He spoke of Islam — his religion — but he 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 U.N. 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.
In the end, Khan’s speech reached its destination — a political attack by a politician on India’s crackdown in Muslim-majority Kashmir. En route, though, he delivered an appeal familiar to many Muslims but somewhat extraordinary for a global forum: a full-throated defense of Islam shaped for a Western audience’s ears.
“It is important to understand this. The prophet (Muhammad) 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, Khan’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 Center, 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 labeled 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.
Khan said he could understand why “a person in New York, in the Midwest in the U.S., 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 Jesus Christ’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.
In Khan’s words, 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.
Behind his world-embracing words, Khan, who took office last year, is not without his critics. They say he — along with Pakistan’s military and intelligence service in particular — have given space to those who embrace violence, denying space for people in his country who want a democratic state, not a theocratic one.
Khan has spoken out to defend the nation’s minorities. Thus far, though, he hasn’t taken on hardliners or supported those who want to moderate some of Pakistan’s laws — including a blasphemy statute that gives the death penalty to those who offend Islam. Last month, Khan’s government tried to force schoolgirls to wear veils in northwest Pakistan; pushback forced him to backtrack.
As a newly minted leader, Friday’s was his first official address to the General Assembly and to this manner of global audience, and he made it count. He 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 typically got amplified was the Western view. On Friday, Khan got to turn the tables a little.
The politician in Khan did just what was expected during his address: He used his platform to segue into warnings to India for its policies in Kashmir.
But in standing Friday at the United Nations 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 may be universal, but interpreters are standing by.
Ted Anthony, who covered the aftermath of 9/11 in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has written about international affairs for The Associated Press since 1995. Aya Batrawy covers the Persian Gulf for The Associated Press and has reported from the Middle East for the past 15 years.