Pakistan, described as the third most corrupt country in the world, needs a saviour. Can Imran Khan and a Gandhiesque film of the country's founder, produced by a Cambridge academic, do the trick? Simon Targett reports
Right now, Pakistanis are looking for a saviour, and just because I've built a hospital and led the country to a World Cup win, they think I'm the one." Imran Khan, cricketing hero and aspiring politician, is right because, nearly 50 years after the creation of Pakistan, people are searching for someone who will deliver the dreams of this disillusioned nation, someone who will restore this corrupted country to its rightful place as the "land of the pure".
He is right too because people are beginning to think of him as a potential leader, and it is not difficult to see why. Tall, rich, handsome, Oxford- educated, untainted by corruption, a pal of princes and presidents, equally comfortable in jeans or Kurta pyjamas, Imran seems to have what it takes to make the ideal modern Muslim leader - someone who can do business with the West without sacrificing the Islamic aspirations of his own people.
It is, of course, too early to say whether Imran can answer Pakistan's prayers. After all, his Movement for Justice, calling for "a soft revolution" that will overthrow the lords of corruption, was launched barely a month ago. But it is the conviction of Akbar Ahmed, a Cambridge University-based Pakistani scholar, that Imran could achieve great things if he were to conform to the model of leadership epitomised by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the Quaid-i-Azam or "great leader" who founded Pakistan in the 1940s.
More than this, Ahmed, a distinguished anthropologist and broadcaster who has campaigned for closer ties between the West and Islam and who last week became the first Muslim to preach at an Anglican service in Britain, claims that Jinnah offers hope to other Islamic nations because he represents an alternative to the discredited models of Muslim leadership exemplified by Iran's Ayatolla Khomenei and Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
Indeed, so strong is Ahmed's conviction that Jinnah is the type of leader that not only Pakistan but the entire Muslim world needs in the next millennium that he is producing a multi-million pound film which may star Jeremy Irons and which is intended to do for the Quaid-i-Azam what Richard Attenborough's Oscar-winning film Gandhi did for the Mahatma.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this is all rather excessive, and not a little mistaken. For one thing, Jinnah the cautious constitutional lawyer would surely sit uncomfortably in the modern media-conscious world. And anyway, how can anyone recommend the leadership of someone who, by his own admission, settled for a Pakistan that was a "maimed, mutilated and moth-eaten" version of the original plan? But Ahmed says that Jinnah has long been misunderstood, not least because Attenborough's film, which was viewed by millions of people around the world, "caricatured" him as a monocled Machiavellian megalomaniac who wanted to see the saintly Gandhi "slip into oblivion".
This, according to Ahmed, is "historically incorrect", and chiefly explained by the Attenborough film's reliance on the warped vision of Lord Mountbatten of Burma, the viceroy of India during the twilight years of British rule, who eschewed Jinnah's company. "My God," Mountbatten told his daughter soon after meeting the Muslim leader for the first time, "Jinnah was cold." Later, when Jinnah quite reasonably suggested himself as governor general of Pakistan, Mountbatten concluded he was "suffering from megalomania in its worst form".
Ahmed does not deny that Jinnah was reserved, observing that "he was a forbidding figure who was very correct and rather like a Victorian gentleman". On the other hand, he reveals that Jinnah enjoyed what he calls "pop star status". In that sense, he foreshadowed Imran Khan.
There are other compelling similarities. Each is an outsider. Imran's Oxbridge education, good-time life style and unpolished Punjabi is paralleled by Jinnah's Lincoln's Inn education, preference for Savile Row suits and a chauffeur-driven Bentley, and hesitancy in Urdu. Each, too, pays careful regard to what Ahmed often refers to as "moral integrity". Imran claims to espouse a code of honour taken from his Pathan warrior inheritance. Likewise, Jinnah was particular about political propriety. On one occasion, he was handed some compromising love letters between Jawaharlal Nehru and Mountbatten's wife, but chose to ignore fellow nationalists' advice to publish them, saying "this is not my kind of politics and I will not achieve Pakistan that way".
If Imran and the reinterpreted Jinnah seem to be kindred spirits, Ahmed the academic is careful not to become embroiled in everyday Pakistani politics by drawing too close a comparison between them. On the other hand, his trumpeting of Jinnah can be regarded as a fillip to Imran's political fortunes by virtue of the fact that it is a barely concealed criticism of the current crop of Muslim leaders in Pakistan.
Ahmed sees Jinnah as the model for a moderate Muslim leader who can win the respect of the West and Islam. Jinnah, he says, was a Saladin figure who allowed Muslims to feel proud of themselves. At the same time, he understood the imperial British. This was a winning combination, and Ahmed believes it would be greatly prized in our post-cold war era of suspicion and mistrust, when Islam seems to have replaced communism as the West's "evil empire" and when even scholars like Harvard University's Samuel Huntington are talking about the "clash of civilisations". As he puts it: "If only you could dust this model, bring it forward 50 years, and show the world what it is like, it would be a tremendous example to the West. They would say "not all Muslims are mad mullahs and military dictators".
It is clear that Ahmed has proved a convincing salesman of his reconstructed Jinnah. A host of big names have signed up to his idea of the "global Jinnah". In Britain, Channel Four is backing the film, to be called The Rising of the Moon. So too are Sir Oliver Forster, the former British ambassador to Pakistan, Lord Weatherill, former speaker of the House, and the actress Vanessa Redgrave, who is expected to play Jinnah's sister Fatima. Abroad, patrons of the film include Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan, Prince Faisal of Saudia Arabia, and the former Pakistani prime minister Moeen Quershi.
That Ahmed has won the support of the Pakistan leadership is extraordinary. Jinnah is such an important icon in Pakistan that politicians are wary about how he is interpreted, how he is appropriated. An earlier Jinnah project faltered in the 1980s after General Zia-ul-Haq ruled that the British script did not suit his Islamic objectives, and for a long time Benazir Bhutto withheld her support of Ahmed's film.
Cynical observers note that "the Jinnah symbol is far too important to allow Akbar Ahmed to run around and do what he wants with it". For his part, Ahmed fiercely asserts the editorial independence of his film, stressing that he did not want to follow the example set by Attenborough's Gandhi, which was partly funded by the Indian government.
Either way, Bhutto's backing should mean that Jinnah the film will achieve some popular commercial success in the cinemas of Karachi and Lahore. But whether Jinnah the model of leadership will be equally acceptable, especially to Pakistan's ruling elite, is less certain.
Ahmed himself recognises that top Pakistanis only pay lipservice to Jinnah as the father of the nation. As he says, with the cynicism born of taking what he calls "the begging bowl" round the palaces of Pakistan: "Some don't find Jinnah appealing because they are living the high life, they are wheeling and dealing, and they don't buy integrity."
This scepticism is shared by dedicated Muslim watchers. Fred Halliday, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, offers a scathing rejection of Ahmed's entire enterprise. For a start, he thinks Jinnah is "an appalling model". Endorsing Attenborough's portrayal in Gandhi, Halliday says that Jinnah was "a thoroughly pernicious person who unnecessarily divided India, stoked up communal hatred and created a rotten confessional state". He adds that Ahmed's quest for a modern Saladin is meaningless: "It's like saying that the West needs a Richard the Lionheart".
Less severe is Francis Robinson, professor of history at London's Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, who thinks Ahmed is right to counter the "absolutely disgraceful" presentation in Gandhi. He also thinks that Ahmed's manipulation of the Saladin image is "a clever move" because "it is one of the few Muslim images to which the West might respond". At the same time, he suggests that presenting the unifying figure of Jinnah as a modern Saladin is "a dangerous game" because it also invokes the age of the crusades when Islam and the West were poles apart.
Jinnah's most recent interpreter, the Columbia University-based historian Ayesha Jalal, is also sceptical about the prospects of a Jinnah clone in the contemporary world. "He is an anachronism," she says. "History has moved on, and there is something much more indigenised about the identity people are looking for in their leader. In the context of the 1940s, we needed a Jinnah. But in the context of the 1990s, people are looking for an assertion of Muslimness more in terms of opposition to the West."
These doubts would seem to have been born out by the experience of Benazir Bhutto. Very westernised - the product of Oxford and Harvard - she waged a campaign against corruption in her early days. Today, however, she has had to deal with the residual powers of the military and Islamic establishments, and she now presides over what Imran Khan describes as the third most corrupt country in the world.
Akbar Ahmed acknowledges that Bhutto is in "the Jinnah mould". But she has clearly not matched his achievement. Whether Imran can do any better is hard to say. But if he cannot, one must wonder whether a revived Jinnah is really a contender in the modern world.