Imran Khan's naya Pakistan challenge

Years ago, in an interview to Business Standard, one of South Asia’s most respected journalists, Mark Tully, was asked what he thought was the biggest, deepest difference between India and Pakistan, considering people are always wittering on about how similar Indians and Pakistanis were in language, culture and tradition; and yet the two countries are always at each other’s throat. It did seem, sometimes, that not just the governments but the societies of the two countries had sanctified a state of war between the two.

Tully thought for a moment. Then he said: “Pakistan has only one religion”. It seemed a disappointingly prosaic answer at the time. But think about it. India’s respect for all religions derives from the practical necessity of having to get along with everyone, if normal everyday life is to go on. It also owes ideas of democracy and tolerance to two men: M K Gandhi and J Nehru. Pakistan had no need of this creed because it is 98 per cent Muslim. But everyone needs an ‘other’. We know how Zulfikar Ali Bhutto set Pakistan on an Islamic path; General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime Islamised the Pakistan Army; and how Benazir Bhutto’s interior minister, Naseerullah Khan Babar, created the idea of the Taliban that (in his own words) would be an army of (largely) Pakistani Sunni religious warriors and would hold sway from Quetta to Malaysia. The blasphemy law was the ultimate twist. Pakistan had created its own demons. And they were Islamic minorities like the Ahmadis and the Shias who, according to Sunni Muslims, challenge the finality of the Prophet.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has been interestingly inconsistent on the place of minorities in Pakistani society. Imran Khan’s campaign speech in which he says: “I say with full conviction that … [Ahmadis] cannot call themselves Muslim … and we will stand by and fully protect Pakistan’s 295-C” (the law that makes blasphemy punishable by death) has been widely publicised by the Western media and his rivals in Pakistan. It earned him the sobriquet Taliban Khan. But his supporters, including current minister for human rights, Shireen Mazari, said he had been misunderstood. And recent events have added a new twist to the Understanding Imran Khan project.

As part of the new deal he is offering (and accepting his limitations), Khan has set up an 18-member Economic Advisory Council that is mandated with formulating strategies to help Pakistan cope with current economic challenges and ward off future threats. There are a number of highly qualified, technical economists and management professionals on the council. But the most notable is Dr Atif R Mian, a Pakistani American currently at Princeton University and considered, in some circles, a candidate for a Nobel in economics.

Atif Mian is right up there with Thomas Piketty, Nouriel Roubini and Raghuram Rajan. His 2014 book House of Debt describes how debt precipitated the 2008 global financial crisis and examines how debt continues to threaten the global economy and what should be done to correct the financial system. It got uniform accolades. He has bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and Computer Science and a PhD in Economics from MIT. And he is an Ahmedia.

The minute the list was announced, a section of Pakistan erupted. The Islamic political party Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) criticised his appointment. A call-attention notice was tabled in the upper house of Pakistan Parliament (the senate) against Atif Mian’s inclusion. MPs from Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (also Islamic fundamentalist) signed it. A petition has been filed against his appointment in the Islamabad High Court that impleads Imran Khan and others in government.

Intially PTI reacted unexpectedly. Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said: “Should there be restrictions imposed on minorities in Pakistan? Should minorities in Pakistan be thrown out?”

“What kind of people say things like this?” he wondered. “This is a man who the entire world is saying will receive a Nobel Prize in the next five years. He has been appointed to the Economic Advisory Council, not the Council of Islamic Ideology or something else.”

“I don’t think anyone should have objections [to Mian’s appointment], and those who do, they are basically extremists and we will not bow to extremists,” he asserted.

"Protecting minorities is our responsibility. It is the religious duty of each Muslim, not just the government, to protect minorities and respect those that they live with," Chaudhry said. Shireen Mazari backed him strongly. The army said nothing. 

But within hours, the government asked Atif Mian to ‘step down’ from the EAC and has announced that he has accepted the government’s dis-invitation. 

Mian’s own pain is recorded in a blog he wrote after the Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar in 2014 in which 140 children died. He says: “The Taliban want to impose “shariah”. We can never know what that means, except to know that it means whatever the Taliban want it to mean. Murdering children could be kosher, if “the god” Taliban so decides. We better submit, or our head could be next.

There is a word in the western world for crossing the line between man and God. It is called fascism, and the line-crossers are known as fascists. But we in Pakistan know them through more honorific titles such as maulana, allama and mashaikh — or even generals and prime ministers.”

Mian was right. There is very little that is naya in naya Pakistan.

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