It has always been easy for power-seeking Pakistani clerics and politicians to set our simple-minded religious masses on fire. But, as Prime Minister Imran Khan just discovered, jumping on to a man-eating tiger’s back is one thing; getting off is another. The saga of the Economic Advisory Committee appointment of Professor Atif Mian, a distinguished economist at Princeton University, speaks of this.

It all began with Imran Khan reaching out for professional help to manage Pakistan’s failing economy. To his credit, Imran Khan recognises that competence counts; professionalism is precisely what made his cancer hospital work. And so he went ahead, acting just as any true liberal (Khan says he hates liberals) would – focusing upon merit, and reaching across Pakistan and outside to find advisers like Mian.

To be honest, it wasn’t much of a proposition. The advisory position offered, then rescinded, was salary-less. The 18 unpaid members of the Economic Advisory Committee are tasked with conjuring up a wish list but, as with other such government advisory committees, such recommendations are not binding. No one takes unpaid advice very seriously. Even if things had worked out, Mian would not have moved to Pakistan from his tenured university position. Nor, given other professional commitments, could he have spent much time upon Pakistan’s multiple economic crises.

Nevertheless, the outcry that followed Mian’s appointment showed that many cannot stomach the idea of an Ahmadi being invited onto an official body. For them, this is a slippery slope leading down to the unthinkable: a day when Ahmadis would be accepted as normal citizens of Pakistan.

Robust defence

The backlash came from within the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and from without. The strongest pressure to dismiss Mian came from Right-wing and centre-right parties – the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (F), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal and Jamaat-e-Islami. But even the nominally secular Awami National Party, which lost hundreds of its members to Taliban suicide attacks, hit its political opponent with a religious club. This time around, the Pakistan Peoples Party stayed mum, but then it has plenty of old baggage that it cannot readily explain away.

To its credit, Imran Khan’s team jumped straight in to defend Mian’s appointment. Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry tweeted, “Pakistan belongs as much to its minorities as it does to the majority.” In another country, this would have been considered unremarkable; here, it was a veritable bombshell.

A still stouter defence followed: “If you think that we should drown all our minorities in the Arabian Sea, or that they have no rights here, they have no religious or economic freedom, or freedom to live, then this must be your opinion only. Our interpretation of the state of Madina is that Islam means security, peace and moving forward together... Because of these things [persecution of minorities] the entire world makes fun of us.”

Chaudhry’s tweets struck a sympathetic chord with the minister of human rights, Dr Shireen Mazari (Columbia University, PhD thesis on the revolutionary communist thinker Gramsci), who chirped right back: “Exactly. Well put indeed. Time to reclaim space for the Quaid’s Pakistan!”

Almost unable to believe their own ears, liberal Pakistanis danced with joy. Naya Pakistan was for real and not, as they had long suspected, a fraudulent slogan to seize power. We were on the way – at least by a little bit – towards making a country where every citizen would be considered equal to any other. It was not to be.

Swift surrender

What’s especially surprising is that we have been here before. Back in 2014, perched atop his container, Imran Khan promised a cheering crowd that he believed in meritocracy and, as an example, would appoint Mian as the kind of expert he wanted to take charge of Pakistan’s economy. Days later, upon being informed that Mian was Ahmadi, he did a swift U-turn. No one I know quite understands why there was a second U-turn and why Mian was again asked.

Still, many hoped, this time it would be different. Now that Imran Khan was prime minister and had power, he would surely take a stand in support of the constitutional rights of all citizens. This after all should be his obligation as the head of the government.

The swiftness of his climbdown surprised everyone because typically a new government feels strongest in its early days. Also, unlike the previous government, the present one has support from the Army and a blind cult following. Nevertheless, fear of political opponents exploiting religious sensitivities left it paralysed.

In an attempt to quash the controversy, Imran Khan recorded and uploaded his video message. One sees an embattled man seeking to wriggle out of a bad situation. Looking haggard and aged rather than his handsome self, he swears repeatedly to the end-of-prophethood while jabbing his finger at an unnamed maulana (Fazlur Rahman?) who he accuses of playing religious politics.

Of course, Khan is correct. But, unfortunately, the wily maulana is not the only one playing this game. Had a similar matter come up before Khan became prime minister, what would have been his stance? One recalls the pictures of Imran Khan participating in numerous khatm-i-nabuwat meetings, some addressed by the most extreme of clerics. Where the goal is to obtain or retain political power, he was willing to say or do whatever it took no matter how hateful.

In a few days, the Atif Mian episode will recede into the background. Still, it warns of the dangers ahead. Imran Khan – like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif before him – will have to navigate a minefield where a misstep can cost you a limb or your life. In such circumstances, fearful politicians will make concessions and principles evaporate.

No country is free of prejudices; certain groups of its own citizens are discriminated against. Still, at the very least this is normally deprecated officially and, as in some countries, one sees genuine attempts to create an equalitarian society. Pakistanis in Europe and North America take their freedoms for granted in spite of overtly projecting their identity. Still, they expect respect and mostly receive it. But in today’s Pakistan, those with religious beliefs different from that of the majority stand little or no chance.

This article first appeared on Dawn.