always been easy for power-seeking Pakistani clerics and politicians to set our
simple-minded religious masses on fire. But, as Prime Minister Imran Khan just
discovered, jumping on to a man-eating tiger's back is one thing; getting off
is another. The saga of the
Economic Advisory Committee appointment of Prof Atif
Mian, a distinguished economist at Princeton University, tells of this.
all began with Imran Khan reaching out for professional help to manage
Pakistan's failing economy. To his credit Imran Khan recognises that competence
counts; professionalism is precisely what made his cancer hospital work. And so
he went ahead, acting just as any true liberal (Khan says he hates liberals)
would - focusing upon merit, and reaching across Pakistan and outside to find
advisers like Mian.
be honest, it wasn't much of a proposition. The advisory position offered, then
rescinded, was salary-less. The committee of 18 unpaid members of the EAC is
tasked with conjuring up a wish list but, as with other such government
advisory committees, such recommendations are not binding. No one takes unpaid
advice very seriously. Even if things had worked out, Mian would not have moved
to Pakistan from his tenured university position. Nor, given other professional
commitments, could he have spent much time upon Pakistan's multiple economic
the outcry that followed Mian's appointment showed that many cannot stomach the
idea of an Ahmadi being invited onto an official body. For them this is a
slippery slope leading down to the unthinkable: a day when Ahmadis would be
accepted as normal citizens of Pakistan.
backlash came from within PTI and from without. The strongest pressure to
dismiss Atif Mian came from right-wing and centre-right parties - JUI(F),
PML-N, MMA and JI. But even the nominally secular ANP, which lost hundreds of
its members to Taliban suicide attacks, hit its political opponent with a
religious club. This time around the PPP stayed mum, but then it has plenty of
old baggage which it cannot readily explain away.
its credit, Imran Khan's team jumped straight in to defend
Mian's appointment. Information Minister Fawad
Chaudhry tweeted that, "Pakistan belongs as much to its minorities as it does
to the majority". In another country this would have been considered
unremarkable; here it was a veritable bombshell.
still stouter defence followed: "If you think that we should drown all our minorities
in the Arabian Sea, or that they have no rights here, they have no religious or
economic freedom, or freedom to live, then this must be your opinion only. Our
interpretation of the state of Madina is that Islam means security, peace and
moving forward together â€¦ Because of these things [persecution of minorities]
the entire world makes fun of us."
tweets struck a sympathetic chord with the Minister of Human Rights, Dr Shireen
Mazari (Columbia University, PhD thesis on the revolutionary communist thinker
Gramsci), who chirped right back: "Exactly. Well put indeed. Time to reclaim
space for the Quaid's Pakistan!"
unable to believe their own ears, liberal Pakistanis danced with joy. Naya
Pakistan was for real and not, as they had long suspected, a fraudulent slogan
to seize power. We were on the way - at least by a little bit - towards making
a country where every citizen would be considered equal to any other. It was
not to be.
especially surprising is that we have been here before. Back in 2014, perched
atop his container, Imran Khan promised a cheering crowd that he believed in
meritocracy and, as an example, would appoint Mian as the kind of expert he
wanted to take charge of Pakistan's economy. Days later, upon being informed that
Mian was Ahmadi, he did a swift U-turn. No one I know quite understands why
there was a second U-turn and why Mian was again asked.
many hoped, this time it would be different. Now that Imran Khan was prime
minister and had power, he would surely take a stand in support of the
constitutional rights of all citizens. This after all should be his obligation
as the head of the government.
swiftness of his climbdown surprised everyone because typically a new
government feels strongest in its early days. Also, unlike the previous
government, the present one has support from the army and a blind cult
following. Nevertheless, fear of political opponents exploiting religious
sensitivities left it paralysed.
an attempt to quash the controversy, Imran Khan recorded and uploaded his video
message. One sees an embattled man seeking to wriggle out of a bad situation.
Looking haggard and aged rather than his handsome self, he swears repeatedly to
the end-of-prophethood while jabbing his finger at an unnamed maulana (Fazlur
Rahman?) who he accuses of playing religious politics.
course, Khan is correct. But, unfortunately, the wily maulana is not the only
one playing this game. Had a similar matter come up before Khan became prime
minister, what would have been his stance? One recalls the pictures of Imran
Khan participating in numerous khatm-i-nabuwat meetings, some addressed by the
most extreme of clerics. Where the goal is to obtain or retain political power,
he was willing to say or do whatever it took no matter how hateful.
a few days, the Atif Mian episode will recede into the background. Still, it
warns of the dangers ahead. Imran Khan - like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz
Sharif before him - will have to navigate a minefield where a misstep can cost
you a limb or your life. In such circumstances, fearful politicians will make
concessions and principles evaporate.
is free of prejudices; certain groups of its own citizens are discriminated
against. Still, at the very least this is normally deprecated officially and,
as in some countries, one sees genuine attempts to create an equalitarian
society. Pakistanis in Europe and North America take their freedoms for granted
in spite of overtly projecting their identity. Still, they expect respect and
mostly receive it. But in today's Pakistan those with religious beliefs
different from that of the majority's stand little or no chance.