Prominent economist Atif Rehman Mian was forced out as the wrong kind of Muslim.
By Tunku Varadarajan April 13, 2021
When the Guggenheim Foundation announced the winners of its fellowships for 2021 last week, a name caught my eye. It was Atif Rehman Mian, a Pakistani-American professor of economics at Princeton.
Mr. Mian, 45, has been in the spotlight before. In 2014, the International Monetary Fund named him one of 25 young economists “who are shaping the way we think about the global economy.” Then things got turbulent for this self-described “nerdy academic.” Imran Khan was elected prime minister of Pakistan in August 2018 and invited Mr. Mian to join his government’s Economic Advisory Council. The prof said yes.
“I love economics,” Mr. Mian tells me. “It’s a study of what’s in our collective good. At its core, it’s about human welfare.” When Pakistan “reached out for advice,” he was “of course exceedingly happy to be of service” to the people of his native land, which he’d left at 18 on a full scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“It did not work out, due to the religious discrimination that I faced.”
Within days of Mr. Khan’s invitation, Mr. Mian had resigned from the council. Mr. Mian is an Ahmadi, belonging to a Muslim sect named Ahmadiyya, which was founded as an Islamic revivalist movement in British India in the late 19th century. Present-day Pakistan officially regards Ahmadis as heretical. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, an ostensibly liberal former prime minister, oversaw an amendment to Pakistan’s constitution in 1974 that classified Ahmadis as non-Muslims—not an enviable status in an Islamic country. Zia-ul-Haq, the military dictator who executed Bhutto in 1979, made it a criminal offense for Ahmadis even to call themselves Muslims.
Mr. Khan appears to have been unaware that Mr. Mian was an Ahmadi when he appointed him to his council. Sunni religious extremists wasted no time in bringing this fact to his attention. Ugly protests ensued, berating the prime minister for his decision to favor a reviled heretic with public office. Mr. Khan caved in to the mob. “Anti-Ahmadi prejudice is one of the ways Pakistan’s religious hard-liners mobilize support,” says Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., in an email to me. “Islamist extremists attack all minorities, but Ahmadis are treated worse than others for insisting that they are Muslims.”