Saturday, May 03, 2008

OPINION: Pakistan has a key role in Middle East conflict

Pakistan must get Israel and Palestine to talk, writes IRFAN YUSUF

Here's a short history quiz. Name a country founded in the late 1940s from British-administered lands and established on the basis of ethno-religious identity for a group who regarded themselves as a nation separate to their host nation.

Believe it or not, there are two correct answers. Stranger still, these two countries declared their independence exactly nine months apart. The parallels aren't exact, but the exercise can suggest interesting conclusions.

Israel, the world's only modern Jewish state, declared its independence on May 14, 1948. Exactly nine months earlier, the new nation of Pakistan, founded as a homeland for Indian Muslims (or "Mussalmanoh" in Urdu/Hindi) declared its independence.

Pakistan was created out of those regions of India (save Kashmir) which had Muslim majorities. One could argue that the political mythology underlying Pakistan's creation almost exactly matches that of Israel. Pakistan's founders promoted a kind of Indian Muslim Zionism, claiming Indian Muslims were a nation separate from the rest of India.

The respective political mythologies of Pakistan and India run deep in the psyche of most South Asian migrants. The result for the children of both sets of migrants is often boring Sunday afternoon lunches where kids are forced to watch their parents trying to reinvent history. A gathering of Indian and Pakistani Muslims almost always involves a heated discussion on whether Pakistan should have been created.

Indian Muslim expats question Pakistan's political mythologies, while Pakistani expats express outrage at Muslims expressing such virtual sacrilege. Strangely enough, such sacrilege manages to find its way into newspaper columns and TV talkshows inside Pakistan. It seems the expats have greater resistance to such debates than the relatives left behind.

Israel and its diaspora supporters are also into their second and third generations. For these children and grandchildren of independence, the political mythology used to justify the creation and continued existence of their nation is no longer so sacred as to be beyond question.

Still, I can (at least try to) understand why so many Jews feel strongly about Israel.

The fact is that Israel has become central to Jewish identity, especially in Australia, which has the highest proportion of Holocaust survivors outside Israel. For many such survivors, Israel represents a kind of emotional insurance policy.

Yet, just as more Muslims live in India than Pakistan, more Jews live in the United States than in all of Israel.

The views of younger Jews critical of Israel may be uncomfortable for Israel's older supporters. Yet such arguments are happening inside Israel itself. Inevitably they will filter into the diaspora communities.

In the years leading up to 1947, many prominent Indian Muslims opposed partition. They argued Indian Muslims were not a separate nation needing a homeland separate from India and believed the idea of Pakistan was an attempt to impose ethno-religious nationalism on the region.

Similar arguments were used by Jewish opponents of Israel. Indeed Australia's first Australian-born Governor-General, Sir Isaac Isaacs, was opposed to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. He argued that such a state could not be created without displacement of hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples and would cause unnecessary tension between the Jewish and Islamic worlds.

In mentioning this, my purpose is not to re-visit the issue of Israel's right to exist.

Muslims who insist Israel has no right to exist are deluding themselves. Such claims enter the realm of hypocrisy when expressed by Pakistani Muslims.

If real and lasting peace is to occur in the Middle East, both Jews and Muslims need to re-assess their respective political theologies.

Jewish spokesmen insistent on defending each and every Israeli action in Gaza and other areas where the Israeli Defence Forces have been occupied are beginning to increasingly resemble my irrational Pakistani uncles who refuse to acknowledge the excesses of the Pakistani Army in East Bengal.

At the same time, it baffles me why so many Muslim countries refuse to recognise Israel's existence. Many use the issue of Palestinian human rights and sovereignty to justify their position. Of all Muslim countries, Pakistan should be at the forefront of encouraging dialogue with Israel and its diaspora supporters. Pakistanis understand at least some of the insecurities that lead a community to insist on separate nationhood based upon ethno-religious identity.

I hope it doesn't sound too simplistic to suggest that support for Palestinian nationhood and human rights need not involve refusing to recognise the reality of Israel's existence. If anything, dialogue should be founded on mutual recognition. A saying common to Arabic and Hebrew can be roughly translated as: you can't clap with one hand. Those who refuse to recognise the rights of both Israel and Palestine to exist are just not serious about peace.

(Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and recipient of the 2007 Allen & Unwin Iremonger prize for public interest writing. This article was first publihed in The Press of Christchurch, New Zealand, on 30 April 2008.)

UPDATEI: Reader WS provided this feedback on the article ...

I can't resist a couple of comments. What you say about Australian Jews is at least as true of of American Jews. I have long held that Israel is the only thing that holds American Jews together; it is the only thing almost all of them can agree on. As for the current generation questioning the myths, that is true within Israel but not in the diaspora in my experience.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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