By its mishandling of the Atif Mian affair the state has exposed its soft belly to the rejuvenated extremists who are going to target it again and again, and the consequences could be extremely grave.
That the Princeton professor was eminently qualified to be invited to advise the state on economic matters was as much beyond doubt as the latter’s need for sound counsel. But he was subjected to a barrage of calumny no truly Muslim community would tolerate because of its being bereft of reason. There is no difference of opinion among Islamic scholars on the need for Muslims to benefit from knowledge wherever it is available, and to weigh any advice for its soundness or otherwise regardless of its origin.
For a while the government tried not to lose its head. The Information Minister was right in arguing that a citizen’s faith could not be a ground to debar him from public service and that Pakistan belonged as much to the minorities as it did to the majority community. Apparently, he misjudged among other things, the pro-extremist inclination of the state apparatus. The government also perhaps did not consider it necessary to talk to the protesters, as it had done to bring the Faizabad agitation to an end, or to the people at large. This amounted to a concession to the traditionalist lobby amongst the ulema who likes to shun a rational debate on any issue.
The main ground of opposition to Professor Atif Mian was that he and his community did not respect the constitution and wanted it changed. The plea is untenable for three main reasons.
First, having reservations about any provision of the constitution is not a crime nor can efforts to change it be dismissed as such. Those who believe in the kind of a federation that Pakistan’s founding fathers had wished to establish and the have-nots — the country’s majority — would like to change many provisions of the basic law and they cannot be faulted for that. To hold otherwise would amount to making the principle underlying the amendment procedure not only redundant but also unlawful.
Secondly, those accusing Professor Atif Mian of disrespect for the constitution are as brazen-facedly violating the country’s basic law as was done by their mentor and benefactor, Gen Ziaul Haq, when he described it as a sheaf of papers that he could tear up any time (he did much worse by changing it beyond recognition). Where is the constitutional provision that requires an advisor to the government to be a Muslim by the state’s definition? And which provision of the constitution permits anyone to threaten the state with violence if it does not yield to an unlawful demand?
Thirdly, the logic of the extremist lobby would disqualify all practitioners of law who learnt anything from Mohamedan Law by Mulla, a Parsi non-believer, or from a translation of Hidaya by Hamilton, a Christian non-believer. The Raisman Award should be undone as its author was not a Muslim. The government should not talk to the IMF or the World Bank until they find good Muslims by Pakistan standards to make their decisions. No book should mention Professor Abdus Salam’s winning the Nobel Prize as a son of Pakistan, nor General Akhtar Husain Malik’s dash to Chamb in 1965, nor General (then Brigadier) Abdul Ali’s role in the “greatest tank battle” at Chavinda. The discourse of the absurd has no end.
The extremist lobby is not going to be content with forcing the government’s hands on the Atif Mian affair or purging the state services of Ahmadis. These are steps in an ongoing (since 1948) campaign to demolish the democratic premises of the state of Pakistan. The challengers do not believe in democracy or political parties — especially those in opposition — in the right of parliament to make laws, or dispensation of justice by the judiciary as at present constituted.
Those who do not believe this may read Al-Qaeda ideologue Zarqavi’s critique of the Pakistan state, Supaida-i-Sahar (Brightness at dawn). The traditional interpreters of Islamic injunctions treat a Muslim state’s relations with an un-Islamic country as an aberration. Are the people of Pakistan prepared to go that far by continuing to appease the extremists?
The fallout of the Atif Mian episode shows that the matter has acquired greater and more ominous dimensions than the controversy over his nomination on the Economic Advisory Council or the widespread view about the government’s surrender. Call attention notices were moved in both Houses of parliament and the Islamabad High Court was urged to admonish the government for taking an unconstitutional step though the honourable judge did not see any prima facie deviation from the constitution.
Women activists claiming to be members of the ruling party demonstrated against the government’s decision to seek advice from Dr Atif Mian. Somebody declared that the nikah of all those who had defended the government with their spouses had been nullified — the ultimate punishment for non-conformists. The government is said to have been warned by its intelligence services of a serious commotion if did not back away, although there is no knowing how much this advice was coloured by these agencies’ subjective view about the way the matter needed to be resolved.
Thus we find that the extremist elements in the religious lobby are getting support from other people that are presumed to belong to educated and conscious sections of society. This prevents acceptance of the official apology, that the country cannot afford a disruptive confrontation with a group of citizens at a time when it is facing many challenges, for the simple reason that the state has been paying a heavy cost for following this course for several decades.
Sixty years ago it was possible for a weak-looking prime minister, Khwaja Nazimuddin, to thwart the Punjab government’s plan to bring him down by instigating anti-Ahmadi rioting, for General Azam to ferret out the leader of the ‘movement’, Maulana Abdul Sattar Niazi, from his hideout in a mosque in no time, and for Justices Munir and Kayani to write what has come to be known as the Munir Inquiry Report. It is extremely doubtful if any of these precedents can be followed today. That is a measure of the state’s retreat in the face of extremists’ pressure, a direct consequence of the policy of appeasement, and decisions to postpone the state’s duty to a more opportune moment.
All leaders of elected governments in Pakistan, from prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan to prime minister Nawaz Sharif, negotiated peace with the extremist challengers by offering them concessions in the constitution and law, or by paying for their enterprises, or by withholding from the courts’ evidence against the militants. Each of these steps whetted the extremists’ appetite for more concessions. What the result of this drift is going to be is not difficult to visualise and Dr Fazlur Rahman’s assurance that the period of the extremists’ hegemony, though extremely bitter and costly, will be brief offers little consolation to the present generation.
Read also: Being Ahmadi
While questioning the Imran Khan government for its loss of nerves during the Atif Mian controversy one is also moved by a feeling of sympathy for it as it has been hit by a most serious crisis so early in its life. It is being called upon to decide whether it will passively watch the Ahmadi citizens mowed down one by one across the country and forcibly deprived of their rights as guaranteed by the constitution and the laws, or whether it will do its duty to the people and their creator by defending the vulnerable and marginalised sections of society.
There is another issue that the PTI leader himself should ponder. Is it possible that he inadvertantly increased the space for extremists by an inordinately loud demonstration of religiosity during the final phase of the election campaign?