Pakistan’s new government betrays the Ahmadi minority

 A bold gesture against bigotry soon gives way to capitulation to it

IT SEEMED a speech worthy of a place in history, and one to delight Pakistan’s shrinking cohort of liberals. On September 4th Fawad Chaudhry, information minister of the Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI), the party that leads the new government, hit out against religious bigotry. He defended the appointment of Atif Mian (pictured), a Princeton professor, as an economic adviser. That Mr Mian belongs to Pakistan’s 400,000-strong Ahmadi minority should not matter, he thundered. Why, he asked, should the PTI not appoint “the person everyone thinks will win a Nobel prize in the next five years?”

In the 44 years since Pakistan declared Ahmadis non-Muslim, no politician has spoken so openly in their support. They believe a second prophet, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, born in 1835, followed Muhammad. So many Pakistanis deem Ahmadis heretics; the law forbids them from even reading the Koran. In the past decade, around half of them have left Pakistan. Conspiracies painting them as wealthy, Jewish-backed saboteurs have flourished, with distressingly bloody consequences. The PTI itself exploited such fears in the run-up to the election.

 Alas, Mr Chaudhry’s words were destined not for the history books but the scrapheap. Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), a new, rabble-rousing Islamist party dedicated solely to punishing blasphemers, was quick to demand Mr Mian’s dismissal. The PTI caved in and on September 7th asked him to step down. Two other foreign-based members of the 18-strong Economic Advisory Council—typical of the bright young minds the PTI had hoped to recruit—resigned in protest. The prime minister, Imran Khan, a former cricket star, should have been ready for this. In 2014, in opposition, he had bowed to Islamist pressure to retract an invitation to Mr Mian to be his prospective finance minister.

Yet the PTI has the political capital to make a stand. It enjoys widespread support, credibility among Islamists, and unprecedented backing from the country’s most powerful institution, the army. “This was the time to push back,” argues Madiha Afzal of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Washington, DC. Party leaders trotted out realpolitik excuses. Mr Khan only grudgingly went along with the decision, they briefed. With a slim majority in parliament, the PTI was dangerously split over Mr Mian. The opposition, for its part, let its cadres whip up the issue. If the TLP had launched another of its city-crippling protest rallies, it might have disrupted the PTI’s crucial first months in office.

Even if, as seems likely, the PTI makes no further effort to stand up for Ahmadis, it will probably face more trouble. The TLP has been “really bolstered”, says Hussain Nadim, an Ahmadi political adviser. Fundraising and recruitment are up. It had already claimed credit for forcing the PTI to put pressure on the Dutch government over a “blasphemous” cartoon competition, which was cancelled. Lacking other such causes to latch on to, the TLP’s leader, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a surprisingly foul-mouthed cleric, may well seek to grab headlines on his own. That might mean calls to execute blasphemers languishing on death row (the state has yet to implement the death penalty for the offence).

Or the party could call for apostasy laws, formalising Ahmadis as leavers of the faith, an offence for which Islam mandates death. In the wake of the controversy over Mr Mian, many quipped that Mr Rizvi, not Mr Khan, was the real leader of Pakistan. Ahmadis can only pray that they are wrong, and that the elected prime minister does not give in so easily next time.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Liberal apostasy”
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