Brothers in hate

For two countries that sit on completely opposite sides of the existential spectrum, Pakistan and Israel have more in common than either would care to admit, writes Usman Ahmad

Brothers in hate
Before Pakistan’s own politics took over, the country was at the forefront of the protest movement against Israel’s offensive in the Gaza strip. Whether it be voices on social media sites like Twitter, street protests calling for the ‘death of Israel’, or government expressions of solidarity with the Palestinian people, Pakistan lived up to its reputation as in implacable enemy of the Jewish state.

But Pakistan’s rhetoric of support for Gaza was severely undermined by events at home. An attack on an Ahmadi neighbourhood in Gujranwala two days before Eid, in which five homes were burned to the ground and three people were killed including an eight-month old infant, exposed the country’s own heritage of violence and oppression. The Gujranwala incident was by no means an isolated case, rather it was the continuation of years of anti-Ahmadi persecution in which hundreds of members of the community lost their lives. Other denominational groups, like Christians, Shias and Hindus have also long suffered.

For two countries who sit on completely opposite sides of the existential spectrum, Pakistan and Israel have more in common than either would care to admit. This was most strikingly admitted by General Zia ul Haq who in 1981 remarked during an interview with The Economist:

‘Pakistan is like Israel, an ideological state. Take out the Judaism from Israel and it will fall like a house of cards. Take Islam out of Pakistan and make it a secular state; it would collapse.’

The seemingly odd pair, of course, have many differences. Their political structures are far removed from each other, with one a pluralistic democracy while the other oscillating between military dictatorship, theocratic republicanism and secular democracy. Their economic conditions, culture and international outlook bear little or no comparison and then there is the small matter of one being Jewish and the other Muslim. Be that as it may, there are still many very real and important parallels between the two.

[quote]Both were spearheaded by irreligious, western educated intellectuals [/quote]

To begin with are the many obvious similarities dating back to the time of the birth of both nations. The two states emerged from the wreckage of the Second World War, through the policy of partition that the British had adopted as the quickest route to de-colonization. The motives and sentiments which spurred the creation of each nation were deeply ideological and continue to shape them to this day. The movements which led to their birth were informed by ideas from the Enlightenment and spearheaded by irreligious western educated intellectuals who had more in common with the departing rulers than the citizens of the nation state they had forged into being. Both were fashioned by violent struggles for self-determination waged by religious minorities and eventually became home to large immigrant populations. Beyond the commonalities of the circumstances of their birth, Israel and Pakistan have over the six or so decades of their existence fought wars of survival, lived amidst hostile neighbours and grappled with questions of nationhood and national identity.

However it is the current landscape of both countries which forms the real crux of the comparison. Most principally their treatment of those whom they perceive to be a threat to their existence. In the case of Israel, the threat comes from Hamas, other dissident Palestinian groups and the wider Arab world. The severity of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza since the most recent conflict began is evidence of a growing hardline militarism which brooks no compromise. Thus far over 1300 Palestinian’s have been killed, the majority of whom were civilians, all in the name of Israel’s survival as a state.

In Pakistan the challenge is seen to come from foreign powers like India and the United States, or so the narrative goes, but it is not so easy for Pakistan to enter conflicts with ‘enemies’ such as these. The foundations of the country are thus preserved through the persecution of non-Muslim minority groups who are held up as a danger to the nation’s Islamic identity. To ward off this fictitious peril the state has enacted statutes such as the pernicious Ahmadi-specific laws and the Blasphemy laws which if followed through to the letter make the very possibility of freedom of thought and conscience impossible for anyone who is not a Muslim. Those who do not kow-tow to the whims of the majority are brutalised and many more suffer for having done no wrong in the first place. The government and authorities take no action as they are complicit in the affair and the general will would not allow it even if they wanted to, and so the cycle of violence never ends.

Both countries also suffer greatly from growing extremism. In Pakistan this has been largely fuelled by religious organisations and Islamic political parties who have come in from the cold to penetrate all levels of society.  They have been allowed to do this by successive governments playing the ‘Islam’ card for their own political ends. Though Pakistan was created as a homeland for Muslims, its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah told the fledgling nation in his address of August 11, 1947:

“You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed, that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

But Jinnah’s vision was soon cast aside and Islam featured prominently in the Objectives Resolution of 1949. Since then it has played an integral part in Pakistani statecraft. Pakistan’s first great era of Islamisation came with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto when religion was moved to the forefront of policy and law-making. It was in the Bhutto years that Islam was made the state religion and Ahmadis were disbarred from the Muslim ummah. The rule of General Zia essentially made Pakistan a theocracy in all but name and all subsequent national leaders have been forced to adhere to the precedents he set.

It is often noted that right-wing religious parties such as Jama’at Islami have never received any sort of mandate from the general populace. Even though this is true, their influence on the ideology of national discourse is absolute. Politicians, journalists and media personalities are always at pains to prove their Islamic credentials. When the prevailing views are challenged as when Salmaan Taseer spoke out against the Blasphemy laws they are silenced by the swiftness of an assassin’s bullet. Either that or they are made to recant their views. Witness how quick the supposed ‘great hope’ of Pakistan, Imran Khan was to denounce Ahmadis after the mere allegation that he was after their support in the last election.

Over the past several decades far-right extremism has also found its way into the heart of Israel’s national conscience. Unlike Pakistan where the fanatics are almost exclusively driven by religious ideals, Israel has succumbed to both religious extremism and a vehemently strident form of nationalism. This was most famously manifested in 1995 when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated for his role in the Oslo Peace Process. He was killed by a far-right law student who considered an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank a denial of the Jewish Biblical heritage. Many on the right supported the murder and certain ultra orthodox rabbis even gave it religious sanction. In the intervening years the far-right has only gotten stronger. Illegal settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are seen as defiant heroes doing their little bit for the land of Israel as support for the peace process dwindles by the day. The political scene has also seen teutonic shifts. Rightist politicians like Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennet have flourished with their hostile rhetoric and extremist views. In the past Lieberman has even gone so far as to call for excommunication of all Arab-Israeli citizens from the country.

The tragedies of Gujranwala and Gaza have brought into sharp focus exactly how radicalised both countries have become. In Pakistan the attack on Ahmadis was either greeted with an eerie silence or a shrug of indifference. Less than a handful of politicians condemned the atrocities while Mullahs like Tahir Ashrafi opined that the Ahmadis had brought this misery upon themselves. The violent mob who perpetrated the attack were caught on camera clapping and dancing as they took the lives of innocents. The Police who were present on the occasion did nothing except stand and watch.

In Israel those who voice their opposition to the assault on Gaza are beginning to face violent recriminations. A pro-peace rally was recently broken up in the normally liberal city of Tel Aviv by right wingers who attacked the protestors and raised slogans like ‘death to leftists’. Similarly, journalist Gideon Levy was attacked after writing an article which criticised Israeli pilots. Many other journalists like him have been subjected to death threats. In the news media there have been articles justifying genocide or calling for the obliteration of Gaza.

Hatred of Israel may be deeply ingrained in the national psyche of Pakistan, but the history and present state of the country overlaps with the former in more ways than is commonly recognised. Pakistan will no doubt continue to condemn Israeli excesses in Gaza, while championing the cause of its ‘brothers and sisters’ in Palestine. But it will do so without the weight of moral authority or legitimacy. Every time Pakistan denounces Israel, it denounces itself for it too veers down a similar course.

The writer is Senior Research Economist, PIDE. Email: