The newest spike in violence and oppression in Palestine by the Israeli state should stimulate deep reflection in all Muslim majority countries, none more so than in Pakistan.
The Palestine-Israel issue is not exclusively a religious war, and many may argue that it is informed by religion only at the periphery – it is an issue of human rights, the inalienable rights that should accrue to any individual or groups, merely for being part of the human race. Israeli settlers may believe they are staking a religious claim over Palestinian land, but they are engaged in a land grab. Palestinian Muslims may believe that they are dislocated from their homes and buried under the rubble of their apartment complexes exclusively because they are Muslim, but this would leave a gaping hole in our analysis of the suffering of Palestinian Christians.
So as far as the manner in which the Palestine-Israel issue plays out, and the factors that shape that dynamic, religious identity is a relevant but not exclusive factor. But what about the importance of Palestine on the Main Street in Muslim majority states like Pakistan?
Is there a metric through which the centrality of Masjid Al Aqsa to the Muslim imagination can be described accurately? Doubtful. The notion of the third holiest site in Islam doesn’t land well on ears that aren’t tuned to Islam. Indeed, we have seen a similar relatability problem emerge around narratives of blasphemy.
What is beyond doubt is that Israeli aggression at the Holy Mosque of Al Aqsa elicits a peculiar kind of response inside Palestine, around the world, and especially in Muslim majority societies. In this response, the coherence or integrity of Palestinian leaders, the hypocrisy and ineffectiveness of Muslim elites that govern their countries, and the technological, financial and military superiority of Israel and its backers all pale in comparison to the long-term sense of injustice and injury that any violation of the Al Aqsa complex stimulates.
This agony is not exclusive to the 21st century Muslim, and many secular individuals and institutions have argued and advocated powerfully for the cause. However, Al Aqsa itself holds an exclusive place among any and all politically conscious Muslims, anywhere in the world. Therefore, the sense of injustice and injury felt by Muslims, and in particular by young Muslims, are policy relevant for both Western governments as well as governments in Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan (for different reasons).
Western governments adopted terms like ‘violent extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ as appropriate framings for both individual and collectivized behaviour that sought to create political salience for Muslim grievances through violence, often grotesque violence, such as what was perpetrated on September 11, 2001. In recent years, as the scourge of disenchantment, powerlessness and desperation has consumed white majorities in the West, many Western thinkers and policy actors have sought to make terms like terrorism and violent extremism more inclusive, to cater to the growing domestic challenges they face from among their own dispossessed. But this accommodation doesn’t solve any challenges other than wokeness certification.
There are battlefields across the Muslim world that originate in the West’s efforts to ostensibly counter violent extremism and counter terrorism that do not exist in the West. Those battlefields stop being policy relevant for Western governments as soon as their troops disengage and depart from the arena – but they do not stop being battlefields. That is not how this kind of violence works.
Pakistan may be the most unique use-case for such violence in the Muslim world. It was not explicitly a battlefield in 2001, except that it really was. The political order in Pakistan was oft-stirred, but scarcely shaken, and its elite neither folded nor imploded. No country can compare its scar tissue with Afghanistan’s or Iraq’s – but even elites in Libya, Syria and Yemen can be forgiven for looking at Pakistan with a certain envy. Ironically, Western governments have a similar thirst when they look at Pakistan. Why? On battlefield Pakistan, the victor has been Pakistan. Not once, or twice, but now three times in this century alone. High-minded Pakistanis are often offended that the standards for this country are so low – but they do so with the luxury of the safety and security afforded to them by the very elite compact they lament – led by the operational capacity for fighting (and winning) that the Pakistan Army provides.
First, Pakistan successfully eliminated the threat posed by a conglomerate of dangerous anti-state terrorist groups led by the local Al-Qaeda affiliate, the cleverly named Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Second, it sought to demonstrably distinguish between violent extremists, and extremists that do not challenge the established order of the state. The best example of this subtle but important policy differentiation is the survival of leaders like Ahmed Ludhianvi and groups like ASWJ, and the decisive actions against groups like LeJ and elimination of leaders like Malik Ishaq. And third, Pakistan has – slowly but surely – squeezed the life out of UNSC Resolution 1267 listed groups like the LeT and the JeM.
All this winning has come at a profound cost to Pakistan – and this cost is above and beyond the economic damage of two decades of conflict, or the death toll from terrorism that Pakistan has suffered. Barelvi extremists, smarting from over a decade of post September 11 branding as softies, lucked upon a reset button known as Mumtaz Qadri, and have retooled and established a new dominance in the most vital of all battlefield arenas in the 21st century: the public discourse.
The norms of the national conversation in Pakistan are no longer shaped as they once were by communication gurus like Javed Jabbar or Mushahid Hussain, nor by folksy storytellers like Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, or even the evergreen ethnic nationalists across the spectrum of Pakistani ethnicities. The norms are now set by Barelvi leaders with no access to or roots in Pakistan’s elite. This garland of honour – being ‘non-elite’ – is worn by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) more expertly than any political group in the country today.
The TLP may or may not lean into events at Al Aqsa and across Palestine immediately – but the adoption of Palestine, and the full spectrum of political trigger points in the Muslim consciousness of Pakistani youth by a group like the TLP is inevitable. In Pakistan, this spectrum’s crown jewel is and will remain Kashmir. The analysis in which all these triggers are easily managed by the Pakistani state is dated and flat-out wrong.
For those that have been paying attention, the direction of the national conversation is one in which the Pakistani state has been playing catch up for some time now. No matter how potent a gaggle of sycophant news outlets and journalists may make any given officer of the state feel, the terms of religious nationalism are set not by men that constitute the elite, but by men with an unhealthy contempt for it.
The dismantling of the Oslo Accords and the beginning of the Second Intifada was triggered by Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in 2000. We were told then that this was domestic Israeli politics. Today, when Israeli troops fire munitions inside Al Aqsa, we read similar reprises of the domestic political compulsions of Benjamin Netanyahu. But the world that has consumed the scenes from Al Aqsa this past week is a very different one than Sharon’s.
Policymakers in Muslim majority nations cannot delve too much on Israel’s internal dynamics because there is a more urgent dynamic that the latest Israeli outrage at Al Aqsa and across Palestine is going to trigger. The profound potency of Palestine to shape domestic politics deep inside the Pakistani heartland will be ignored to the detriment of the Pakistani elites that sit atop the system. The challenge of positioning Pakistan as a ‘fortress of Islam’ for domestic audiences that require this validation, whilst simultaneously engaging Western allies of Israel in fruitful conversations about trade and cooperation, is a grand one. Even greater perhaps is the same challenge Pakistan faces with Western allies of India – the occupier and brutalizer of Kashmir.
Is a domestic political equilibrium to manage this challenge possible for the Pakistani elite without substantial reforms to the economic, political and social fabric of the country?