Well, that did not take long. Just two days after the Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry took to the airwaves to demonstrate that the PTI has a spine, defending its decision to appoint Atif Mian to the Economic Advisory Council (EAC), the government showed its true colours by backtracking and declaring that Prof. Mian has been asked to step down from the EAC. For those who have not been following the news, the facts of what happened this week make for incredibly depressing reading; Atif Mian, a world-renowned economist of Pakistani origin currently based at Princeton University, was appointed to the EAC considering his impeccable credentials, only for the decision to be met with a storm of disapproval. The problem with Prof. Mian’s appointment was not his suitability for the post, which is beyond question, but because of his faith. The fact that Prof. Mian is an Ahmadi automatically disqualified him from holding any public office in the eyes of the more reactionary elements of Pakistani society, who wasted in no time in kicking up a fuss on social media. As the controversy spread, sixteen senators belonging to opposition parties, including the MMA, the PML-N, and the PkMAP, signed a resolution condemning Prof. Mian’s appointment, and Khadim Rizvi’s TLP was predictably quick to issue threats of its own.
When Fawad Chaudhry first declared that upholding the rights of minorities was the responsibility of any Islamic republic, many ‘liberals’ and PTI supporters rightly congratulated the government on taking a stand against the religious bigotry and hatred that has increasingly become a part of mainstream discourse in Pakistan. Following the ugliness of the past few years, in which the veneration of Salmaan Taseer’s killer Mumtaz Qadri, and the use of the issue of Khatam-e-Nabuwwat to pressurize governments and discredit politicians, Chaudhry’s statement in defence of Atif Mian was an unexpected step in the right direction. However, those surprised by the government’s U-turn on this issue should not be; as has been argued by many observers over the years, Imran Khan and the PTI have long displayed a willingness and, indeed, desire to accommodate and cooperate with the forces of religious extremism in Pakistan. For years, Imran Khan has been accused of nurturing a soft spot for the Taliban, extremists who he has referred to as ‘our estranged brothers’. During the Musharraf years, Khan abstained from a vote on a Women’s Protection Bill that sought to address the loopholes in the notorious Zia-era Hudood Laws, choosing to align himself with the Jamaat-i-Islami and the JUI-F on this issue rather than supporting a combined opposition that worked with the government to have the law passed. More recently, Khan portrayed himself as a champion crusading against blasphemy, joining some of his electoral candidates in falsely accusing the PML-N of questioning the finality of prophethood due to that party’s role in passing an Elections Bill that slightly altered the oath taken by lawmakers that compels them to declare their belief in Khatam-e-Nabuwwat. Just last week, Shah Mehmood Qureshi shared a platform with representatives from the TLP as the government took credit for the cancellation of contest to draw blasphemous cartoons in the Netherlands.
These and other instances indicate a pattern of behaviour that should make one thing very clear; while the PTI may have some ‘liberal’ leaders and supporters, its conduct has always demonstrated a lack of desire to effectively confront or tackle the extremism enveloping Pakistani society. Indeed, it is telling that this most recent capitulation to the forces of religious bigotry was not even prompted by anything near the mass protect and opposition previous governments have endured; where the PML-N, for example, was brought to its knees after a month-long sit-in by the TLP at Faizabad, the PTI has chosen to surrender in the face of a small storm on Twitter!
Perhaps most damning of all, however, is the language used by Fawad Chaudhry to justify Prof. Mian’s removal from the EAC. Citing Imran Khan’s statement that his inspiration for the perfect state comes from early Islamic Medina, Chaudhry claimed that the PTI and the cabinet could not be anything but individuals wholly and completely committed to the defence of the finality of prophethood, thereby sending a very clear and disturbing signal to Pakistan’s minorities: they are not welcome in government, will always be seen as second-class citizens, and will inevitably be judged more on the basis of their faith than their achievements of any contribution they might make to society.
Imran Khans cheerleaders in social media are currently going through the usual mental gymnastics to defend the indefensible. The more honest ones openly admit that they think the PTI did the right thing, while others have taken to saying that this all part of the mythical strategy the Prime Minister has for slowly mainstreaming and then moderating religious extremists. The truth is far simpler and far uglier; the PTI and Imran Khan have never stood for progressive values and have no evident interest in pushing back against the religious bigotry and hate.
The first month of the PTI’s government has so far inspired very little confidence. At present, the government seems to be paralyzed, either incapable or unwilling to sit down and make decisions about anything. From the economy to the reform of the bureaucracy, all that we have seen so far is carefully choreographed statements and gimmicky stunts accompanied by the usual campaign rhetoric of change, with little in the way of actual policy. The only area in which the government has been active is in the advertisement of its ‘Islamic’ credentials, first with the Dutch cartoons and now with the appointment of Prof. Mian to the EAC. These are not good portents for the future, and do not bode well for the fight against extremism. Moreover, the PTI has also demonstrated that its stated commitment to ‘meritocracy’ is little more than empty words. There are few people in the world, let alone in Pakistan, who were as qualified to be on the EAC as Atif Mian, and his removal from this body on grounds that have nothing to do with his expertise is Pakistan’s loss, just as it was when the same sequence of events played out with regards to Prof. Abdus Salaam, Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate. All the PTI has done is tell the world that the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is so insecure about its faith and identity, it will join the ranks of some of the most repressive regimes in history by denying basic rights to some of its citizens just because they happen to believe in the wrong god or profess the wrong faith. The PTI and its enablers are no different from the bigots, racists, and fascists they rightly accuse of committing atrocities against Muslims around the world.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.