THE most important conversations in these days of social distancing take place on social media. The consequence of a protracted pandemic is that the separation that existed between our social lives and our social media lives has been abandoned. It is thus on a social media group that I fell into an argument concerning a local business that had put up a Palestinian flag. The flag (negligently hung upside down) was being feted; but an argument grew around whether flying the flag was ‘courageous’.
The proponents felt that there was courage in hoisting a Palestinian flag over one’s business. The detractors pointed out that given the strong support for the Palestinian cause in Pakistan, flying a flag that represents that cause is not particularly brave; it may even add up to using a legitimate cause as a means to improve business.
The question of which causes gain traction in Pakistan and which others are relegated to the proverbial back-burner of simple visibility and empathy is an important one. The odd thing about the Palestinian flag in this particular case was that it was being flown in a trendy part of town — not, say, in a lower-middle-class suburb where residents who support religious parties might be used to flying it along with the Azad Kashmir and Pakistani flags.
The fact that the Palestinian flag had made its way to this particular upmarket part of the city seemed in itself like an arrival; the Palestinian cause, worthy as it is, is now ‘cool’ with supporters even in the private clubs and snazzy suburbs of Karachi.
There are other causes as well — such as the Uighur issue — that should capture the attention of Pakistanis.
Rich as many of the new supporters may be, it is debatable whether they are likely to make any kind of difference to the ongoing Palestinian struggle. Pakistan is perceived as beholden to Saudi Arabia and to the UAE for aid dollars and jobs. These countries have of late improved their ties with Israel, and one wonders if flag flying, while a symbol of solidarity, can lessen the cruelties being inflicted on the Palestinian people living in the occupied territories.
Meanwhile, there are other causes as well that should capture the attention of Pakistan and its inhabitants. Take the example of the Muslim Uighurs, the largest ethnic group of China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The suffering that is being inflicted on people in forced labour camps and ‘re-education’ camps may be less visible thanks to the stranglehold that the Chinese state wields over the media, but it is no less pressing.
Pakistanis use goods made in China every day; they now also have extensive economic ties to the nation. While the relationship is uneven, no one is questioning the fact that China has more power over Pakistan. The existence of a close relationship itself suggests that spreading more awareness about and discussing the situation of the Uighur people would be noticed. Since so much of the Uighur issue is brushed under the carpet (including by the Pakistani government which has feigned ignorance about the plight of the Uighurs), showing awareness of what is going on there would be noted.
In fact, many Western countries have condemned the repression in Xinjiang, imposed sanctions on Chinese officials, and called out the state there for egregious human rights violations. Such moves have prompted Beijing to label the reports of abuses in forced labour camps an attempt to meddle in the internal affairs of China. The concern of the government of Pakistan, like those of many other Muslim countries, is that its relations with China will suffer if it raises the human rights issue of the Uighur people. China now has made multibillion-dollar investments in Pakistan in the shape of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor; better to not bother them with these sorts of uncomfortable questions, goes the thinking in the corridors of power.
Meanwhile, the religious solidarity of the ummah, especially in this case, falls short of motivating Muslim countries to set aside their individual interests, to stand up for their Uighur brothers and sisters. Governed by the age-old logic of self-interest, causes tend to be more popular when they do not cost anything and do not threaten your friends.
That is the situation before the government of Pakistan. Ordinary Pakistani citizens, however, are entirely free to criticise Beijing for its actions. A rally or two featuring a pop star and a few celebrities could go a long way in creating awareness of the oppression that exists in Xinjiang. Pakistanis tuning in to the Uighur cause would learn that religious freedoms are curbed in the area, though China denies it. Reuters has reported that there are at least one million Muslim Uighurs that are suffering in Xinjiang.
On its part, perhaps China would prefer to draw its own conclusions from Pakistan which has shown ‘exemplary’ behaviour. The Chinese have been welcomed, their projects undertaken with deference and their loaned money gobbled up without the least hesitation. If the Muslim population here can be so easily dominated, so too can the Muslims of Xinjiang, and it is likely that the rumours of their secessionist dreams or the threat they present to the Chinese system are exaggerated. If this is the extent of dominance in an entire country, then what is a small province of a million people? Most Muslims, the Chinese would learn, like to preach to each other and signal virtue by hanging up flags and enacting a performance of piety, solidarity, etc.
In the meantime, the people of Karachi could consider giving equal attention to all the suffering Muslims around the globe. In addition to Palestinian flags, there are others that can be flown over fashionable shops. It is very trendy to care or at least to pretend to, particularly if it is well known that caring will not change a thing.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2021