Pakistan’s recent controversy over the appointment of an Ahmadi economist to an advisory panel is emblematic of the country’s deeper psychosis of identity. Confronting ideological demons is more important for Pakistan than promises by the country’s best and brightest to provide it good technocratic advice.
Princeton University economist, Atif R. Mian, was first appointed to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Economic Advisory Council (EAC) and then forced to resign on grounds that he belonged to the Ahmadiyya community. Soon after Atif Mian resigned, two other internationally respected economists of Pakistani origin, Asim Khwaja of Harvard University and Imran Rasul of University College of London, also resigned in solidarity.
All of them promised to continue trying to ‘help Pakistan’, probably with their wise economic counsel.
But just as correct diagnosis is important before even the best surgeon can deal with cancerous growth, it is important for Pakistan’s great economic minds to understand why their expertise was valued less than their religious or sectarian affiliation.
Atif Mian attributed the campaign against his inclusion in the advisory committee to ‘opposition from Mullahs’. He ignored the fact that Imran Khan had himself made protection of Khatm-e-Nabuwat (Finality of Prophethood) – a code for anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and violence – a plank of his election campaign.
That religion became an issue in selecting economists best suited to guide Pakistan when it is facing an economic crisis was not surprising, given the political and ideological dynamics of the country.
While Atif Mian, Asim Khwaja and Imran Rasul might be among the best of the best that Pakistan has produced, Pakistan’s problems are not due to the absence of technocrats, economists, or other professionals.
Even those Pakistani governments that earned a reputation for poor governance often had at least some good technocrats available to them for advice or policymaking.
Pakistan’s problem essentially is an ideological and political one. As I point out in my book Reimagining Pakistan, much of Pakistan’s dysfunction is the result of its inability to answer questions bred by conflicting expectations, most of them relating to its national narrative.
How Islamic is Pakistan meant to be? What does it mean to be an Islamic state in modern times? What should be the balance of power between a central Pakistani government and the various provinces representing various nationalities and ethnic groups? Must Pakistan forever be at war with India to justify its existence as a separate state? If so, how can it avoid dominance by the military and militants?
Although ideological questions have preoccupied Pakistanis, theirs is not the only contemporary nation state that started out as an idea. It differs from others, however, in not evolving an identity beyond the grievances that fuelled the demand for a separate Muslim state in the subcontinent.
The combustible mix of religion and politics, the pursuit of nuclear weapons, the acceptance and encouragement of terrorism, and the angry tone in Pakistan’s relations with the rest of the world are all by-products of the indignation that helped create Pakistan and has since been nurtured by the Pakistani state.
The two-pronged approach of many Pakistani writers painting a sunny picture of their country is to insist that Pakistan’s accomplishments serve as both its justification and its potential while laying its problems at the door of historic injustices or current international malfeasance. Responsibility for collective failure or miscalculation can be avoided by lamenting the absence of good leaders.
There appears little willingness to consider that Pakistan might need to review some of the fundamental assumptions in its national belief system – militarism, radical Islamist ideology, perennial conflict with India, dependence on external support, and refusal to recognise ethnic identities and religious pluralism – to break out of a permanent crisis mode and move towards a more stable future.
Defining Pakistan’s nationalism through Islam exposed the country to the paradox of setting a national boundary upon a universalist faith. Consequently, Pakistan’s Islamists, and often the state apparatus, have sought to manipulate religious sentiment to bolster nationalist feeling without intending to establish the Islamic state they constantly talk about.
Islamic ideology not only sets Pakistan apart from India, notwithstanding many commonalities of history, culture and social mores; it also musters a diverse nation’s energies in pushing back policy pressures from major international powers. In some ways, it is a weapon amid weakness even if it is a gun held to one’s own head.
Constant indignation at real or perceived indignities against Islam is a useful device for Pakistan’s leaders. They distract from substantive economic and social issues. Quite often, religious rage is generated through falsehoods and rumours, which are systematically deployed as vehicles of policy.
I have run into many Pakistanis with PhDs, including some who work for the World Bank, who argue in favour of Pakistan’s constitutional discrimination against Ahmadis. “Why don’t they just acknowledge that they are not Muslims, then they can live in Pakistan, like Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and Parsis,” one of them once asked me.
Even their Ivy League university PhDs fail to help them understand that defining a religion in the modern era is a personal or possibly a social matter, not something that can be dealt with through the constitution or legislation.
Thus, Catholics can consider Protestants as non-Christians and Protestants can think likewise about Catholics. Both Catholics and Protestants can consider the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) a religion outside Christianity. But there is not a single country in the world that has legislated on the matter of who is or is not a Christian, which is how it should be.
It is important to remember that such legislation also runs contrary to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Pakistan is a signatory. That declaration not only guarantees freedom of religion but also the freedom to change religion. Heresy is, therefore, now a religious concept, not a legal one.
By insisting on their religious sentiment being superior to the religious views or feelings of others, Pakistanis effectively end up separating themselves from the rest of the world. Pakistan’s international isolation will not end until Pakistanis can understand why the rest of the world finds their religious nationalism out of step with the 21st century.
Pakistani national identity is also deeply intertwined with negative sentiments about people of other religions, most notably Hindus but Jews and Christians as well.
When endemic prejudice becomes part of nationalism, economists, technocrats, and professionals can’t help overcome it.
Even if Atif Mian, Asim Khwaja and Imran Rasul help Pakistan’s economic growth through sensible policy recommendations, the deep-rooted religious-nationalist prejudices will not disappear unless they are methodically confronted and opposed.
Nazi Germany, imperialist Japan and fascist Italy did not have a dearth of good economic planners, scientists, engineers, and doctors. They just did not have enough political and social activists who could resist the rise of extremism.
It is sad that some of the best Pakistani minds sitting in international organisations and doing great research in academia abroad tend to avoid political controversy that is inevitable when you challenge dogma and wrong narratives.
Confronting misdirected religious nationalism might be more important for Pakistan right now than simply setting state finances right.