Who needs enemies?
THE latest Israeli initiative to exterminate the defenceless population of the Gaza Strip has elicited the standard response both from fierce advocates of the Palestinian cause and those who believe that Israel has ‘the right to defend itself’.
We have seen and heard all of this before, and probably will again in the future. The only thing for certain is that none of the pontificating will help to free the millions of Palestinians, trapped in the world’s biggest concentration camp, from their hell.
Incredibly, many Pakistani progressives both home and abroad are finding it difficult to take an unequivocal position on Israel’s genocidal policy in the occupied territories. Or at the very least they are hesitant to stand up and protest — in whatever shape or form — against the historic dispossession of the Palestinian people.
The typical refrain of this segment of progressives is that we Pakistanis should spend less time taking up causes outside our borders and more time trying to right our own ship.
They argue that we are not nearly as vocal as we should be about the incessant spate of sectarian/millenarian violence across the country. And as far as state repression against oppressed nations is concerned, we should, they say, forget Palestine and pay more attention to Balochistan.
I am as frustrated as anyone else about the state of progressive thought and politics in Pakistan. I remain convinced that only a critical mass of progressives can generate the political strength to redress the state’s colonial posture vis-à-vis oppressed nations such as the Baloch and undo the state-led process of Islamisation that has eaten away at society and transformed the polity.
I am not sure, however, why aspiring to and struggling for the building of this critical mass within Pakistan precludes speaking up for oppressed nations in other parts of the world, or, by the same token, demanding that the Zionist state be held to account for its crimes against humanity. Surely there can be no principled disagreement on this particular issue.
So what then explains the reticence to raise our voices in favour of one of the modern world’s longest-suffering nations? The problem, as ever, appears to be that progressives are uncomfortable sharing the political position of ‘Islamists’. The argument ostensibly goes like this: Gaza is ruled by Hamas, and we must refrain from strengthening Hamas in any kind of way.
The logic is nothing short of preposterous, but makes sense all the same. One of the most profound — and underemphasised — impacts of the so-called ‘war on terror’ has been the conflation of anti-imperialist positions with the religious right.
I have written previously about the increasingly large number of progressives that consider the religious right the biggest danger to Pakistan (read: civilisation).
According to this reasoning it is politically incorrect to condemn the policies of Western governments given that the latter claim to be committed to eradicating the threat of ‘terrorism’ from our collective midst.
It scarcely seems to matter that there are substantial — almost fundamental — differences between the situation in our region and Israel/Palestine. Our enlightened moderates clearly believe that we cannot claim the Palestinian cause as our own given that the religious right in this country does exactly that.
Those who emphasise the oppression of ethno-national groups within Pakistan are also wary of taking up causes that have been monopolised by the religious right.
It is apparently a foregone conclusion that the Palestinian issue is an ‘Islamic’ one. Under this backdrop, and given the manner in which Islam as state ideology has been used to de-legitimise the claims of ethno-nationalists within this country, speaking up for the Palestinians presumably sets back the struggle against the unitary Pakistani state.
Reading between the lines one also finds that some — thankfully not all — ethno-nationalists believe that it is strategic folly to protest Zionist expansionism or Western imperialism more generally because the support of the ‘international community’ (read: the US and its allies) is considered essential to the success of the nationalist struggle for self-determination.
In a nutshell, the disagreements within progressive circles about if and how to take up the Palestinian cause confirm just how much fragmentation has taken place since the end of the Cold War, and particularly since 2001.
Not so long ago, progressives saw eye-to-eye on most major political matters (even if they remained blind to many, including questions of ecology and gender).
There was a near consensus, for example, that national oppression both within and without Pakistan, had to be opposed. The emphasis was on uniting working people in spite of their differences. The struggle for secularism was couched within a broader ideological framework to transform state and society.
Now there is unending polemic directed by progressives against one another. And it is nothing short of vitriolic. All sides — and there are not just two — are firmly convinced that their position is the only viable one.
Indeed, one often gets the impression that the purported objective of progressive activists — to liberate the oppressed — is less important than actually proving the intellectual bankruptcy of the ‘other’ (progressive) position.
Meanwhile the rightist grip over erstwhile leftist positions becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and our alarmism over the increasingly insular worldview of ordinary Pakistanis becomes more pronounced.
There will today (Friday) be an outpouring of rhetoric in mosques and seminaries around the country in relation to the unending conspiracies of the Jews and other infidels against Islam. Many ordinary people will be moved by the rhetoric, and the alienation of progressives will deepen.
That the religious right pursues a deliberate strategy to enflame public opinion around ‘Islamic’ causes is beyond doubt. Palestine has arguably become the quintessential ‘Islamic’ cause. Progressives must decide whether they want to dispute the insular logic of the religious right and coalesce around the principles that motivated political action until the recent past, or altogether abandon what were once undisputedly secular causes.
Those who choose the latter option are essentially accepting that the processes of Islamisation that we so loathe can no longer be undone, and/or that the various nations that were brought together by the historical contingency of partition can never coexist peacefully.
In short we must decide whether the conclusion is already written, or if indeed we still can play a collective role in scripting a future vision for this society and the world at large.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.