial and emotional support from U.S. Pakistanis who see his fledgling political party, with its declared focus on social justice and ending political corruption, as a reform-minded alternative to the nation’s entrenched political system.

Khan plans to attend fundraisers Friday in Yonkers and Long Island City. Last week he announced that he would lead a protest at the United Nations against U.S. drone strikes in his country’s tribal regions, but the demonstration was cancelled because it would conflict with the Muslim holiday of Eid-ul-Adha.

Nevertheless, Khan’s visit has already stirred emotions among both his supporters and detractors.

In New York’s Little Pakistan neighborhood, along Coney Island Avenue in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, green posters featuring Khan’s name in both English and Urdu are plastered outside halal meat stores and ethnic restaurants. But he won’t be visiting the area, as he did for a 2009 fundraiser described by party workers as a “door-buster.”

“He should come here,” said Rubina Mahboob, who owns a shop that sells traditional female attire in Little Pakistan. “I am ready to promote him. My family is for him; especially my son is crazy about him.”

Rauf Bajwa, another Khan fan who owns Bukhari restaurant in Little Pakistan, said the former cricket captain’s ascendency in the Pakistani political scene represents a chance for the country to chart a better route. Bajwa said he plans to vote for Khan as prime minister during an upcoming trip to Pakistan early next year.

Khan is seen as a contentious figure by others in the West. He is a leading voice against U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan, regularly urges his country to shun American aid, and has been nicknamed “Taliban Khan” by some detractors who say he is too soft on terrorists. Some pundits have labeled him anti-American, going so far as to demand that the U.S. State Department refuse Khan a visa.

Khan was among the first Pakistani politicians to visit Malala Yousafzai in a Peshawar hospital after a Taliban fighter shot the 14-year-old girl in head earlier this month. He even offered to pay for her medical treatment. Though he condemned the attack on Yousafzai, Khan was criticized for not taking a harsher stance against the terrorist group. Khan said the Taliban are waging a justified jihad in Afghanistan and contends that a military solution in the volatile Afghanistan-Pakistan border region will only create more terrorists. He has urged a political solution instead.

The 60-year-old Khan attained fame as Pakistan’s most famous cricket player, leading a sport as popular
in Pakistan as football is in America. He was the country’s most successful captain, bringing home
Pakistan’s first and only Cricket World Cup in 1992.

Four years after his World Cup victory, Khan announced to a room of 200 people in the city of Lahore
that he intended to create a new political party – the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, or PTI. Translated
as “Movement for Justice,” PTI railed against the incompetent bureaucrats and corruption present at all
levels of the Pakistani government and promised a more efficient, transparent method of running the

No one took him seriously at first, said Dabbir Tirmzy, a PTI founding members who was in that room 16
years ago.

“People were jeering us,” said Tirmzy, who now resides in New York as PTI’s U.S. director. “’What is this
name?’ they said. ‘Who are you trying to give justice to?’”

The former cricketer was seen as naïve, and many questioned his judgment in joining politics. Others
called him a foreign agent, accusing him of working for a Zionist lobby because of his marriage to
Jemima Marcelle Goldsmith, the heiress of the prominent Goldsmith family of the United Kingdom.
Khan was able to win a seat in parliament years later, under General Pervez Musharraf in the early
2000s, but had little impact on the Pakistani political stage.

In 2011, that changed almost overnight. After almost four years of bad governance and increasing social
woes, Pakistanis appeared ready to look to an outsider to fix the country’s problems. Last October,
100,000 people showed up at a PTI rally in Lahore, causing a media frenzy. Pundits and rival parties were
suddenly paying attention to the fringe candidate, trying to understand Khan’s rise. A couple of months
later, 250,000 supporters are reported to have showed up for another Khan rally, this time in Karachi.

According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, Khan was the most popular leader in Pakistan in June,
when the survey was released. Seventy percent of Pakistanis held a favorable opinion of him, while
only 14 percent favored Asif Ali Zardari, the current president. The International Republican Institute, a
nonpartisan U.S. organization, reported that 24 percent of Pakistanis surveyed in the month of July and
August said they would cast ballots for PTI in upcoming elections in March. This makes PTI the second
most popular party in the nation after the Pakistan Muslim League (N), whose chairman Nawaz Sharif
has already served as prime minister twice before.

However, in Pakistan’s parliamentary system, popularity does not necessarily translate into victory. PTI
must win 171 districts, or 50 percent of the seats in the National Assembly of the parliament, in order
for Khan to become prime minister. He is in a very good position, though, compared to the parties
comprising the ruling government, whose approval ratings are dismal.

Imran Khan talking to the media

Imran Khan, former star cricketer, has become a popular politician in home country of Pakistan where he is campaigning to become prime minister. Credit: AP PHOTO

Khan’s party workers have diligently labored since 2005 to establish PTI’s presence in the United States. As elections in Pakistan approach, the party is on mission to galvanize supporters both back home and in the West.

Zaman Afridi is just the type of person helping Khan do this. A 52-year-old working in the car service business, Afridi is one of 85 member coordinators PTI has spread out throughout the U.S. to seek financial and moral support from the Pakistani diaspora.

Afridi joined PTI in July 2010 when Khan visited New York City for a fundraiser. He became a member coordinator for Brooklyn, recruiting new members and doing whatever else the party needed. Last month on a sunny afternoon in Brooklyn’s Little Pakistan, Afridi claimed to have signed up 500 new PTI supporters at the annual Brooklyn Mela, which celebrates Pakistan’s Independence.

“Everyone has seen the corruption and the misleading the government did in the past four and a half years,” Afridi said. “And that is why they are preferring PTI.”

But Abbas Razvi, owner of Punjab Grocery in Little Pakistan, dismisses Khan as just another Pakistani
politician who promises much but delivers nothing.

“What happens by just saying he will give justice [to Pakistanis]?” asked Razvi, who called Khan’s visit to
the U.S. useless. “There will be no justice… How do we do know what’s really inside him?”

Asghar Cheema, who sat in the Bukhari restaurant with his friends over a dinner of curry and kebabs,
was more hopeful about Khan’s abilities, praising how he ran his philanthropic work, such as the
Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Center.

“We need a good manager,” said Cheema, who works as a limousine driver. “In our country we have
everything, but no management. Whichever field [Khan’s] tested in, he’s passed.”

Tirmzy said PTI in the U.S. has anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 “members,” the vast majority of whom
have given money to the party. Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, PTI is legally allowed to raise
money in the U.S.

U.S. PTI members can’t vote for Khan, though. Currently, Pakistani expatriots do not have the right to
vote in elections while living abroad.

“Ten million Pakistanis work overseas – what is their say?” asked Tirmzy. “They send $14 billion back
annually from all over the world. They contribute to the economy. Why can’t they vote?”

Khan petitioned the Pakistan Supreme Court to change the country’s voting procedure. Earlier this year,
the court agreed in principle that overseas Pakistanis have a right to vote, but the court left the logistics
up to the independent Election Commission of Pakistan, which has yet to develop an effective method.

Because Pakistan has a parliamentary system, the logistics of voting are comparatively complicated.
Voters must first elect a Member National Assembly from a pool of candidates belonging to various
political parties contesting the election from a particular district. These elected MNAs, who each have a
seat in parliament, then decide who becomes prime minister.

Khan is expected to arrive Friday afternoon at JFK airport, and PTI’s U.S. leaders will escort him to
Yonkers for the first fundraiser, taking place at the historic Grand Roosevelt Ballroom. Only a few hours
later, he will join supporters in Long Island City for another fundraiser. And for $3,000 a seat, die-hard
fans can reserve the right to join the possible next prime minister of Pakistan right at his table.



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