The election of Imran Khan in Pakistan was greeted by Western media with the vitriol usually reserved only for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the government in Tehran, in sharp contrast to the way the "reforms" of Mohammed bin Salman have been praised. Perhaps one way to understand this reaction is to see it as a glimpse into a post-Western future in which three substantive Muslim polities in West Asia have governments that are no longer embarrassed by their Islamicate identity. Not since the heyday of the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals has this been the case.
Turkey, Iran and Pakistan are not only demographically large – with relatively complex civil societies and economies – but also sites where the history of the post-caliphate Islamicate has played itself out. It was in Turkey where the caliphate was abolished; Pakistan where the movement to defend the caliphate transmuted into a movement that give birth to the country; and Iran where the Islamic Revolution filled the hole of the abolished caliphate with a Muslim revolutionary consciousness.
The focus on the nation-state has obscured the connections between these developments. The conflict between Kemalism and the demands for Muslim autonomy and accountability throughout the Ummah has been played out in these countries. One of the first diplomatic acts of the Islamic Republic of Iran was to recognize Palestine and break off diplomatic relations with Israel. It was the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) led government that prevented a U.S. invasion of Iraq from the north and opened Turkey's borders to nearly three million Syrian refugees. A Pakistani government led by Imran Khan could add to these lists of Ummatic acts of solidarity, and in doing so, help to deepen the process of decolonization.
Khan has the potential to be the final piece in the jigsaw that can establish an arc of autonomy: a crescent of hope, connecting governments and peoples in the enterprise of building an alternative to the Islamophobic world order. None of these governments is perfect, and we could all make a long list of their flaws. However, in the absence of the perfect, it is still possible to hope for the better. A crescent of hope stretching from Istanbul to the Indus could provide strategic insulation as a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for de-colonial transformation and Islamicate emancipation.
It is easy to dismiss the potential for something better by confusing cynicism with wisdom. There is no doubt that the crescent of hope could easily be eclipsed, depending as it does on flawed individuals and socioeconomic systems that seem to struggle to deliver sustainable peace and prosperity to their people. Yet, the prospect for a geopolitical realignment is better with these countries whose leadership share, at an instinctive level at least, with their populations a sense of Ummatic solidarity than it is with governments whose qibla is towards Washington via Tel Aviv.
Even in the crescent of hope, there are counsels of despair whose very idea of the future is based on a Westernized reading of the past, who comprehend the world through a Eurocentric realpolitik, and whose only solution to the challenges facing Iran, Turkey and Pakistan is seeking accommodation with Tel Aviv, in the belief that this would secure safety and prosperity. They are mistaken.
Such a strategy is being followed by Riyadh, Cairo and Abu Dhabi in the false belief that they will be able to leverage their capitulation to Tel Aviv to get Washington to underwrite the guarantee of their perpetual rule. It is not a strategy that countries like Turkey, Iran and Pakistan can imitate, since such a policy requires accepting the perpetual subjugation and eventual erasure of the Palestinian people. Such treatment of the Palestinian people is not easy to put up with for governments that depend on the popular support of their own people.
The fundamental asymmetries of the Zionist project mean that Tel Aviv cannot be an empire, and it cannot be a long-term equal partner at peace with Turkey, Iran or Pakistan. The asymmetries in power are too great, and the paranoia among ultra-Zionists too deeply rooted to build a lasting and just peace. The only strategy for Tel Aviv is to weaken, undermine and ultimately fragment these countries. Thus, it is no secret that maps circulate in Washington showing Turkey, Iran and Pakistan divided into little statelets. The stark choices facing Tehran, Islamabad and Ankara is either fragmentation or establishing a crescent of hope.
Powerful external forces will unleash measures short of full-scale military action to undermine the crescent and its constituent parts. Economic policies that do not consider the threat of runs on currencies or depletion of foreign exchange holdings have to be re-thought. All three countries face a hostile U.S. government and are subject to a variety of U.S. sanctions of varying degrees of severity. While not all economic woes can be blamed on external forces, economic policies that imitate neo-liberal logics and do not factor in vulnerabilities produced in the wake of U.S. hostilities are not just mistaken but also negligent. A kind of "Venezuelization" is a real threat for all three countries – a risk that is more likely if Ankara, Tehran and Islamabad are unable to coordinate their efforts.
Such coordination, however, requires the dismantling of the Eurocentric conventional wisdom that has a hold over policymakers and opinion-shapers of these three countries. While the leadership of the crescent of hope may be instinctively Ummatically conscious, with ordinary people in these countries sharing a commitment to Islam that no amount of sneering by those who deem themselves to be their betters can weaken, there remains an influential segment of in-between people that thwarts the possibility of decolonization. This mixed stratum is made of Westoxicated wastrels, muddled-headed cynics, and even well meaning technocrats who have been schooled and socialized through Orientalism. They have neither the inclination nor the imagination to seize the opportunities for a fundamental de-colonial re-alignment. In a world that is institutionally Islamophobic, the sight of a crescent of hope can herald the dawn of a better future. These are early days, but the opportunity to work towards something greater is here. While imperfect, it is not impossible.
* Professor in Rhetoric, University of Leeds