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Atif Mian and Pakistan’s Misguided Religious Intolerance

Early into his new office, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s administration nominated Atif Mian for a post in the newly formed Economic Advisory Council (EAC) to assist the nearly-bankrupt government on issues of finance and economics. A few days later, the whole country had erupted into spontaneous protests from the far-right groups.

Who is Atif Mian

Professor of Economics, Public Policy and Finance at Princeton University. Director of the Julis-Rabinowitz Center for Public Policy and Finance at the Woodrow Wilson School. Holding a bachelors degree in Mathematics with Computer Science and Ph.D. in Economics from MIT. Former professor at University of California, Berkeley and the University of Chicago Booth School of business. Author of a critically acclaimed book, House of Debt.

But the only credentials which mattered to a huge majority in Pakistan was that Atif Mian, a Pakistani-American living in the States since he was 18, belongs to the minority Ahmadiyya Muslim community.

Ahmadiyya Faith and Pakistan

The Ordinance XX of the Constitution of Pakistan categorises members of Ahmadiyya community as non-Muslims and forbids the usage of Islamic terms in reference to its members. Promulgated under the regime of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq on 26 April 1984, this legal ordinance bars the followers of Ahmadi faith from publicly practising the Islamic faith, praying in mosques or possessing religious texts of Islam.

The late General Zia, a far-right military dictator and self-styled Ameer-ul-Momineen, the Commander of the Faithful, is largely responsible for setting in motion the creeping radicalisation which has now engulfed the whole country. Among the baggage that didn’t go up in flames with Zia’s plane, Ordinance XX remains arguably the one with most repercussions to date.

The EAC Controversy

Thanks to this non-Muslim classification and the prevalent zealotry in the nation when it comes to matters of cricket and religion, Pakistani politicians have to walk a tightrope when dealing with Ahmadi community.

Imran Khan, who assumed the office of Prime Minister on 18 August 2018, is no stranger to controversy. Merely a few weeks into his new government, amid fears of bankruptcy and faced with a huge current account deficit, Prime Minister Khan constituted an Economic Advisory Committee (EAC) comprising of some of the best known successful economists of Pakistan. One of over a dozen public and private sector members was Atif Mian who, like everyone else, was selected because of his impeccable track record.

It didn’t take long for many around the country to unite in outrage over this nomination, including politicians, religious leaders, far-right groups and even general public. Even as some of the more outspoken members of Khan’s cabinet defended the nomination by rightly terming the mindset of its opposition “extremist”, others tried to distance themselves from the decision. It didn’t take long for the government to succumb to mounting pressure. Atif Mian was asked to step down within a week of his nomination. In the battle of extremisms against rationality, bigotry and ignorance won.

Misguided Hatred of Minorities

Witnessing this whole alarming Atif Mian debacle was extremely disappointing, to say the least.

The ease of exploiting public perception in Pakistan regarding matters of faith comes from an over-reliance on religious leadership for interpretation of Islamic doctrines instead of direct consultation of the original sources: Koran and the Sunnah. This over-reliance in turn is caused by inability of a large part of the masses to read, or the tendency to only “recite” the Koran in its original Arabic language despite knowing next to nothing about Arabic.

One would think that since the Constitution has declared Ahmadi community a non-Muslim minority, then Pakistanis will learn to give them at least the rights of a minority as defined in the same constitution. But that is evidently not the case.

Atif Mian, an excellent economist and one of the few renowned individuals who are considered experts in this field, was nominated for an economy-related committee. He was not, for example, asked to lead prayers at Faisal Mosque or to chair meetings of Ministry of Religious Affairs! But many Pakistanis lost sight of this simple distinction in their bid to prove what good Muslims and followers of Prophet Mohammad they are.

Well, sorry to disappoint you, but you are not.

A Lesson in History: The Battle of Badr

The Battle of Badr, fought in second year of migration to Medina, was the first major battle between the Muslims and their Meccan enemies. When, with odds stacked against them 1:3, the ragtag group of Muslims achieved a resounding victory, they took over seventy (70) non-Muslim prisoners.

What did the Prophet decide the price for their freedom was to be? The learned among them were asked to teach ten Muslims, and then they were free to go. Let me emphasise that this group of captives did not even believe in One God, let alone in the finality of Mohammad’s Prophethood. Yet, they were not only asked to teach Muslims but also told that they would earn their freedom by doing this.

This tells us that the Prophet chose these men to do the job not for their faith but rather for their qualifications. A lesson which maps directly to contemporary situations such as Atif Mian’s nomination. The clear distinction between faith and merit, as demonstrated by the Prophet himself, paves way for such nominations. And as his followers, those who protest against such steps need to reconsider what they are really standing up for.

To the Pakistanis who are vehemently opposed to the inclusion of non-Muslims in the society, I ask why do they not cry foul when Pakistan approaches non-Muslim nations with pleas of financial assistance. What is more hypocritical than being okay about borrowing money from the same non-Muslims who you are not ready to let in on committees aiming to save your economy?

Ignorance and half-knowledge can be dangerous. Educate yourself. Or, in the first words God ever spoke to Prophet Mohammad, “Read”!

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