Pakistan caves to Islamist pressure over minority economic advisor

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was one of his country's greatest cricketers

Pakistan premier Imran Khan's government backed down Friday over its controversial decision to appoint a member of a persecuted religious minority as an economic advisor, underscoring the pressure it faces from hardline Islamists.

Atif Mian, an MIT-educated Pakistani-American economics professor at Princeton University, was recently named member of a new economic advisory council.

Mian is an Ahmadi, a religious minority which has long been persecuted in deeply conservative Muslim-majority Pakistan, and the announcement sparked swift backlash from Islamist groups.

Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims, but their beliefs are seen as blasphemous in most mainstream Islamic schools of thought. They are designated non-Muslims in Pakistan's constitution.

Government officials initially defended the decision, with Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry vowing "Pakistan belongs as much to minorities as it does to the majority... we will not bow to extremists" in a video clip which went viral.

Three days later his government caved to mounting pressure from the religious right.

"The government has decided to withdraw the nomination of Atif Mian from the economic advisory committee," Chaudhry tweeted, saying they wanted to work with all sections of society, including Islamic clerics.

Mian later tweeted to say he had stepped down "as the Government was facing a lot of adverse pressure... from the Mullahs (Muslim clerics) and their supporters".

"My prayers will always be with Pakistan and I will always be ready to help it," he added.

Blasphemy is a hugely inflammatory charge in Pakistan, and can carry the death penalty.

The state has never executed a blasphemy convict, but mere accusations of insulting Islam have sparked mob lynchings, vigilante murders and mass protests.

Analysts have warned that Pakistan's economy is the most urgent challenge facing Khan's new government, which has said it will decide by the end of this month if it will seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

Hours after Friday's announcement, Khan appeared on television to appeal for Pakistanis to donate money to help build new water storage dams, underscoring the government's fragile economic position.

Official estimates show that by 2025 Pakistan will be facing an "absolute scarcity" of water.

- Hostage to hate -

Friday's decision to withdraw Mian's nomination divided Pakistani social media, with the hardliners praising it while others slammed the government's "cowardice" and Khan's failure to hold firm under pressure.

"This is sad and shameful. Pakistan should be for all not a hostage to some hate mongers," wrote consultant and columnist Yousuf Nazar.

But another user, Farkhi, tweeted: "Those who are ashamed can go to hell with their thoughts."

The decision came after Islamists also forced the federal law minister to resign following anti-blasphemy protests last November, in a deal brokered by the military.

Those protests were led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a radical preacher whose political party, Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), also contested the July 25 election which brought Khan's government to power.

TLP won more than 2.23 million votes in the national assembly and more than 2.38 million provincial votes -- a spectacular rise for an organisation that gained national prominence less than a year earlier.

Khan, meanwhile, caused concern with his full-throated defence of Pakistan's blasphemy laws during his campaign, with fears he was mainstreaming extremist thought.

Last month his government protested plans by Dutch populist Geert Wilders to stage a Prophet Mohammad cartoon competition, as TLP held demonstrations calling for Pakistan to sever diplomatic relations with the Netherlands.

Wilders later cancelled the competition, citing security fears.

Khan and his cabinet face a myriad of challenges including a faltering economy, militant extremism, water shortages, and a rapidly growing population negating growth in the developing country.