Political discourse in Pakistan has become very black or white — it is very much a 'you are either with us or against us' mentality, no matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on. Shahid Afridi may be considered one of the greats of Pakistani cricket but that didn't save him from a barrage of hate for voicing his opinion on politics, specifically on former prime minister Imran Khan's performance when in government.
Afridi appeared on a special edition of SAMAA TV show Game Set Match on Eid. He and his daughters spoke about how they celebrate Eid, their family and, later, Afridi spoke about the stories behind some pictures of himself, one of which was a picture of him with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and another was of him at a rally with Imran.
He praised Imran's stance on Kashmir and said he went went to a rally in Kashmir and gave a speech there at Imran's behest. The hosts noted that he went to that rally but also congratulated the new premier for taking office. Afridi was on the receiving end of a lot of criticism for a congratulatory message he posted for the premier.
"I’ve liked Shehbaz Sharif since the beginning. Show me an administrator like him in Pakistan, you can’t because there is none," countered the cricketer.
"I didn’t congratulate an Israeli prime minister, I congratulated a Pakistani prime minister. No matter who it was, I’d congratulate them," he argued. "In my congratulations to Shehbaz Sharif, there was a protest as well, a personal protest between me and Imran Bhai," he said. In his tweet, he wrote, "Congratulations to Shehbaz Sharif on being elected the 23rd prime minister of Pakistan and I hope that he will be able to use his management skills to bring Pakistan out of the current economic and political crisis."
Afridi said Imran has been a role model for him since 1989 or 1990. "I wanted to become like him," he said. "When he entered politics, I supported him. When he set up Shaukat Khanum, I supported him. Until he was in government, I supported him. But, I, my family my children, the whole of Pakistan had a lot of hopes for him," he said.
The cricketer revealed that the 2013 election was the first time he had ever voted in his life. "A lot of educated people were inspired by Imran Bhai to go vote," he said.
"But if Imran Bhai says the [Durood Sharif], so do we every day in our prayers. But the fact of the matter is, God gives and God takes away. God gave Imran Khan and then He took it away. And He took it away because Imran Bhai made a lot of mistakes. And he should accept those mistakes," said Afridi.
"If he accepts those mistakes, he will be able to create a good political party and come back stronger. I’ve always thought Imran Khan's vision has been superb. It’s the vision of a leader. But to implement a vision, you need a team and he doesn’t have that team," he criticised.
"The people he had were sidelined. Why were they sidelined? What things happened that Imran Bhai could improve? I feel like you should never leave the ground and for him, the ground is parliament. He should never leave parliament. After leaving it, you’re again coming out on the streets and on top of containers. Why are you doing this, friend?" he asked.
"Imran Bhai, you have a ground in parliament. Stay there and work from there. I’ve said this [to him] but…" he trailed off. He then added that Imran Khan received so much support from across the world and such a large response and there was a reason for that.
Once the video of his comments was uploaded online, it went viral, inviting a lot of criticism and hate from supporters of the former premier.
People began criticising Afridi's past performance in cricket.
Others were very critical of his opinions.
But soon after, his supporters began trending the hashtag #WeStandWithShahidAfridi on Twitter and arguing that he has a right to his opinion.
No apologies here
In a video posted on Friday night, Afridi said he has always considered Imran Khan an ideal. He said he was inspired to take up cricket because of him and that the 92 World Cup remains in our memories. He praised the Sehat Card initiative and Shaukat Khanum as well.
Afridi said he believes every government deserves to complete its five-year term and that he never criticised Imran's personal life. "But I have the right to criticise policies. Don’t turn criticism into hatred. Listening to and respecting the opinions of others is the sign of a strong society," he said.
"I said everything as a Pakistani citizen. I did not have any political motives. And I will continue to say what I want. We have the right to do this and we should remember that," he said.
The cricketer said he knew he would be criticised for congratulations PM Shehbaz but there were no political motives behind his message. He reiterated that he would have congratulated whomever was the premier because the position itself deserves respect. "We must respect our leaders so the world respects us," he said.
His video garnered the support of his son-in-law-to-be Shaheen Afridi.
Former wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal also posted in his defence, calling out someone who criticised Afridi.
Whatever his political opinion is, Shahid Afridi has the right to voice it, the same way every Pakistani citizen has the right to voice their political opinion. He was respectful in his criticism and did not discuss anything other than politics, which is how it should be. Respecting other people's opinions, especially when they differ from your own, is truly a sign of maturity and we need more of that in Pakistan and Pakistani politics.