Monday, August 20, 2007

OPINION: Historical grievances form barrier to peace

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the partition of the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan was created out of those regions of India (barring Kashmir) where Muslims formed the majority of the population, and was to be a homeland for Indian Muslims.

Exactly nine months after Pakistan was founded, European Zionists declared the independent state of Israel, the result of yet another partition.

Both Pakistani and Israeli writers have found comparisons between the political mythologies used to found these two nations. They argue Pakistan's founders campaigned only in terms of what could be described as Islamic Zionism, claiming Indian Muslims were a nation separate from the rest of India. Millions died in communal rioting leading up to the partition.

The political mythology of Pakistan runs deep in the psyche of most Pakistani migrants. To this day, relatives of my Pakistani-Australian father speak about the sacrifices of Pakistan's pioneers.

A particularly gruesome favourite is the image of the trains of death entering Lahore Railway Station, entire carriages turned collective coffins carrying victims of religiously inspired murder.

Ironically, today more Muslims live in India than Pakistan. Relatives and friends of my Indian-Australian mother frequently refer to this fact when arguing their case against Pakistan's creation at dinner parties.

Like Israel, Pakistan is now into its second and third generations of citizens. 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.

I was born in Karachi but was carried on to a cruise liner by my parents when barely five weeks old. I grew up with stories about the struggle for Pakistan, about its great wars for survival and the determination of its larger neighbour to wipe it off the map.

Members of my extended family saw relatives butchered in communal riots while trying to cross the border.

I also grew up learning very little about the 1971 war which led to the creation of Bangladesh out of what used to be East Pakistan. My Bengali friends tell me stories of atrocities committed by the Pakistani Army, while my Pakistani uncles often speak of nasty East Pakistani terrorists.
Pakistani expatriate communities across the world, consisting largely of wealthy professionals and businessmen, will be holding Independence Day gatherings this month.

The discussion at South Asian gatherings tends to revolve around three topics: religion, politics and cricket. In relation to politics, 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 the public discourse inside Pakistan.

To some extent, I can understand the fuss being created in Jewish community circles by Jewish critics of the Jewish state. 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 New York than in all of Israel.
Further, the kinds of uncomfortable debates being carried on in Jewish diaspora communities are mirrored by debates occurring within Israel.

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.

No doubt 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.

As the civilian death tolls in Lebanon and Gaza continue to climb, Jewish leaders insistent on blaming anyone other than Israel increasingly resemble my irrational Pakistani uncles who refuse to acknowledge the excesses of the Pakistani Army in East Bengal.

When Jewish leaders and communities across the Western world refrain from defending the indefensible, sending Israeli leaders a clear message that their moral and financial support is not unconditional, real positive change could well result.

Muslim communities also must change their attitudes. Many Muslims use the Kurdish general Saladin as an exemplar of Palestinian struggle. Yet even Saladin recognised the Crusader kingdoms and sent emissaries and ambassadors to them.

Saladin's brilliance wasn't limited to military tactics. He was a master negotiator with moderate views who sought to avoid war at all costs.

Of all Muslim communities, Pakistanis should be at the forefront of encouraging dialogue with Israel and its diaspora supporters. Pakistanis understand the insecurities that lead a community to insist on separate nationhood based upon ethno-religious identity.

Support for Palestinian nationhood need not involve refusing to recognise the reality of Israel's existence or rejecting dialogue.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and writer. This article was first published in the New Zealand Herald on Thursday 16 August 2007.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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