A few days ago, a right-wing religious group in Pakistan forced the newly elected government into removing one of the members of the country’s Economic Advisory Council (EAC). The objection to the member’s appointment to the advisory council was his Ahmadi faith. The Ahmadi community in Pakistan has suffered systematic persecution for decades. Pakistan’s constitution considers the group non-Muslim and even their claims of calling themselves Muslims are termed as punishable by law.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision to remove Princeton University economist Atif Mian’s nomination was not just a tactical assessment that may have subsided right-wing group’s pressure on the government. Rather, it was a decision which in the wider context, points toward the scale of deepening radicalization in Pakistani society, where radical groups with mass public appeal and street power appear to have become bigger than the state.
Arguably, it is not the religious or far-right radical groups that are concerned about limits set by the state when it comes to abiding by the constitution and following the state’s writ in all forms. Moreover, radical groups in Pakistan have slowly developed a strong jurisdiction over the state and elected government’s right to decide the role of Islam in Pakistan and its politics. While Pakistan may have a constitutional document that lays down the rights of various minority groups in Pakistan, it is radical voices like the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) that control popular space beyond what the constitution permits.
Additionally, the politics of religion in Pakistan doesn’t simply focus on political forces’ efforts to join hands with various Islamist groups to gain their electoral support. Rather, the politics of religion in Pakistan now focuses on tapping into popular religious controversial debates and riling up public opinion by terming the state’s liberal and progressive policies as anti-Islam. For instance, Khan’s decision to appoint Atif Mian on his economic advisory council was not just condemned by TLY and other religious groups. The decision was opposed by the party’s own workers and core leadership on the basis that an Ahmadi person, regardless of an exceptional work credentials, cannot be given any space in the government. Some reports suggest that the government was not only put under pressure by Islamist groups, but apparently also succumbed to the pressure generated by both houses of the parliament against Mian’s nomination in the EAC.
This is something that should be considered alarming: while religious groups openly defy the country’s constitution, political parties and the general public have also increasingly become part of the debate. While a number of opposition political parties termed Mian’s appointment unacceptable due to opportunistic and partisan political reasons, Khan’s own party’s condemnation of the appointment was by and large motivated by ideological reasons whereby his party workers approved various ring groups narrative of hate, rejection, and intolerance which doesn’t have any space in the country’s constitution.
Regrettably, it’s the state and the elected government which should now be concerned about radical group’s positions while undertaking the legislative process or making decisions that Islamist groups and their followers in the country may disapprove. Khan’s caving to radical groups and his own party leadership’s demands mean that liberal and progressive voices are likely to lose further space in the country in the coming months and years. It’s unlikely that Pakistan’s government will take any decisive action against a number of sectarian groups as part of the country’s National Action Plan (NAP) against extremism.
After the recent incident of an Ahmadi person’s removal, the government in Pakistan doesn’t have any space left to take bold action when it comes to taking on some sectarian groups, which operate under the umbrella of religious narratives and debates that have gained significant support among the masses.