Professor Atif Mian is a prominent Pakistani-American economist and a professor of economics at Princeton university. 2 weeks ago he was nominated to be a member of Imran Khan’s “Economic Advisory Council” (a think tank of sorts that is supposed to generate ideas for the new PTI government; it is not at all clear what influence, if any, this group will have in real life). This set off a controversy in Pakistan because Atif Mian is an Ahmedi and Ahmedis are widely reviled as heretics, apostates and traitors in Pakistan. After an initial attempt to defend his appointment (including the obligatory Jinnah quote and reference to the fact that an Ahmedi, Sir Zafrullah, was one of Jinnah’s closest advisers and Pakistan’s first foreign minister) the Imran Khan government backed down and asked him to leave the council.
Since then his defenders (mostly liberals who believe religion should play no role in such appointments and experts should be judged on their professional skills and not their religion) and opponents (Islamists, PTI-type Islamist-lite folks who believe Ahmedis in particular should not be appointed to any important position because they are fake Muslims and potential traitors, etc etc) have been arguing about this case on social media. This post is an attempt to provide background and clarify some of the issues raised by both sides.. (some of the background material was published earlier in a post I wrote in 2012 for 3quarksdaily.com)
The Ahmediya movement was started in Punjab in 19th century British India, by Mirza Ghulam Ahmed of Qadiyan. He seems to have been a quiet, religious loner who brooded about the challenges faced by his faith and his people. The decisive military and economic superiority of Western civilization over the Islamicate world had produced a variety of efforts at reform and revitalization. They ranged from the Wahabi-influenced puritanical Jihadism of Syed Ahmed Barelvi (who led an extremely fanatical jihadist movement in what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwah, until he was defeated by superior Sikh firepower and a reaction to his extreme views among the local Muslims) to the anglophile reformism of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (founder of Aligarh Muslim University). Mirza Ghulam Ahmed’s response was to start a movement of religious revival that was built around his own charismatic claims. Though he contradicted some mainstream Islamist claims about the finality of prophet-hood and the absolute necessity of military Jihad (military jihad as a Muslim duty is now so widely downplayed that it is hard for Westerners and even Westernized Muslims to figure out why his claim was considered so controversial). His movement was socially conservative and even puritanical and he vigorously defended Islam, especially against Christian missionaries and Hindu critics. He found some support among modestly educated middle class Punjabi Muslims (including Islamist icon Allama Mohammed Iqbal, who either flirted with joining the movement or actually joined for a few years, depending on what version you believe). As his movement (and his claims regarding his own status as prophet or messiah) grew, it also drew orthodox opposition, especially from the dominant Sufi-oriented Barelvi Sunni sect. Ironically this branch of local Islam enjoyed some American (and world media) attention as “moderate and tolerant Muslims” in contrast to their Deobandi/Wahhabi brethren in the aftermath of 9-11 (though this attempt to fight Wahabi/Deobandi fire with Sufi-Barelvi water seems to have run into some trouble recently).
This increasingly vocal opposition (complete with fatwas from Mecca declaring the Ahmedis as apostates liable to the death penalty if they did not repent) led to a sharper separation between Ahmedis and other Muslim sects, but the Ahmedis themselves always claimed to be Muslims and made efforts to remain fully engaged in “Muslim causes”. In their own view they were reforming and purifying Islam, not opposing it, so they had a legitimate interest in the cause of oppressed Muslims everywhere (e.g. they took a leading role in supporting Kashmiri Muslims against their Dogra-Hindu ruler). Some Ahmedis played a very prominent role in the Pakistan movement, including Sir Zafrullah Khan, who wrote a Pakistan proposal for the viceroy in Feb 1940 and shared it with Jinnah before the Muslim League passed its Lahore resolution in March 1940. He remained one of Jinnah’s closest associates and was the first foreign minister of Pakistan and Jinnah’s representative on the boundary commission that divided India) and others held prominent positions in the new state and fought for it with distinction (most famously, General Akhtar Malik in the 1965 war with India). It is likely that neither they, nor the relatively Westernized leadership of the Muslim league had a clear idea of what lay in store for them in Pakistan. Even more ironically, the Ahmedis themselves aggressively pursued “blasphemers” (e.g. Pandit Lekh Ram in Punjab in 1897). It is hard to read this Ahmedi polemic against Lekh Ram without thinking about where the Ahmedis themselves now lie in relation to the blasphemy meme.
Soon after partition, the Islamist factions in Pakistan picked up the Ahmedi issue as a wedge issue with which they could acquire power and influence in a society that was otherwise not very interested in organized political Islam. Various elite factions (and, it is sometimes alleged, the American embassy) maneuvered against each other using this movement in creative ways, until their vicious squabbles derailed Pakistan’s rudimentary democracy. Still, even though they may have been useful to some elite factions, anti-Ahmedi troublemakers were still outside the elite mainstream and remained so until 1971. During the rule of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, this issue was again raked up and various Islamist parties found it useful to beat up on the Ahmedis on the way to power in Islamabad. Bowing to riots and rallies, Bhutto himself undertook to officially declare the Ahmedis as non-Muslims in 1974. Having tasted blood, the Islamist parties have never looked back, with steady increase in persecution and legal restrictions on the Ahmedi community and sustained propaganda that ensures that most Pakistanis find it difficult to publicly defend the threatened community.
It is very likely that the percentage of people in Pakistan who believe Ahmedis should be killed unless they repent is larger than the percentage of Germans who, in 1933, believed that all Jews should be killed (as opposed to, say, “put in their place” or just encouraged to leave). The blasphemy law and specific laws prohibiting Ahmedis from using any Islamic symbols are regularly used to put uppity Ahmedis in their place. Prominent businesses owned by Ahmedis can be targeted for boycotts or worse, and in some cases of mistaken identity, the business has gone out of its way to prove that Ahmedis are not the owners. Property can be grabbed from Ahmedi owners by cooking up blasphemy allegations or simply threatening to do so (in which case the sane owner may decide to play ball before any public effort is launched). Of course, such methods are not restricted to Ahmedis. Once human beings find a good thing, they tend to use it more and more. Still, Ahmedis remain uniquely vulnerable.
With this background in view, a few quick points about the Atif Mian case:
- The main objection was not that he was a non-Muslim. While some Islamists do indeed believe that non-Muslims should not serve in any important capacity in a Muslim state, this is NOT the majority view. If Imran Khan had appointed a Christian or a Sikh to the council it would not have led to any significant backlash (a Hindu may be a different matter, since Hindus (and to some extent, Jews) are the officially designated “other” in Pakistan). The objection is that Ahmedis are uniquely problematic because they do not accept that they are non-Muslims. They insist they are Muslims and by doing so they violate Pakistani laws. Atif Mian, who is proudly Ahmedi, must either accept that he is a non-Muslim or he must be expelled because by insisting on being a Muslim he is in violation of the laws of Pakistan.
- This is a very unique situation for Ahmedis. By definition, they regard themselves as Muslims (their founder claimed he was reforming Islam, not bringing a new religion). But the law prohibits them from saying this or from acting in any way that implies that they are Muslims (hence the ban on quranic verses in their mosques, the fact that their mosques are not officially referred to as mosques and so on). Low profile Ahmedis can get away with it by staying quiet in public. Prominent ones can get in trouble. The law is, of course, an absolutely unjust law, and it opens the door for massive abuse as more and more actions can be prohibited under the ambit of “acting like a Muslim”. But it is worth noting that liberals in Pakistan will usually sidestep this issue by framing it as “can’t non-Muslims serve Pakistan? are they not citizens” and so on, but Ahmedis don’t believe they are non-Muslims and their insistence on being Muslim is against the law. Unless you are willing to criticize the law itself, just framing this as a “rights of non-Muslim” issue misses the point. That issue (discrimination against non-Muslims) exists in Pakistan too, but this particular issue has unique features that do not apply to non-Muslim religions.
- Given that Imran Khan (and all other mainstream parties) repeatedly and vigorously voice support for this law, there is no way this won’t happen the next time any Ahmedi is appointed to a high position. Either he can deny his own religion, or he is in violation of the law. Of course their enemies hate them in any case, but the law provides them with the tools with which they can bring down any prominent Ahmedi. There is no escape from this.
Sheikh Rashid (@ShkhRasheed) claims he and Minister of Religious Affairs Noorul Haq Qadri were instrumental in the dismissal of #Ahmadi economist @AtifRMian. Babar Awan and @Asad_Umar were also consulted. Sheikh Rashid wanted the decision to be made before Friday prayer. pic.twitter.com/ia8OKM1Ds2
— SAMRI (@SAMRIReports) September 7, 2018
93 economists including 8 Nobel Prize winners have signed a statement expressing their disappointment and disapproval of Princeton Professor Atif Mian's sacking from the PM's Economic Advisory Council
The statement is below in full, as is the list of the 93 signatories pic.twitter.com/9yjU2p4bEZ
— omar r quraishi (@omar_quraishi) September 12, 2018