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Pakistani govt backtracks on top economist after Islamist backlash

The Pakistan government asked renowned economist Atif Rehman Mian to step down on Friday from his position on the Economic Advisory Council (EAC), which had been announced by Prime Minister Imran Khan on September 1.

The decision came following a backlash by Islamist groups, led by the Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which had generated an uproar against the economist’s Ahmadiyya identity.

Initially, the government had stood firm on its appointment, with Information Minister Fawad Chaudhary vowing that the government would not “bow down to extremists”, and maintaining that Pakistan “belonged to the minorities just as much as it belonged to the majority.”

However, with threats of a TLP mob looming over Mian’s appointment, having recently claimed victory over the cancellation of a contest to draw cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the Netherlands, the government succumbed to the demands.

“The government wants to go forward in unison with religious scholars and social classes,” Fawad Chaudhary told Asia Times. “If [Atif Mian’s] appointment creates a different impression, it is inappropriate [to appointment him].”

Last year, the TLP staged a protest in Islamabad and called for violence against Ahmadis following amendments to the Election Reforms Bill, 2017 which omitted discriminatory clauses against the Ahmadiyya community from the election nomination papers.

The Ahmadiyya sect was excommunicated by the Pakistani constitution in 1974 over accusations of heresy, given the often misinterpreted theological position of the Ahmadi Muslims on Prophet Muhammed being the final prophet of Islam.

Ahmadis believe in Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as an Islamic messiah, as predicted by Prophet Muhammad, a belief rejected by other sects and deemed blasphemous by orthodox Muslims, and giving birth to Islamist groups like Majlis-e-Khatm-e-Nabuwwat [Organisation of Finality of Prophethood] which perpetuates persecution of the community.

In addition to been declared non-Muslims by the Constitution, the Pakistan Penal Code also outlaws Ahmadis from “posing as Muslims”, with capital punishment for blasphemy constantly keeping the community under the threat of violence. Last month an Ahmadi mosque was set ablaze near Faisalabad.

Human rights activists have dubbed Atif Mian’s sacking an attack on religious minorities in Pakistan, but TLP leaders say such “simplistic narratives” are fallacious.

“Have you seen us protesting against Christians or Hindus? Rana Bhagwandas for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This is not a question of minorities, but of Qadianis [derogatory term for Ahmadis] who are not just kafirs [non-believers] but also murtideen [apostates],” TLP spokesman Ijaz Ashrafi told Asia Times.

“The law prohibits them from using Islamic titles, while the community continues to profess Islam. How can someone who rejects the Constitution of Pakistan be given such a high profile role in the government?” Ashrafi asked, adding that the “punishment for apostates in Islam is death.”

Two others step down from EAC

Following Atif Mian’s removal, two other EAC members Dr Imran Rasul and Asim Ijaz Khwaja also stepped down from the council in protest against the sacking. Government sources reveal that Mian had been influential in both Rasul and Khwaja’s inclusion on the EAC.

Critics have condemned the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government’s handling of the council, which has resulted in the government losing three top economists at a time when it faces a wide array of fiscal challenges. Observers say that the government knew full well a backlash that would ensue following Mian’s inclusion on the council and if it hadn’t been prepared for it, they shouldn’t have gone ahead and appointed him.

“I won’t complain about the government coming under pressure, but what I will complain about is that they had not even faced [real] pressure,” said activist and politician Jibran Nasir, who in his election campaign had resisted calls to declare Ahmadis infidels.

“Was the capital choked for 20 days? Were any of the PTI ministers shot at…? All of this happened [last year] to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz [government] before they signed the agreement,” he pointed out.

The PTI first faced a backlash over Atif Mian when Imran Khan announced in 2014 that he would appoint Mian as his finance minister, after the International Monetary Fund listed him among the world’s 25 brightest young economists. But Khan backtracked after being told about Mian’s religious beliefs, despite economic analysts saying that Mian, author of ‘House of Debt’, would have provided invaluable insights into Pakistan’s debt crisis.

Meanwhile, sources within the PTI confirm that the pressure to remove Mian’s name also came from within his party as well.

“There are sections within the party that had warned [Imran Khan] back in 2014 as well, but given now that he was aware of [Atif Mian’s] religious identity there was a backlash within the party as well,” a PTI leader told Asia Times. “So the decision [to remove Mian] was as much about maintaining external order as it was about addressing internal party rifts.”

Despite the episode, Mian maintains that he will “always be ready to serve” his country. “My prayers will always be with Pakistan and I will always be ready to help it in any way that is required,” he tweeted.

Meanwhile, for the Ahmadis, this is the latest setback in a list of acts of persecution against the community. However, echoing Mian, leaders of the community say that they will continue to support Pakistan in every way possible.

“It’s up to the government to make use of any individual’s capabilities, [but] every Ahmadi considers loving their country a part of their faith and will always be at the forefront of working for the development of Pakistan,” Ahmadiyya spokesperson Saleem Uddin said.

“And whenever asked next, the nation would always find Ahmadis there to serve the country whenever called upon.”

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