Recent history has shown that ex-partners can pose a significant political risk for politicians. Especially if the circumstances of the split fuels resentment which spills over into an unquenchable desire to publish their side of the story.
Thank kind of media storm has been sweeping over Pakistan about a scandal-filled book that was surprise-released on July 12th. It is by 45 year-old Reham Khan, a journalist and former BBC World weather-forecasting anchor. In this tell-all autobiography, Reham reveals everything about her life.
But what’s keeping commentators and Pakistanis on the street alike on edge are the chapters dedicated to her ten-month marriage in 2015 with the man with a strong chance of being elected prime minister on July 25th: former Pakistani cricket captain Imran Khan.
The controversy started in June when excerpts of the manuscript leaked online, and now it's freshly available from Amazon and in paperback in the UK, that frenzy has reached fever pitch.
Some of its claims are explosive: Reham Khan alleges that Imran Khan required sexual favors in exchange for political appointments in his party, had illegal sexual relations with boys in his Islamabad residence, and conducted an adulterous affair with another woman while being married to her – that other woman being his current wife.
If some of the allegations titillate observers, they enrage Imran’s supporters. And some chapter titles (such as "Girls, Boys, Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll" or "The Cocaine and The Heroin") are triggering serious panic in the party. PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, the Movement for Justice), is today the third largest in parliament and governs one of the country’s four provinces. It boasts over 10 million members.
In conversations, some Pakistanis shrug off the gossip and consider the book a grotesque PR stunt from a woman who has fallen into public oblivion and wants to return to the spotlight. Others see a plot hatched by political opponents (an accusation flatly denied by other party leaders). Reham herself denies colluding with other political parties.
But this post-break-up feud is not just about maligning Imran Khan. It is also causing collateral damage: Reham Khan reportedly makes revelations about the murky machinery of Pakistani politics in general, where patronage and sexual coercion are rampant and intertwined.
Allegations are also made about the personal lives of famous Pakistani journalists, actors, MPs, socialites, businessmen, and cricketers. In June, Reham Khan was already been served legal notices by numerous personalities who accused her of defaming them, did everything they could to prevent the book’s publication.
Among the personalities Reham targets is Jemima Goldsmith, heiress of a British Jewish millionaire, who married Imran Khan in 1995. The couple had two children before divorcing in 2004. Although Goldsmith converted to Islam before their marriage, her Jewish ancestry has been a millstone around Imran Khan's neck ever since, and a fertile source of outlandish and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
His past marriage to a woman of Jewish descent is considered by many Pakistanis as an unforgivable stain on the energetically Islam-infused platform he is now running on. Imran advocates for an Islamic welfare state, condemns Western feminism for its "degenerating" effect on motherhood, and has recently vowed to protect the extremely controversial and severe anti-blasphemy laws.
Prior to the book's publication, Goldsmith had reacted on Twitter, slamming the book as "libellous" and denouncing the "moronic, re-hashed Zionist conspiracy theories" it contained. She also threatened to sue Reham Khan should the book reference her children in any way - which, sadly, it does.
According to the leaks, Reham Khan accuses her ex-husband of "sharing close ties with those with a clear interest in Israel," and with "active Zionists," and underlines his proximity to "Zionist Kate Rothschild" (Jemima’s sister-in-law), whose family participated in drafting the Balfour declaration.
This strategy isn't new in Pakistan.
"Imran has always received pot shots from the far right in regards to his marriage with Jemima," explains Salman Zaidi, director of the Jinnah Institute, a public policy think tank based in Islamabad. "It continued when he supported Zac Goldsmith [Jemima’s brother, a Conservative MP] during the 2016 London mayoral election." (Ironically, Zac was widely criticized for his campaign, in which he insinuated that Sadiq Khan, the Labour candidate who won the election, had links to Islamist extremists.)
Among the other "proofs" of Imran Khan’s purported "Jewish connection" brandished by the far right were his meetings – for the sake of an interview - with American-Israeli journalist Daphne Barak, erroneously identified as a relative of former Israeli PM Ehud Barak).
Zaidi went on: "Obviously, Reham’s allegations can't be taken seriously. Imran is just as anti-Israel and pro-Palestine as the rest of Pakistan. And he has always tried to distance himself from his past and to disprove his supposed Israeli connections."
But by striking the anti-Semitic chords of the Pakistani audience - an easy way to get quick publicity for little cost in Pakistan, where the appeal of blaming the country’s problems on a Hindu-Zionist plot never palls - Reham threatens to undermine the support of a core votebank that Imran Khan must win over in order to be elected: the conservative Muslims who have never quite accepted the personal rebranding of an 80s party-going London womanizer into a pious Muslim candidate.
That transformation has been an uphill battle.
He has had to spend not inconsequential periods of time trying to divert national attention from his personal life and from the Jewish heritage of the mother of his two children (an endeavour which has led him to somewhat transparent acts of over-compensation, such as declaring Israel a terrorist state). He knows that for some of the Pakistani electorate, the distinction between Israel and Jewish individuals is irrelevant nitpicking.
If Reham Khan’s allegations are considered extreme, they are in tune with the current atmosphere in Pakistan. "In the last couple of months we’ve seen an increase in anti-Israeli sentiment," Salman Zaidi points out, "because of the moving of the U.S. embassy [to Jerusalem] and the clashes in Gaza. The Pakistani electorate is highly tuned into international news, and whatever goes down in Palestine is in every discussion. Politicians tend to respond to this sentiment by adopting a strident anti Israeli stance."
Like demons from the past coming back to haunt him, the publication of the book comes when Imran Khan is peaking in the polls. And when the judicial quagmire in which the biggest party is embroiled offers him his best window of opportunity to become prime minister.
But supporters fear that, just like with Sisyphus, this book could trigger the boulder to come rolling down again, and smash Imran Khan’s hard-earned credibility – laundered of any Jewish-Zionist "contamination" - for good.
Paul Gasnier is a French journalist based in Paris. He reports for French television and works with foreign news outlets, with a strong focus on India and Pakistan. Twitter: @P_Gasnier
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