Deconstructing Antisemitism In Pakistan: How Radicalisation Changed The Society
There have been heated discussions on recent hate speeches of Prime Minister Imran Khan and PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz against each other in their election campaign in Azad Kashmir. In his speech, Mr Khan accused Nawaz Sharif, who went abroad in 2019 for medical treatment, of attending his grandson Junaid Safdar’s polo match in the UK. In his speech, Mr Khan told the crowd that a common man cannot play polo, “You need a lot of money to keep a horse and play polo. So, tell us where this grandson got this money from. It’s your [the people’s] money!”
The next day, Maryam Nawaz addressed his comments in her speech and said:
“Junaid is now the polo team captain and is increasing Pakistan’s respect abroad. Imran says ‘that grandson’ is going abroad and playing polo; he does not even spare children. He says, where did he get the money to play polo. I did not want to bring children into it, but the way you are talking, you will get a befitting reply. He is Nawaz Sharif’s grandson, not Goldsmith’s. He is Nawaz Sharif’s grandson; he is not being raised in the lap of Jews”.
Maryam Nawaz is not the first one who uttered anti-Semitic comments. Other politicians such as Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman have used anti-Semitic comments against Mr Khan in recent years too. Jews are commonly subjected to hostile rhetoric in the country, which overlaps with the antisemitic views prevalent throughout the Islamic world.
What is more problematic than the usual anti-Semitic comments by politicians is the society created by the ruling class in Pakistan, where such anti-Semitic remarks are sellable and call for analysis. The term “anti-Semitism” was originally coined in 1873 by Wilhelm Marr, a German political agitator in his work, “Victory of Judaism over Germanism”. His thesis was that Jews were conspiring to run the state and should be excluded from citizenship. The term found its context in the Muslim world, including Pakistan, when Israel was established in1948 as an independent state in the Middle East.
Interestingly, Pakistan was never traditionally antisemitic. It may surprise that Pakistan hosted small yet thriving Jewish communities from the 19th century until the 1960s. Yoel Reuben, a Pakistani Jew living in the Israeli town of Lod, whose family originated in Lahore, documented some of the histories of the Jewish communities with photographs of original documents. When India and Pakistan were one country, before the partition in 1947, the Jews were treated with tolerance and equality. According to a former Pakistani diplomat, Mr Wali-ur Rahman, about 2500 Jews engaged as tradesmen, artisans and civil servants lived in Karachi. By 1968, the number of Jews in Pakistan had decreased to 250; almost all were concentrated in Karachi, where there was only one synagogue, a welfare organisation, and a recreational centre. Most of them preferred to pass themselves off as “Parsees”, or Zoroastrians, due to growing intolerance for Jews in Pakistan.
Anti-Semitism has been induced in Pakistani society DNA because the state became ideology-driven, an ideology that excludes others. In schools, students are taught that Hindus are Kafirs (a pejorative) and Christians and Jews are enemies of Islam, liable to be killed for no other reason. The anti-Israel discourse manifests itself in the notion that Israel and Pakistan are ultimately in competition, and thus only one can flourish. In April 2008, Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, the former chief of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence, proclaimed that “two states came into existence in 1947 and 1948: one, Pakistan; two, Israel. The two are threats to each other. Ultimately, only one of them will survive.” Pakistan aligns itself with the Palestinian Muslim cause and rejects the United States insofar as it is allied with Israel.
Overall, the anti-Semitic sentiments are part of broader discourses of religious intolerance linked to the dilemmas of state formation in Pakistan. A major dilemma of our state has been that it bears imprints of the colonial legacy of a nation-state, and, on the other hand, its makers tried to give it the semblance of a medieval Islamic state. As a result, there has been a conflict of ideals. On one side, since Ayub Khan’s military dictatorship, the rulers followed the policy of laissez-faire. They emphasised that, through economic incentives, subsidies and foreign exchange endowments, a capitalist class could be created to save more capital for re-investment leading towards industrial development – an ideal of a colonial nation-state. However, on the other hand, Islamization and militarisation of the state were pursued—a necessity to create a permanent space for the military elite to rule.
While liberal and enlightened Muslim Leaguers, including Mr Jinnah, had envisioned Pakistan as a liberal constitutional Islamic state, the army looked at it as a mere successor state to the sultanate or Mogul Empire. Right from the beginning during the first decade, after independence, parliamentary government was interrupted, when governor General, Ghulam Mohammad, dismissed the parliament and nominated an unrepresentative body composed of bureaucrats, army officers, landlords and businessmen, to rule the country. The second time, the coup d’état effected in October 1958 was by a military dictator, completing the army’s dominance. To curb Bengalis, claiming to rule Pakistan as the majority province, Ayub Khan introduced ‘one unit’, transforming Pakistan comprising culturally and linguistically diverse provinces into one Islamic state. Such policy ceded East Pakistan and advertently or inadvertently enhanced the idea of religious purification. Such an idea was embraced by clerics such as Maulana Abul Ala Maududi and Shabbir Ahmed Usmani about how Muslims needed to protect themselves from the negative impact of non-Muslim culture on them. According to this view, the Islamic religion had set up a wall between believers and non-believers. By the time Mr Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had reigned power, Muslim clerics had become strong enough to influence him to constitutionally separate Ahmadis from the ranks of the Muslims as a gesture of the purification of the Muslim community in Pakistan.
Although the process of Islamization of the Pakistani state and society has a long history since the 1950s, it became the primary policy of General Zia-ul-Haq‘s military dictatorship. Zia-ul-Haq committed himself to enforce his interpretation of Nizam-e-Mustafa, i.e., establishing an Islamic state and enforcement of sharia law. He established separate Shariat judicial courts and court benches to judge legal cases using Islamic doctrine. New criminal offences (of adultery, fornication, and types of blasphemy), and new punishments (of whipping, amputation, and stoning to death), were added to Pakistani law. School textbooks and libraries were overhauled to remove un-Islamic material. Zia bolstered the influence of the ulama (Islamic clergy) and the Islamic parties.
Overall, the military has governed Pakistan directly or indirectly since the 1950s. However, the process of Islamization reached its height in the 1980s. Consequently, since the 1950s, the army’s role was conceived by it to be like the one played by Allauddin Khilji or Mahmood Ghaznavi, namely, defenders of the faith and the state. Moreover, the military establishment still promotes religiosity by sponsoring several radical religious organisations by bringing them into mainstream politics through their participation in the electoral process. One recent example of Tahreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) is particularly notable. Thus there is a long history of the discourses of political Islam promoting religious populism radicalising Pakistani society.
To conclude, a long historical process of radicalisation of the Pakistani state and society has created grounds for anti-Semitic and communal and sectarian sentiments within the society where politicians feel safe to accuse others of being stooges of Jews (and of course, Hindus as well). However, given the changing global political scenario vis-a-vis gulf countries, Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates combat Iranian influence in the Middle East are allying themselves to Israel. They are also influencing the Pakistani establishment to recognise Israel, posing a challenge for adopting such a policy due to the anti-Semitic social and political environment created by the ruling classes.
Dr. Nadeem Malik teaches at the Development Studies Program, School of Social and Political Sciences, The University of Melbourne