Pakistan Caves to Islamist Pressure over Minority Economic Adviser

Pakistan premier Imran Khan's government backed down Friday over its controversial decision to appoint a member of a persecuted religious minority as an economic adviser, underscoring the pressure it faces from hardline Islamists.

Atif Mian, an MIT-educated Pakistani-American economics professor at Princeton University, was recently named member of a new economic advisory council.

Mian is an Ahmadi, a religious minority which has long been persecuted in deeply conservative Muslim-majority Pakistan, and the announcement sparked swift backlash from Islamist groups.

Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims, but their beliefs are seen as blasphemous in most mainstream Islamic schools of thought. They are designated non-Muslims in Pakistan's constitution.

Government officials initially defended the decision, with Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry vowing "Pakistan belongs as much to minorities as it does to the majority... we will not bow to extremists" in a video clip which went viral.

Three days later his government caved to the mounting pressure from the religious right.

"The government has decided to withdraw the nomination of Atif Mian from the economic advisory committee," Chaudhry tweeted, saying they wanted to work with all sections of society, including Islamic clerics.

Blasphemy is a hugely inflammatory charge in Pakistan, and can carry the death penalty.

The state has never executed a blasphemy convict, but mere accusations of insulting Islam have sparked mob lynchings, vigilante murders, and mass protests.

Friday's announcement divided Pakistani social media, with the hardliners praising it while others slammed the government's "cowardice", and Khan's failure to hold firm under pressure.

"This is sad and shameful. Pakistan should be for all not a hostage to some hate mongers," wrote consultant and columnist Yousuf Nazar.

But "Those who are ashamed can go to hell with their thoughts," tweeted another user, Farkhi.

- Hostage to hate -

Friday's decision came after Islamists also forced the federal law minister to resign his post following anti-blasphemy protests last November, in a deal brokered by the military.

Those protests were led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a radical preacher whose political party, Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) also contested the July 25 election which brought Khan's government to power.

TLP wants the automatic death penalty for anyone deemed to have insulted Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. Rizvi had vowed to "wipe Holland off the face of the earth" if he came to power in the nuclear-armed country.

The group gained no national seats, but won more than 2.23 million votes in the national assembly and more than 2.38 million provincial votes -- a spectacularly rapid rise for an organization which had gained national prominence less than a year earlier. 

Khan, meanwhile, caused concern with his full-throated defense of Pakistan's blasphemy laws during his campaign, with fears he was mainstreaming extremist thought which could deepen sectarian divides, empower radical groups, and even provoke violence.

Last month, his government loudly protested plans by Dutch populist Geert Wilders to stage a Prophet Mohammad cartoon competition, as Islamist groups led by TLP held demonstrations calling for Pakistan to sever diplomatic relations with the Netherlands.

Wilders later canceled the competition, citing security fears.

Analysts have warned that Pakistan's economy is the most urgent challenge facing Khan's new government, as a balance-of-payments crisis looms. 

The government has said it will decide by the end of this month if it needs to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

Source: Agence France Presse

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