On Not Speaking of Palestine

Feb 2013

Pages 1 2 |  اردو

During the Israeli massacre in Gaza in 2008-09, a small group of U.S. scholars responded to the Palestinian call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel by launching the first national academic and cultural boycott campaign in the U.S., attempting to challenge the silencing of Palestinian rights within the U.S. academy. I also found myself working with a highly diverse Palestine solidarity movement in California, on and off campus, which included several Pakistani-American and South Asian activists. Many South Asian Muslim youth had faced profiling in the post-9/11 era, and Palestine activism subjected them to further scrutiny, surveillance, and censure.

That was my encounter with Palestine and Palestine solidarity activism before I arrived in Pakistan. After I arrived in Lahore with my husband, a Palestinian scholar, and met some left activists who were eager to launch a Palestine solidarity campaign in Pakistan, we dived eagerly into helping found Pakistanis for Palestine. Our platform called for Pakistanis to join the global solidarity and boycott movement and to also oppose the normalization of Israel in Pakistan at the level of state and also civil society. Young Pakistani left activists who were involved with the revived National Students Federation (NSF) were deeply committed to Palestine solidarity and included reports by Palestinian students in their newsletter. Many young leftists attended a talk on Palestine at the recently opened Café Bol in Lahore. The solidarity was palpable among these activists, and at other events we attended, such as a rally of peasants in Okara who were visibly moved by the presence of a Palestinian in their midst.

But, what shocked me during this campaign was something I had not anticipated, due to my inexperience with Pakistani politics till then: the latent and sometimes overt hostility to Palestine solidarity and sympathy for Zionist propaganda. Articles in the English media sometimes openly expressed admiration and even identification with the Israeli state and the Zionist movement, often making common cause with the battle against “Islamic militants” and suggesting that Pakistan look to it as a model of civilized nationhood and religious statehood. At the same time, I heard from liberal commentators in the media, and even from secular, left activists and intellectuals, the refrain that Pakistanis should not concern themselves with Palestine because there were domestic issues that needed attention, from Swat to Sindh and Balochistan. On some occasions, there were even racially tinged remarks about the problems of Pakistan being due to “Arabs,” tout court, which betrayed the resentment many felt against the importation of Saudi-sponsored Wahabbi Islam and perhaps the treatment of Pakistani migrant workers in the Gulf. Yet the conflation of Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states with Palestine—and the assumption that one could only either oppose Israeli colonialism or homegrown Pakistani brutality, by state and non-state actors—was puzzling and also troubling.

Activists in the newly founded Pakistanis for Palestine tried to critique this discourse. They pointed out that the violence and the assaults on sovereignty in both Pakistan and Palestine were sponsored and funded by the U.S. and that this necessitated a broader anti-imperial politics. The resentment towards Wahabbi Islam often conveniently ignored the role of the U.S. in supporting the most repressive regimes in the region, including Pakistan’s own, training and arming Islamist groups, and crushing the Pakistani secular left.

Yet, a neat and reductive, opposition allowed for a binary in Palestine solidarity among Pakistani “secularists” and “Islamists.” The Palestine cause had been hijacked expediently by Islamists over the years, I realized. Therefore, Pakistanis for Palestine had to work hard to try to reclaim Palestine as a left, anticolonial struggle by using a language of progressive and secular, rather than (only) religious, solidarity. This was part of the broader challenge of using a left, secular approach to oppose militarization, neoliberalism, and imperialism in Pakistan that would resonate with ordinary people, disillusioned and struggling in the current crisis.

I have come to realize that the issue of Palestine has a much broader significance for left politics in Pakistan, and more generally, for anti-imperial politics, globally. Palestine often becomes a convenient rhetorical tool in Pakistan, as elsewhere in Muslim societies and the Arab world, to unify disaffected masses by those voices—religious as well as secular–who do not always themselves engage in real struggle for the rights of people in Swat, Sindh, or Balochistan, or in anti-imperial politics more generally. The absence of a radical, left anti-imperial critique in the current moment makes it even more difficult to speak of Palestine in a society in which this critique has been marginalized and stamped out so that distinguished left Pakistani activists can openly support U.S. imperialism’s bloody yet “smart” wars. The racialized specter of the “Muslim terrorist” haunts us in every corner, from Gaza to Rawalpindi, and those who wish to distance themselves from it run so far in the opposite direction they fall off the cliff of Orientalism, succumbing to stereotypes of their own culture as inherently barbaric and in need of the West’s “humanitarian” wars.

Palestine, I came to realize, is often not about Palestine at all. Solidarity with Palestine is a site in which Pakistanis or South Asians more generally confront our own “others,” our own political and social concerns, our own worries about religion, secularism, imperialism, gender, and war. Our own absence of anti-imperial critique and our own nostalgia for the era of Arafat and Faiz, our own longing for a different kind of brotherhood and sisterhood.

This is what I learned from my comrades in Lahore, and in Ramallah where I live today. The Palestine question is a much larger question, and even if we are not speaking of Palestine, we must ask ourselves: what indeed are we speaking about and what is it we are fighting for?

Sunaina Maira is Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis.  She is the author of Desis in the House: Indian American Youth Culture in New York City and Missing: Youth, Citizenship, and Empire After 9/11. She is coeditor (with Rajini Srikanth) of Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North America, which won the American Book Award. 

Other articles >>

Help Tanqeed continue to bring you strong analysis and great journalism. Donate, so we can carry on the conversation.

Pages: 1 2 3 4

Tags: , , , , , , ,

7 Responses to On Not Speaking of Palestine

  1. […] our conversation series, we discuss the relevance of Palestine to the Pakistani left. Sunaina Maira discusses the Pakistan liberal antipathy to Palestine. Magid Shihade draws comparisons between his home, […]

  2. Sarah Schulman on Feb 2013 at 9:16 AM

    Thank you for this informative piece.

  3. […] […] I have come to realize that the issue of Palestine has a much broader significance for left politics in Pakistan, and more generally, for anti-imperial politics, globally. Palestine often becomes a convenient rhetorical tool in Pakistan, as elsewhere in Muslim societies and the Arab world, to unify disaffected masses by those voices—religious as well as secular–who do not always themselves engage in real struggle for the rights of people in Swat, Sindh, or Balochistan, or in anti-imperial politics more generally. The absence of a radical, left anti-imperial critique in the current moment makes it even more difficult to speak of Palestine in a society in which this critique has been marginalized and stamped out so that distinguished left Pakistani activists can openly support U.S. imperialism’s bloody yet “smart” wars. The racialized specter of the “Muslim terrorist” haunts us in every corner, from Gaza to Rawalpindi, and those who wish to distance themselves from it run so far in the opposite direction they fall off the cliff of Orientalism, succumbing to stereotypes of their own culture as inherently barbaric and in need of the West’s “humanitarian” wars. (Sunaina Maira) More here. […]

  4. karachikhatmal on Mar 2013 at 7:11 AM

    I’m sorry but this was quite an insulting piece, primarily because the main thrust of your argument – articles and comments by intellectuals – have not been provided anywhere as evidence of your rather preposterous claim.

    I’m going to leave aside arguing for the legitimacy of the debate over whether the Palestine issue is relevant or not. What I would say is that for the past six months, every time I go to work to teach at a government university there is a flag of Israel painted on the road there which I drive over. Such flags are present in many university campuses in Pakistan, meant to be walked over. While not condoning this act, its a pretty good barometer of how anti-Israeli sentiment is widespread, if not very well articulated or intellectually expressed.

    Moreover, for the past five/six years most of the political class as well as a sizeable part of the population have refused to acknowledge what has been a civil war in our country being carried out by many of our own citizens because they claim its all being carried out by Zionists/Mossad etc. Just one example of how an Israeli obsession has allowed many important issues to be sidelined.

    Really don’t understand what your experience has been like, but am staggered to hear of it.

  5. amna on Jul 2014 at 2:02 PM

    Hostility towards the Palestinian movement is a recent phenomenon in the Pakistani landscape.
    Two reasons :
    One apathy of our people, so some don’t want to open their eyes! They are simply not interested to investigate, so when they find others speaking out for a just cause and find themselves under moral obligation to take a stand they are quick to admonish the victims themself! for eg i have heard things as strange as “the palestinians called it upon themselves”…like they are not good people…… I countered them my reminding them what if their neighbors had committed such war crimes would we be bad people too then!

    The second reason of a recent change in dogma, is the Pakistan Army apologists. They need to justify the deaths being caused by offensives carries out with the consent of pakistan army and on american dictates within the region. I once had a talk with a then serving high ranking army official with whom my extended family was having dinner, with the intention ofcourse to creating awareness about the Palestinian issue in my extended family, his line astonishingly was that Israel is only defending itself…. I didn’t know much back then but now I know how else could they have justified all the dead civilians in drone strikes, f16 strikes and ground offensives within Pakistan. Pakistan army needs a change in leadership one that wouldn’t take dollars to kill.

    • amna on Jul 2014 at 2:26 PM

      Although I would like to add that many people now are acquiring awareness….. Now many people apart from Pakistan Army apologists have a genuine feel of the Palestinian pain…. Better than the pro Israeli high ranking Pakistan Army official I previously mentioned…
      BTW that army official has a son who when I was advocating for the Palestinian cause quite dumbly interrupted and said you talk like you care about the Palestinians a lot, what have you done ever for them, he sneered and sarcastically added I once added a vigil, and instructed me to shut up! He also added that why don’t you do anything about our people here, back then there was not much known about drones and state military oppression. Strangely when issues relating to Pakistan came in full vision that army officials son was still as apathetic about his fellow citizens.

      The lesson to learn here is that after attending a protest or a vigil remember the important thing yet remains, which is to create awareness, raise your voice, if u are unable to do that please kindly quit acting like a hypocrite in the vigil.

  6. […] solidarity with the Palestinians. These protests are especially welcome given the dismaying hesitation among some quarters of the Pakistani urban classes to support the Palestinian […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.