Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s government has asked a leading academic to step down as an economic adviser, the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) has announced after far-right groups objected to his appointment based on his faith.
Atif Mian, an economist who belongs to the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam, had been appointed to the Economic Advisory Council (EAC) last week and has now agreed to resign, PTI senator Faisal Javed Khan announced on Friday.
Fawad Chaudhry, the country’s information minister, confirmed the decision, saying it was taken because the government wished to maintain unity.
“The government wishes to move forward together with all religious scholars and social classes,” he said. “If one appointment creates a different impression, then that is not appropriate.”
Several hours after his resignation, Mian confirmed the news on Twitter, issuing four tweets in which he expanded on the decision.
Mian said that he stepped down because of “adverse pressure regarding my appointment from the Mullahs (Muslim clerics) and their supporters”, adding he was always willing to serve his country.
Following Mian’s resignation, Asim Khwaja, a US-based academic on the council, resigned in protest.
Khwaja said it the decision was “painful” and “deeply sad”, but said he could not justify staying on the council because his values were compromised.
Pakistan is home to roughly half a million Ahmadis, a long-persecuted minority who are not allowed by Pakistani law to refer to themselves as Muslims, facing prison sentences for doing so.
Draconian anti-Ahmadi law
They are also frequently the targets of mob violence as well as targeted killings. Last month, at least one man was killed and several others wounded when a mob attacked an Ahmadi mosque just outside the central Punjab city of Faisalabad.
Since 1984, when a draconian anti-Ahmadi law was passed, at least 264 members of the community have been killed in hundreds of incidents of targeted attacks, bombings and mob violence, according to data compiled by the community.
“We have a right to equal citizenship and we should be granted that right,” said Saleemuddin, the Ahmadi community’s spokesperson.
Mian is currently a renowned professor of economics at Princeton University in the United States, serving as the director of the Julis-Rabinowitz Center for Public Policy and Finance. He has previously taught at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Chicago.
Far-right religious groups such as the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), led by firebrand scholar Khadim Hussain Rizvi, object to the Ahmadi belief that the sect’s founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a “subordinate prophet”, saying it violates a central tenet of Islamic doctrine.
Last year, Rizvi and hundreds of TLP protesters blockaded a major highway into the capital Islamabad over a minor change in a parliamentary oath, accusing the government of having committed “blasphemy” by softening the language of the declaration against Ahmadi beliefs.
During the election campaign in July, now-Prime Minister Imran Khan, the leader of the PTI, frequently raised the issue, saying his rival Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had committed “blasphemy” by changing the oath.
Backtracking on appointment
This is not the first time Khan has backtracked on appointing Mian to a senior position. In 2014, when he was in opposition, he named Mian as an example of the kind of academic expert he wanted in charge of Pakistan’s economy, rather than career politicians.
On being informed that Mian was a member of the Ahmadi sect, however, Khan backtracked, saying he only meant his statement to apply to academic experts generally and Mian was just an example.
Last week’s announcement that the Princeton professor was to serve on the country’s 18-member Economic Advisory Council (EAC) came as a surprise to many, given the earlier controversy.
At the time, however, the government defended the decision, with Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry saying his government would not bow down to “extremists”.
“I don’t think anyone should have objections [to Mian’s appointment], and those who do, they are basically extremists and we will not bow to extremists,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
His comment drew the ire of TLP and other far-right groups, who demanded that Mian resign and asserted that the government’s decision to appoint a member of the Ahmadi sect to a senior position was “unacceptable”.
Opposition legislators in parliament and the provincial assemblies, too, passed resolutions against the move, declaring that Ahmadi citizens should not be appointed to ay senior government posts.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.