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Clansmen come to Jemima Khan's aid

Pashtun tribesmen in Pakistan are threatening to take up arms to defend the honour of Jemima Khan. The wife of their clan brother, Imran Khan, is under attack from political foes who claim she once studied under "the blasphemer, Salman Rushdie".

Noor Mohammed Burki, a clan chieftain from Imran Khan's home region, the lawless and rugged mountains bordering Afghanistan, has called for retribution against anyone who dares besmirch the cricket hero's family name. "We cannot tolerate baseless propaganda concocted by cowards," he thundered last week from the Kaniguram Valley, his base. "We know how to treat them."

As the British army learnt to its cost in the 19th century, such threats are not idle. Along the North-West Frontier, vengeance is a venerable blood sport, and the British eventually left the tribesmen pretty much to themselves. Even today no man in the Kaniguram area would dream of going outdoors without a grenade launcher, a Kalashnikov copy or at least an old rifle slung over his shoulder.

Since Imran Khan put down his bat and took up politics – he founded the Tehreek-e-Insaaf party and is an opposition candidate in Pakistan's elections next month – he has had to get accustomed to vilification where there was previously nothing but adulation. The smears redoubled after the erstwhile playboy married Jemima, daughter of the late Sir James Goldsmith, when she was 21 and he was twice her age.

Now 28 and a convert to Islam, Mrs Khan recently earned her degree at Bristol University as a mature student, and hopes to study for an MA in comparative religion some day. Urdu-language newspapers have claimed that her dissertation was reviewed by Rushdie and that her reading list included his controversial novel The Satanic Verses, which caused Iran to declare a fatwa against him and still makes him an object of hatred for Muslims everywhere, including Pakistan. She denies both allegations, insisting: "I have never even met the man."

The latest smear campaign got under way after Mr Khan lashed out against corruption, singling out some powerful Punjabi businessmen. Most were supporters of the ousted prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, now exiled in Saudia Arabia, and are believed to be behind the antiquities smuggling charges which bedevilled Mrs Khan when customs seized boxes of replica tiles that she had sent to her mother. The politically motivated case was quietly dropped in 1999 after General Pervez Musharraf's military coup.

Mrs Khan shrugs off the attacks as Pakistani politicking. Her Jewish heritage and extreme wealth drew vicious Zionist conspiracy theories before she gave birth to two Muslim sons and extolled the gallantry of Islamic men to her friend, the late Princess Diana.

"Imran is clean and it's very hard for the opposition to find anything against him. Generally they don't bring the wives into it, and that has been upsetting," she complained to the Nation newspaper. "If I were a Pakistani woman, this probably wouldn't happen. The frustration for me is that there is no easy access to justice in this country ... in England, there are steps you can take to vindicate yourself."

Her husband's clansmen are intent on showing that she is not without allies, however.