PAKISTAN’S official position on the Palestinian struggle has been relatively consistent since 1948. Despite occasional recent murmurs about a softening towards Israel, no actual step was taken. Part of this consistency is explained by the unity of support for Palestine across Pakistan’s political and cultural spectrum. And this point of agreement stretches back through different time periods in the country’s history.
The bulk of Pakistani society’s support for Palestine comes from ideals of pan-Islamic nationalism and Muslim religious and cultural affinities. In its simplest form, the sentiment can be explained as empathy for an oppressed Muslim population. It gains further encouragement by similar shared sentiments for the Kashmiri population, which is a closer and politically more salient issue for the country.
Within this type of solidarity for Palestine (as with Kashmir), there are two parallel trends. The first is found in the politics of Islamist political actors and supporters, such as the Jamaat-i-Islami, which see the struggle as a religious one, veering into a civilisational clash against enemies of Islam (the West, Zionism etc).
This is probably the dominant strain within the country now, popularised since the 1990s through a large apparatus of religious and social organisations. Most Pakistanis today interpret the conflict through this lens.
An earlier form of Muslim solidarity can be found in the musings (and fantastical writings) of the first generation of Urdu-language intellectuals and officials, especially between the 1950s and 1970s. Exchanges between Qudratullah Shahab and Mumtaz Mufti, about the former’s ‘secret mission’ on a fake Iranian passport to Israel, and a night spent in Masjid Al-Aqsa dreaming about Palestinian liberation, are good examples of this trend. Over the years, this form of Muslim modernism (modern statecraft with a Muslim cultural touch) has diminished, replaced by civilisational views about the conflict popularised by Islamist actors.
If humiliation is to be rightly opposed in Palestine, then it can offer a lesson in opposing humiliation of people closer to home.
But throughout the preceding seven decades, Pakistani leftists and progressives maintained their own tradition of support for the Palestinian struggle. In a recent online collation, translator and academic Haider Shahbaz listed a number of Urdu-language publications from prominent progressives such as Fahmida Riaz, Kishwar Naheed, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and Amjad Islam Amjad expressing solidarity with Palestinians through their works and translations.
The underlying basis of this solidarity rests less in shared religious attachments and more so in universal humanism, democratic emancipation, and the collective struggle against imperialism and racial oppression across the Third World. In this interpretation, Zionism is cast as a contemporary agent of colonial occupation, similar to the experiences of many parts of the world in the 19th and early 20th century.
The progressive interpretation of the struggle, while nowhere near as widespread as the Islamist one, is still around in Pakistan. Activists, intellectuals, and civil society organisations with diametrically opposed views to the mainstream stand with and alongside everyone else because they interpret the struggle through a universalist lens.
The outcome of shared solidarity among diverse segments, regardless of divergent understandings, reveals a deeper fact about the Palestinian struggle — that of a shared concern with oppression and injustice. As a friend and colleague recently put it, ultimately the humiliation of any one person is the humiliation of everyone. It is a powerful lesson, and one that allows us to transcend the differences of how we arrive at its conclusion.
As Pakistanis cast their shared concern for the Palestinians through clear and simple interpretations of injustice, it should serve as a starting point to extend empathy in other directions. If humiliation is to be widely and rightly opposed in Gaza and the West Bank, then it can offer a lesson in opposing humiliation of people closer to home.
The mass deportation of Afghans offers precisely one such issue. Journalistic coverage has already revealed many problems in the implementation of this callous directive.
People who were born in Pakistan, and have a right to Pakistani citizenship by law, are being sent back to a country they have never called home. Others who have lived and built entire lives here are summarily being rounded up and forced to leave. Quite a few are being sent back despite having a legal right of residence. And there have been a number of cases where ethnicity (Pakhtun) is malignantly being conflated with citizenship (Afghan).
All of this is being done on the pretext of national security, even though the evidence to suggest that refugees and descendants of refugees pose any sort of risk is non-existent. The real reason then is to obtain geostrategic leverage over a neighbouring country and to demonstrate ‘intent’ and ‘seriousness’ of a securitised state. It is a manoeuvre designed as a response to domestic and regional political issues faced by the state, at the mere cost of a million or so lives.
Recent polling by Gallup shows why empathy needs to be extended domestically. More than 80 per cent of respondents agree with the government’s deportation orders of Afghans, even though only a third reside in areas with their presence. This means that this sentiment is likely being driven not by personal experience but by a mix of partisan support for the government and general xenophobia whipped up by the media and some political parties.
Expressing solidarity with a dispossessed population, many of whom have no home to return to, is not an unreasonable sentiment. The principle of humanitarian support is a worthy one and one that will help produce a society that takes care of its most vulnerable.
And if those who see the world in cultural-civilisation terms need a reason, those being sent back are Muslims too. While Pakistanis rightly express support for the Palestinians, it would be useful to learn the core lesson embedded in their struggle.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
Published in Dawn, November 13th, 2023