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Appeasing extremists weakens Pakistan’s global standing

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Imran Khan fuelled the fires of bigotry by falsely accusing the PML-N government of catering to a Western agenda and campaigned in favour of anti-Ahmadi laws

By: Meriam Sabih

Naya Pakistan is treading further away from Quaid’s Pakistan and the economy is suffering. On September 7, Prime Minister Imran Khan cowed to pressure from far-right groups and asked Dr. Atif Mian, professor at Princeton University, to step down as an advisor from its Economic Advisory Council (EAC). The highly qualified professor, named one of the top 25 young economists in the world by the IMF, was removed from the EAC because he belongs to the Ahmadia faith. In protest, Asim Ijaz Khwaja, Professor of International Finance and Development at Harvard, and Imran Rasul, Professor of Economics at University College London also resigned. This puts Pakistan at a further disadvantage to not utilize the best minds to deal with an economic crisis as it seeks the largest IMF loan in its history.

At first the country’s Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry applauded Mian’s placement onto the EAC stating, “…Pakistan belongs as much to minorities as it does to the majority […] we will not bow down to extremists.” He was made to eat his own words when the government forced Mian to resign. Human Rights Minister, Dr. Shireen Mazari, defended Mian’s dismissal. In an interview she explained, “Our civil society and religious leaders, shall we ignore them? Isn’t it better we step back and revisit that decision? Looking at Pakistan’s interests we cannot afford a confrontational approach…” Ironically just days prior Mazari had tweeted in agreement with the appointment saying it was “…time to reclaim Quaid’s Pakistan.” She had spoken too soon.

While risking increased threats of isolation, is it in Pakistan’s interests to reverse important decisions on the whims of extremist clerics? Can Pakistan afford a confrontational approach with the rest of the world? Discrimination on an official level not only weakens Pakistan’s standing as a serious partner on countering violent extremism but also undermines the country’s moral foundations.

Pakistan’s founding father had made a promise to protect the rights of all citizens of Pakistan. He declared, “…you may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” He backed his words with action. Pakistan’s first foreign minister appointed by Jinnah, Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, was from the Ahmadia faith. Zafarullah Khan led the first Pakistani delegation to the United Nations and was later appointed president of the General Assembly from 1962-1963. It was under his leadership that Pakistan became a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, barring discrimination, including that based on religion.

But outside the 2018 United Nations General Assembly when a reporter asked foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi a question on Ahmadi rights, he scurried away, speechless. At the Asia Society in New York City, Qureshi failed to give an adequate reply. He changed the subject when Vali Nasr questioned him on Mian’s forced resignation, one of the first questions addressed to him. Rising tensions, Pompeo’s short visit, suspension of joint military training, and the US Defence Department’s recent cancellation of $300 million in aid are due to the U.S. perception that Pakistan is not taking decisive action against terrorists.

It does not help Pakistan’s troubled relationship with India either. India recently cancelled a scheduled meeting with Pakistan at the sidelines of the UNGA after the death of an Indian border guard it blamed on “Pakistan-based entities.” Pakistan vehemently denied the allegations. Nonetheless, as Moeed Yusuf, South Asia director at the United States Institute of Peace, said in an interview, Pakistan must give the international community “something to be excited about” not frightened of.

Imran Khan regularly invokes Pakistan’s founder and merit in his rhetoric but such promises shouldn’t be empty words. When radical cleric Khadim Rizvi, founder of a new political party, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik, had shut down the Capital last year and attacked the writ of the government, the extremist organization should have been condemned across the board. Instead Imran Khan fuelled the fires of bigotry by falsely accusing the PML-N government of catering to a Western agenda and campaigned in favour of anti-Ahmadi laws.

Mazari recently responded to Human Rights Watch acknowledging that more needs to be done to align Pakistan’s national laws with the international treaties Pakistan has ratified. “Our government is committed to ensuring the fulfilment of all our international obligations,” she explained. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in a recent report also called on the US to prioritize religious freedom in its bilateral relationship with Pakistan.

Above all Pakistan’s own values are at stake. During the PML-N party’s tenure, despite extremist outcries, Mumtaz Qadri was hanged for assassinating Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab and outspoken critic of the misuse of the blasphemy laws. Taseer was assassinated for defending Asia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row many believe has been wrongly accused of blasphemy. On October 8, the Supreme Court of Pakistan heard the final appeal to her death sentence and reserved their judgment.

No date has been set for the judgment to be announced. If her appeal is rejected, and if she does not get a Presidential pardon, it would make her the first person to be executed under the infamous blasphemy laws by court order. Already extremist clerics, the same groups against Atif Mian’s appointment to the EAC, have threatened action against any judge or official who pardons Asia Bibi. How will Pakistan continue to respond to these threats; by appeasing extremist elements or taking a stand?

  • The author is a freelance journalist and former contributor for Al-Jazeera America. She has a Master’s degree in Political Science. dailytimes.com.pk
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