Long derided as a non-serious candidate in an electoral system dominated by two major parties, Khan surprised political pundits last month by attracting thousands of supporters to a major protest in the northwestern city of Peshawar against US drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas, before going on to stage a sit-in to “symbolically block” NATO supply lines for Afghanistan that pass through the port city of Karachi.
With his good looks and seeming willingness to speak plainly, Khan is to Pakistan what Sarah Palin is to the US: controversial, an antidote to current administration, and, some say, a force to be reckoned with.
American officials in Islamabad concede they are watching him closely, and Khan’s antics often dominate local news coverage. But while Khan’s rising stature may be indicative of rising anti-American sentiment among Pakistan’s educated classes, analysts still aren’t convinced of how seriously to take him.
“The whole world knows that an accused is innocent until a court says you are guilty. He who takes the law into his own hand and kills is himself a terrorist,” he said at the Peshawar rally, referring to US forces.
Such rhetoric is common among Islamist hard-liners and religious party leaders, but Khan’s urbane appeal as a former cricketer who won international acclaim means he can reach a wider, less religious audience and position himself as the acceptable face of anti-Americanism, says Badar Alam, editor of Pakistan’s Herald Magazine.