The new Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government’s decision to stand firm in the face of growing opposition against the inclusion of Atif Mian in the Economic Advisory Council was applauded, as it should have been. The Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry was correct in reminding the public that an economic expert’s religious beliefs are of no consequence in the role he is being asked to perform. But then, the new government lost its head and fearing reprisal, backtracked and removed him from the position. It is disheartening to see yet another elected government bow to extremist pressure and retract from a stance that was for once, principled.
Predictably, Mr Chaudhry’s statements in defence of Atif Mian fanned more fires instead of putting some out, and political opportunists such as Khadim Rizvi were looking to use the religion card in the hopes of galvanising supporters and pressurising the government to score another victory through organised protests. Now that Mr Atif Mian has been removed, the remaining objective is political; rising support for Khadim Rizvi is only going to push him to be more active in politics and solidify his support base in this term – all in the hopes of adding to the significant voter pool his party managed to convince over the past year and work towards entering parliament and mainstreaming his extremist stance. It is expected he will continue his protest and demand a removal of Fawad Chaudhry as Minister of Information, at least until negotiations with the new government bring something more advantageous to the table.
After playing the Khatme-Nabuwat card successfully and getting a minister sacked during the previous government’s term, Rizvi’s Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLP) did not win seats but it did win votes and lots of them. It also established itself as a very strong religious party, a feat accomplished by no other religious party in the course of Pakistan’s history. Additionally, Rizvi knew that he needed to keep himself relevant for the next five years and saw Geert Wilders and his offensive caricature contest as the first big issue to jump on. What is interesting is that Wilders himself had organised the contest as a means of gaining political relevance, which means that the two are more alike than they would care to admit.
Opposing Geert Wilders and openly calling for the government to take on a western power, making ridiculous demands in the process, works with his supporters and Rizvi knows this. First calling for an end to diplomatic ties and later, a declaration of war against Netherlands would charge Khadim Rizvi’s supporters and increase his own appeal in the process. But by calling off the blasphemous cartoon competition, Wilders deprived Rizvi from making the scene he had planned. Instead he had protesters marching to Islamabad with no purpose.
The Atif Mian issue must have come at a time when Rizvi was planning his next move, and predictably, TLP jumped at the opportunity. It was perfect; religious leaders have marginalised minorities (particularly the Ahmadiyya community) for political capital and Rizvi is no different. In fact, the sort of bigoted worldview it takes to not look past someone’s personal faith is exactly in line with the rest of TLP’s extremist perspective. The removal of Atif Mian alone is a win for TLP; anything else gained now will just be a bonus. Voters that are sympathetic to Rizvi’s cause will now see him as a man that can get things done; which are the makings of a successful politician.
The Information Minister had been bold throughout this affair and he was right, giving in on this issue would be akin to ceding space to extremism, which is something the country cannot afford to do. And yet here we are at the same crossroads, and once more a sitting government took the path that was easier and more dangerous for the country in the long run. Although the security situation has improved by leaps and bounds, the extremist narrative is still very much a part of society. As long as that is the case, terrorism will continue to be a problem. The vote count of TLP alone tells us how many sympathisers there are for a more regressive and less tolerant Pakistan.
The PTI government represents the will of the people through popular vote, it has the legitimacy to fight tough battles – something the PML-N could not establish over the course of its five years in power – and it also enjoys support from all of Pakistan’s state institutions. This was the moment to shift the narrative towards a more tolerant and inclusive Pakistan, something that it needs to be if we are to ever drive out extremism and terrorism from this country once and for all. Development, both human and economic, can never truly be attained unless this happens. The opportunity was there for the taking, and if it did the right thing, the PTI government would always be remembered for being on the right side of history; something politicians and dictators alike have failed to do since the inception of this country.
But here we are, another sitting government defeated by the threat of extremism, failing another minority in the process and telling both the country and the world that the Pakistani state will not safeguard the rights of those that need it most.
The writer is a former member of staff.