In a much anticipated press conference on Saturday, Fazlur Rehman, the leader of the Islamist political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl, declared "war" on Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) government, announcing a march on the capital Islamabad on October 27.
Rehman's party spearheads last year's merger of five Islamist parties into the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), dedicating it to the "true Islamization" of Pakistan and the establishment of shariah law.
Rehman leads Pakistan's opposition parties’ coordinated challenge to the government, accusing the PTI of winning power on the back of massive vote-rigging in last year’s general elections. The opposition demands Khan’s resignation.
In Saturday’s presser, Rehman predictably focused on the prime minister’s electoral illegitimacy, and the government’s struggling economic policies, he also unleashed what has long been his most frequently played card against Imran Khan: Anti-Semitism.
This time, his long-time accusations had a new twist: Imran Khan is a "Jewish agent" under the influence of the prime bogeyman of Western anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists from the far right to the far left: George Soros.
Khan met Soros on September 23 in New York ahead of addressing the UN General Assembly last month.
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Rehman reiterated his allegations that the Pakistani premier was a "Jewish agent." In the press conference, the JUI-F chief noted:
"By meeting that infamous Jew, [Imran Khan] has made it clear that [his government] doesn’t want to bring reforms in religious education. They want to make Pakistan's educational system subservient to the West."
The meeting immediately attracted a lot of media attention in Pakistan. BBC Urdu did a piece on the meeting that walked through every country in which he and his Open Society Foundation is "accused of being part of a larger global conspiracy," from Erdogan's Turkey to Orban's Hungary to American white supremacist shooters (the piece itself strangely flagged Soros as a "billionaire Jew" in its introduction).
Despite the conspiratory talk, the meeting was openly reported by the national state broadcaster, Radio Pakistan. Pakistan's UN ambassador tweeted a photo of the meeting, as did George's son, Alexander Soros. That suggested a pushback by Imran Khan's government, effectively declaring his willingness to openly embrace working with George Soros.
This was reaffirmed when government spokesperson Firdous Ashiq Awan defended Khan’s meeting with Soros on national television.
When Saleem Safi, a veteran journalist, asked Awan on his popular show Jirga why Imran Khan met the "Jewish missionary" who is "notorious in the entire world as a conspirator," she replied:
"This is not true. Every individual can be a lobbyist, and meetings are organized based on realities on the ground…we can’t own and disown [people] based on religion."
That staunch defense of potentially working with Soros, and the refusal (in this case, at least) to echo anti-Semitic slurs, suggests that Khan's government is indeed set to reverse its own ban on the Open Society Foundations in Pakistan, which it initiated in December 2017, apparently part of the state’s general crackdown on civil society organizations that were insufficiently patriotic.
No specific rationale was ever offered for closing the Soros-funded foundation, but it was met with little surprise at the time: Pakistani politicians always deemed "foreign conspirators" and Jews synonymous, and any differentiation has generally been considered superfluous.
But Khan now needs the Soros foundations' expertise. At the New York meeting, it was agreed that the Open Society Foundations would visit Pakistan. The government needs help to enact its much publicized educational reforms, including a revamp of the country's 30,000 autonomous madrassas, which Khan wants to bring under state control.
The aim is to defang madrassahs as a key recruitment pool of radicalized youngsters for violent Islamist militants, and to introduce modern-day teaching methods and a syllabus supervised by the Ministry of Education. As a government spokesman stated: "An Islamic education will continue to be provided but there will be no hate speech."
It is this planned mainstreaming of madrassas, announced in April, that fired up Fazlur Rehman to protest the Imran Khan government to begin with. And now the Khan government is seeking Soros' help to make it happen.
Those Islamist seminaries are critical for Rehman's party. They are the source of its political base and all of its considerable street power. State control of the madrassas would result in radically reduced political relevance for him, his party and the broader Islamist coalition.
Faced with this existential threat, and the Soros foundations' potential role in educational reforms, Rehman and Pakistani Islamist groups were spurred to adopt the anti-Semitic Soros trope, which has never properly featured in the Islamist playbook.
Rehman's march to the Pakistani capital also functions as a wink to the country’s all-powerful military establishment.
The Pakistan Army, which propped up the PTI’s rise to power, and Khan's ascension to the premiership, appears to still be backing his government. But a vocal, mass demonstration in the capital is Rehman's message to the military that they should consider the JUI-F in future plans, should the establishment consider another upheaval in Islamabad.
Imran Khan knows that as long as the military has his back, he has little to fear from any mass demonstrations. Having himself led an opposition protest in 2014, when he camped inside the capital for four whole months, Khan knows that no protest rallies of that scale take place in Pakistan without the army's support or at least acquiescence – and if they're sufficiently concerned, they can withhold that permission at any time.
12 months ago, the protest launched by the radical Islamist Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) in Lahore was mopped up by state authorities, and its leadership arrested, just a year after the same group had held the capital hostage for weeks during the rule of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). The League has been at loggerheads with the military establishment.
Khan’s seemingly unapologetic endorsement of George Soros, and the Open Society Foundations working in Pakistan, must have been founded on complete confidence that he has the Army on his side.
Khan knows that he has to act on the madrassas, and fast. There is now global pressure on Pakistan to end the Islamist seminaries' role as ideological breeding grounds for terror groups. The threat of blacklisting by the global counter-terror watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), is looming.
Pakistan’s multi-pronged economic crisis means that the country can ill-afford the sanctions that would arise from that blacklisting, nor can it be over-selective in terms of who offers it aid for many of its deprived sectors. The contingencies of economic distress may well be another motivation for Khan's lack of reluctance in re-inviting the Open Society Foundations to Pakistan.
But that simmering economic crisis is also fueling growing discontent among the masses against the ruling party. And Fazlur Rehman is ready and able to tap into their resentment, supercharging the Islamist camp's attack on Imran Khan's legitimacy with ever more poisonous anti-Semitic narratives, in order to regain political mileage – and even initiate a change at the helm of Pakistan.
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist and a correspondent at The Diplomat. His work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Foreign Policy, Courrier International, New Statesman, The Telegraph , MIT Review, and Arab News among other publications. Twitter: @khuldune