The Practice of International Solidarity

Jul 2014

Credit: Visualizing Palestine.org | An Ongoing Displacement

Credit: Visualizing Palestine.org | An Ongoing Displacement

On July, 19, 2014, an estimated 100,000 people marched from London’s bureaucratic center, Downing Street, to the Israeli Embassy to protest Israel’s illegal occupation and attack on Gaza. The moment was definitive. A substantial part of Central London came to a complete standstill as the protest blocked oncoming traffic. The marching protestors spilled from the main roads onto the sidewalks, chanting “Free Gaza, Free Palestine” in unison for three hours as they made their way to the embassy.

The protest in London was not the only international demonstration to take place this month. From New York to Santiago, and Tunis to Jakarta, people from various places around the globe stood in solidarity with the people of Palestine. The demonstrations, especially those in the Western metropolises, witnessed a mixed gathering of various nationalities. Yet, each protestor had a clear set of demands. They wanted to bring a halt to the ongoing bombings in Gaza and an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

International demonstrations such as these are necessary and symbolic. They are a means to express dissent—not only against the perpetrators of genocidal violence, but also against other governments that are complicit in this violence. Yet, such protests also give rise to difficult questions regarding the meaning of solidarity, and our role in it: We show support for those who suffer in Palestine, but what about those who suffer in our own countries?

The meaning of solidarity

The act of a large group of people assembling on the streets is pregnant with meaning. Philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler argues that when people make an appearance in a public space, they question the legitimacy of the state. These protesters demonstrate their right to existence, which often comes into direct confrontation with the state’s military forces. In resisting military force and continuing to protest, protesters articulate their persistence, and their right to persistence.

This is precisely what Palestinians do when they protest: They take to the streets and resist Israeli forces that want to crush their right to exist. But, when people from other countries start to protest on the behalf of Palestine, the meaning of solidarity becomes more slippery. In Pakistan, an individual might stand on the street, or post on social media, as a public show of solidarity with Palestine, but rarely notice similar acts of violence happening around them.

There is a tendency nowadays to reduce concerted action to that one day when people gather in resistance. However, politics of the street and acts of solidarity are in fact not limited to one event in space and time: Resistance is a process of reflection, and solidarity is one of ongoing connections. Accordingly, it ought to continue across geopolitical and geographical boundaries until it reaches the politics at home and force those who stand in solidarity to critically reflect on the values they hold there.

Nandoona, a displaced Waziri, spent three days, and two nights walking after the Pakistan Army started its aerial bombardments.

Nandoona spent three days, and two nights walking after the Pakistan Army started its aerial bombardments.

Pakistanis are protesting against the injustices of Israel’s long-running occupation of Palestine and the latest assault on Gaza, as well they should. Israel’s racism and its brutal occupation of the Occupied Territories is correctly a cause for concern globally, signifying a vile colonialism. When Pakistanis protest, they join people the world over who are expressing 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 cause.

But, the demonstrations should also become an occasion to reflect on the politics at home and the Gaza-like circumstances within our own borders. Take, for instance, the ongoing operation in North Waziristan, which, like Gaza, is considered by establishment forces as another “hub of militants.” Where Gaza is a bed of civilian casualties for the dissenting Pakistani, Waziristan is a bed of terrorists. Even with the displacement of about 900,000 people, it has still been difficult for Pakistanis to fathom that Waziristan could also hold a civilian population. There have been casualties in North Waziristan that include women and children; yet, the overwhelming response is a celebration of the violence, rather than a condemnation of another armed assault.

Another striking example of an occupation within Pakistan is Balochistan. As equally removed from the public imagination as North Waziristan, this is the place where the “enemy of the state,” in the words of the government, blows up gas pipelines and opposes development projects that could bring in billions as revenue. Mineral rich, yet dirt poor, the whimsical Baloch disrupts Pakistan’s road to progress. Mama Qadeer’s countrywide Long March invited marginal solidarity, and Lateef Johar’s hunger strike generated similarly low levels of response. Zar Jan’s protest against the disappearance of her husband and the Baloch Student Organization–Azad chairperson, Zahid Baloch, outside the National Press Club in Islamabad, was barely recognized by the Pakistani populace or the media. Any questioning of the legitimacy of the army’s involvement in the province is mostly silent, and news of enforced disappearances falls on deaf ears.

“But they are not the same”

The common retort to a comparative analysis between Gaza and parts of Pakistan is that the occupation in Gaza is not the same as the operation in North Waziristan and the insurgency in Balochistan. True, each of these conflicts have their own contexts: In North Waziristan there is a war against Islamist forces, while in Balochistan there is a separatist movement. And true, they are incomparable to Gaza in terms of systematic subjugation and geographical immobility. Yet, it is essential to see that these places are similar in the particularly oppressive ways in which the state deals with them. “Operation” and “insurgency” are different words that the state uses to cover up its oppression towards a group of people.

This oppression is evident in the ways that the Pakistani state and its military forces have, to the best of their abilities, made the people living in Waziristan and Balochistan immobile. It is comparable to the way that the Israeli state has marked out the Gaza strip, and created a wall around what it calls a “breeding ground of militants.” Both the ground and air in North Waziristan and Balochistan are conflict zones; the airspace is littered with jets and drones, to combat the “enemy”. The landscape is dotted with barracks and police stations, where civilians have to constantly give proof of their identity to show that they are not terrorists. In this boxed-off zone, fleeing an assault also becomes increasingly difficult. The internally displaced persons or IDPs from North Waziristan, for example, were initially barred from entering Sindh and Punjab.

Mahrang Baloch describes her father's kidnapping by the Pakistani state.

Mahrang Baloch describes her father’s kidnapping by the Pakistani state.

In terms of subjugation, the Baloch have for many years claimed that they are not given their due share of their land and resources. Last year, Baloch nationalist groups asserted that the Gwadar Port was handed over to a state-run Chinese firm without their consent. Economic subjugation is rampant in Balochistan—sixty years of Pakistan’s history is evidence to that. Yet, there is a tendency to disregard their opposition as anti-development, violent and backward. Furthermore, people from North Waziristan in particular, and FATA in general, are subjugated by the state in the most basic of ways: Pakistan refuses to grant them full citizenship. In other words, some Pakistanis hold more privileges over others, just as Israelis hold more privileges over Palestinians. Acts of solidarity need to address and recognize the complicities one enjoys over the suppression of others.

Another rebuttal to comparisons between Gaza and certain regions of Pakistan lies in the defense of Hamas’ violence against Israel. Pakistanis contend that Hamas is a force that came into being due to the violence of the Israeli state. However, one can see similar histories of violence of the Pakistani state. Glancing into accounts of Baloch history – accounts that do not commonly reach the mainstream – one can see that the resistance in the province dates back to the year 1948, when Pakistan annexed the Kalat state. Since then, there have been three more spates of violence, each brutally quelled by the state’s armed forces.

In Waziristan, the ongoing violence is rooted in imperial history. The tribesmen here were bombed by the British during the 1920s and 1930s, when they rebelled against the colonizers. These tribesmen had initially been empowered by the colonial regime to protect the colony’s borders from Russian forces. During the Cold War, the militias in FATA were trained by US and Pakistani forces to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Since 9/11, however, our perceived enemy has changed, and there have been at least six operations on the part of the Pakistani state to “combat terrorism” in the region, in addition to the continuing drone strikes carried out by the United States.

When examining these instances of violence, it is useful to remember the words of Frantz Fanon, a seminal thinker in post-colonial thought, who argued that violence on the part of the colonized is a form of liberation and catharsis after many years of subjugation. Neocolonial forms of subjugation are still very much part of our modern-day world, and therefore, it can be worthwhile to consider much of today’s violence through this lens. Individual acts of violence that take up narratives of national liberation or particular views of Islam, as in the case of Balochistan and North Waziristan, need to be seen in a larger context of state structures that perpetuate violence through their frequently oppressive forms of governance. It is in this way that solidarity can become a practice of connections.

Solidarity in remembrance

Through the slogan, “You don’t need to be a Muslim to support Gaza, you need to be human,” protesting Pakistanis are right to point out religion is not relevant to the question of solidarity with Gaza. But, we should extend this analysis to Pakistan itself. In the national imagination, the Baloch seem less Muslim because they demand separation from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Pakistanis stereotype people from Waziristan as tribal militants, not quite the good Muslim subject the state wants to shelter. In both cases, public perception seems to be that the Baloch and Waziris stand low on the hierarchy of being human, and hence, their deaths do not garner an emotive response.

All of this is not to make the tired point that Pakistanis are being contradictory in protesting one injustice and not another. Such arguments are usually made by states in power, like Israel, to deflect attention from their own actions. The fact is no state is free from injustices happening at home, but those injustices do not automatically invalidate the concern people may show for certain forms of oppression elsewhere.  It is important to highlight however that for solidarity to become truly transformative requires a lot more than just the occasional appearance in a public space to protest. It requires questioning and confrontation of our own normalized beliefs, so that the tomorrow we are demanding is more just, not only in Gaza, but everywhere.

Zehra Husain is studying Political Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. 

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15 Responses to The Practice of International Solidarity

  1. TQ Chāt | # 14 | Tanqeed on Jul 2014 at 5:02 PM

    […] The Practice of International Solidarity by Zehra Husain. […]

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