Israel's Brutality In Gaza Will Sway Hearts And Minds Across The Muslim World

Israel's brutal massacre of Palestinians in Gaza will inevitably transform hearts and minds across the Muslim world, with significant doubts emerging about the hypocrisy towards Muslims that is evidently intrinsic to the American led international order.

Israel's Brutality In Gaza Will Sway Hearts And Minds Across The Muslim World

Few days ago, I got the chance to discuss the Gaza situation with a group of teenage female students. Let me describe the persona of these female students briefly before I tell you what they said to me. They were soft spoken, very subtle in their attitudes and highly sophisticated—so sophisticated that I never saw them raise their voice, even while engaged in arguments. I was highly impressed by their knowledge of what’s going on in Gaza. 

By now, they have memorized the names of Gaza’s hospitals, streets and localities. They make their points about the Gaza situation with clenched fists. Most of them were angry while we were discussing the Gaza situation. And in their anger, they wanted the Pakistan military to get involved in the Gaza situation, “We must do everything within our power to save Palestinian people of Gaza,” many of them said. I realized they didn’t have an iota of understanding of international politics and what it means for Pakistan to get militarily involved in a militarily situation some 3,000 kilometers away from home. 

So, I tried to explain to them the intricacies of international politics. I told them that at the military level Israel doesn’t pose any threat to Pakistan, despite all the mythical stories about Jewish conspiracies prevalent in our society. I told them getting militarily involved in Gaza would require a lot of money which we don’t have. And secondly, it would amount to showing red rugs to the bull. I also explained to them Pakistan’s security will be seriously endangered in case we get militarily involved in Gaza. I also explained to them that politically Pakistan is a lightweight country, and it doesn’t carry the required weight to get something done in a far off land. After explaining this, I asked them again, “Will you support Pakistan’s military involvement in Gaza even at the cost of endangering Pakistan’s security?” The group was unanimous in their answer, “How can we leave the people of Gaza alone? They (Israelis) will keep killing babies in Gaza hospitals.” They were furious. The intricacies of international politics appeared to them as useless rules that must be violated in this time of horror.

The lesson from Gaza reinforces the Pakistani masses’ already held deep seated prejudices against the western world, the United States as a superpower and the American led international order.

The situation in Gaza and Israeli atrocities are leaving a deep-seated imprint on the psychology of Pakistan’s people. In the days of fast changing media images, Gaza as an issue will vanish from the public’s imagination as fast it has occupied center-stage for now. I have little doubt though that it will permanently occupy a place in the subconscious of Pakistani masses for decades to come. The lesson from Gaza reinforces the Pakistani masses’ already held deep seated prejudices against the western world, the United States as a superpower and the American led international order. The majority of Pakistanis have little understanding of international politics, but they universally—at the grassroot level—share that prejudice that international order and system are unjust and essentially anti-Muslim. The way the Gaza situation has unfolded and the way Washington, London and Paris have supported Israeli atrocities against the people of Gaza have largely reinforced the Pakistani public’s prejudice against the international system. I will examine three aspects of international order which will be affected by the Gaza situation and which ultimately will have implications for the Pakistani state and society. 

Great power rivalries in the international system

Apparently, China is making inroads into the Middle East and the Saudi-Iran rapprochement is a high mark of this effort. The United States on the other hand has a heavy footprint on Middle Eastern soil as a major provider of security to the Arab states with the US military and security establishment having intimate relations with the security establishments of Arab states. The Abraham Accords, relating to normalization of relations between Arab Sheikhdoms and Israel, is the central policy tool Washington is using to push its political interests in the region. To isolate Iran and to contain its influence is the central objective of Washington’s foreign policy in the region and normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel is a crucial policy tool to isolate and contain Iran. 

The Chinese move to secure an agreement for resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran might not be solely aimed at scuttling Abraham Accords, but it certainly raised China’s stature in the Middle East. Experts, however, believe China still cannot match the depth of American influence in Arab capitals and their political establishments. Washington is the main provider of security to Arab states. Whereas Chinese footprints in the region are restricted to developing economic relations with the Arab world.

The main implication of the Gaza situation is that no Arab regime can afford to normalize relations with Israel. Whereas Chinese efforts to get the rival states of Iran and Saudi Arabia to resume diplomatic relations started to bear fruits when the Saudi Crown Prince and Iranian President exchanged views about Gaza in a telephonic conversation.  One of the main features of the existing international order is that it assigns management roles to superpowers. The permanent membership of five states in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is reflection of this principle. Out of these five, Washington has played an overly influential role in the management of disputes and conflicts in the international system in the post-Cold War era. The glory of the unipolar world has long passed for the United States however. But still, the Gulf War and the two wars post 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq largely showed that Washington is the world hegemon.

Now, the United States is adamantly supporting Israel in its atrocious military invasion of the helpless Gazan people. There are no signs that China will take this opportunity to challenge American influence in the Middle East in any decisive manner. The Chinese have shown their annoyance over the Gaza situation. But at the political and military level, it can hardly play any decisive role to prevent continuous atrocities in Gaza. Firstly, China is not a military brute and so far, we have not seen the Chinese militarily confronting Washington except in the South China Sea. Clearly, Washington has flexed its military muscle in the Gaza situation by sending aircraft carriers to the region. China didn’t do any such thing, rather it could not do any such thing as it doesn’t have any military presence in the region.  

Arab public opinion could now question the overly influential management role Washington plays in the Middle East. If public opinion in Arab streets turn violent at this stage, it could overturn the apple cart of American influence in the region.

China’s security relations with the states of the region are minimal. Its relations with Arab states are primarily of economic nature. Can China play any important role in relations to the Gaza situation? I think neither China nor any other extra-regional country can play a decisive role if the Arab states continue to remain silent spectators to the massacre of Palestinian in Gaza. Much will now depend on the outpouring of emotions on Arab streets. Arab public opinion could now question the overly influential management role Washington plays in the Middle East. If public opinion in Arab streets turn violent at this stage, it could overturn the apple cart of American influence in the region. 

Pakistan public opinion on the other hand could potentially turn violent—this is my understanding of the situation— if they clearly see a target. The Pakistani foreign policy establishment is, however, hardly gathering the courage to question the management role of Washington in the region. Pakistan’s ruling elite’s perceptions and interests are too closely associated with the edifice and network of American influence in the region. Otherwise, people here are deeply hurt by Washington’s dirty role in connection with the Gaza situation. 

The anarchy in the international system

Despite the fact that we are now living in the post-Cold War world of interconnectivity and integration, the international system is anarchic, where every state has to take care of its own security. Nobody, absolutely nobody, will come to defend an attack against you, this is the main lesson of the Gaza situation. Only a strong military deterrent can prevent an aggressor from attacking a state, whether that military deterrent is provided by an organized and conventional military or terror or militant organization will largely be an irrelevant question for the weaker parties in the international system which are closely watching the Gaza situation. The Pakistani state has believed and functioned on the assumption that nobody will come to its rescue in the face of a military attack, especially after the 1971 war.

The Pakistani military has dominated the security debate during the past fifty years and it has turned this assumption into the central principle of its security and foreign policy making processes. The Gaza situation will strengthen the belief in this principle and marginal voices, which in Pakistani society advocate for a change of heart, will completely lose the argument and debate.

What will be the practical manifestations of strengthening this belief? Only time will tell. One indication came when Pakistan flight tested the multiple warheads carrying Ababeel ballistic missile days after the Israeli claimed that their missile defense systems were more than 90 percent successful in shooting down Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israeli border cities and towns.

Gaza is a turning point. Public opinion in Muslim societies was never unanimously supportive of the American narrative on terrorism.

It is pertinent to mention here that Indians have shown interest in buying Israeli produced missile defense system named Iron Dome, and might already be in the process of integrating elements of the Israeli system into their own missile defense structures. The Indians claim to be on the path to make the Pakistani nuclear deterrent redundant with the deployment of an Israeli made missile defense system. Pakistanis, with the flight test of multiple warheads carrying Ababeel ballistic missiles, amply demonstrated that they have capacity to defeat the Indian missile defense system. A full-fledged arms race in South Asia is on. The managers of the international order, who in the past used to preach pacifist ideologies just to sell their non-proliferation messages across the world, would do a service to their cause if they just try to peep into the heads of those who are at the receiving end of Israeli atrocities. And also, into the heads of those in the region who are the potential next targets of the Israeli military. They must be dreaming about bombs - lots of them.

The Gaza situation and the definition of terrorism

Washington was quite successful in controlling the terrorism debate in Muslim societies in the wake of 9/11. Political and military establishments across the Muslim world supported the American narrative about terrorism, extremism and militancy in their societies. Some of the political establishments in Muslim states developed a narrative of their own, which nonetheless was supportive of American argument. Gaza is a turning point. Public opinion in Muslim societies was never unanimously supportive of the American narrative on terrorism. 

Intellectual and public opinion trends in Muslim societies clearly indicate that regimes in these countries will come under increasing pressure to part company with the American narrative. There is a possibility that regimes in Muslim societies might lose legitimacy if they continue to support the American narrative on terrorism. At least on an intellectual level, Muslim societies will have to develop their own definitions of terrorism, militancy and extremism, which should be distinct from hypocritical attitudes of western power toward violence emanating from the barrels of Israeli guns.

Lastly, I will quote a young girl amongst the group of female students I conversed with about the Gaza situation a few days back. She told us that the air in Gaza smells like musk—an odor that is emanating from the dead bodies of dead Palestinians, “they are all martyrs - they smell like musk,” she said, in a matter-of-fact manner, without an iota of emotions in her tone. “The Gazan air is not filled with the bad smell of ammunition and rotting cadavers, it is all smelling like beautiful sweet musk.” 

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.