By Pervez Hoodbhoy
September 15, 2018
IT’S 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.
It 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.
To 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 The advisory position offered, then rescinded, was salary-less.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 crises.
Nevertheless, 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
The 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
To 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.
A 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, and then this must be your opinion only. Our interpretation of the state
of Madina is that Islam means security, peace and moving forward together …
Because of these things [persecution of minorities] the entire world makes fun
Chaudhry’s 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
Almost 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.
What’s 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.
Still, 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.
The swiftness of his climb-down 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.
In 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
Of 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-Nabuwwat
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.
In a few days, the Atif Mian episode will
recede into the background. Still, it warns of the dangers ahead. Imran Khan —
like Zulfiqar 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
No country 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.
Pervez Hoodbhoy teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.