Pakistan Reader# 143, 1 December 2020
Pakistan has chosen a risky path. On the one hand, the country has been strongly opposing the European governance, which calls for freedom of speech, and it has criticized the US for its Middle East policy over the last year. On the other hand, Pakistan is yet to deal with its own internal divisions and externally; it is drifting away from the traditional Ummah led by Saudi Arabia.Apoorva Sudhakar
On 28 November, the Foreign Office of Pakistan announced that the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) had adopted a Pakistan-sponsored resolution against Islamophobia. The resolution called for designating 15 March as "International Day to Combat Islamophobia." Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi remarked that the OIC's decision to pass the resolution reflected "the sentiments of billions of Muslims who respected other religions and expected similar respect for Islam and the Holy Prophet." ("OIC adopts Pakistan's resolution against Islamophobia," The Express Tribune, 28 November 2020)
Similarly, Pakistan claimed to speak on behalf of the Islamic world after French President Emmanuel Macron, in the backdrop of the beheading of Samuel Paty, criticized extremism and called Islam religion in crisis. On 25 October, Prime Minister Imran Khan said Macron's criticisms of Islam were a result of his ignorance. He said, by blaming the religion instead of "terrorists who carry out violence, be it Muslims, White Supremacists or Nazi ideologists," Macron was encouraging polarisation and marginalization; this would lead to radicalization. According to him, Macron provoked his own citizens and hurt the sentiments of millions of Muslims in Europe and across the world through this statement. (Mumtaz Alvi, "Macron hurt Muslims' sentiments across the globe: PM," The News International, 26 October 2020)
However, this is not the first time Pakistan reacted to incidents related to Muslims in the West. Similar to the Tehreek-i-Labbaik protests in November 2020 demanding severing of diplomatic ties with France, protestors took to the streets in 2015 too with the same demands after the Charlie Hebdo incident. In 2015, Pakistan's National Assembly adopted a resolution against the caricatures published in the Charlie Hebdo magazine. During the time, Imran Khan urged the OIC to address the matter because the "West views religion differently than this region." (Mateen Haider, "NA adopts resolution against blasphemous Charlie Hebdo cartoons," Dawn, 15 January 2015)
Further, Pakistan has also condemned foreign policies of the West which affect Muslims. In recent times, Pakistan's vocal criticism of the US' Middle East policy regarding Palestine is one such example. Amid speculations that Pakistan would succumb to external pressure to follow the UAE and Bahrain approach towards Israel, Imran Khan reiterated that Pakistan would not recognize Israel unless a just, two-state solution is charted.
The larger question is, are these outcries a manifestation of a longstanding anti-West sentiment, or, does Pakistan really see itself as the saviour of the Muslim world?
Pakistan: anti-West or anti-American?
The current anti-West emotion in Pakistan has its roots in the anti-American wave in the late 20th century. According to scholars, the anti-American wave was on the rise after the US did not help Pakistan in the 1971 war. However, this was more of a pro-Soviet phenomenon than an anti-US one. Unlike the current situation, religious parties and militant Islamic groups did not perceive the US to be a threat bigger than communism. However, the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto by Zia-ul-Haq, who was backed by the Regan administration, started deepening the anti-US sentiments across Pakistan; it continued well into the 1980s during the Afghan war and post 9/11 attacks. Now, religious groups came out stronger against the US.
According to a defence analyst, "this post-Cold-War version of anti-Americanism in the country is an emotional response of most Pakistanis to the confusion that set in (in the Muslim world) after the 9/11 event." (Nadeem F Paracha, "Anti-Americanism in Pakistan: A brief history," Dawn, 14 November 2014)
Therefore, Pakistan has a deep-seated sentiment against the US. What, then, is the reason behind the current criticism against the West, especially towards Europe? Pakistan, since decades, has had a cordial attraction towards Europe. It is easier to look at the current situation from the prism of political developments in the Muslim world.
Politics in the Muslim Ummah
There is a growing divide in the Muslim Ummah between Saudi Arabia and its allies and the rest of the Muslim countries. The Ummah encompasses a pan-Islamist concept and the leader of the Ummah benefits "huge political and strategic value in regional and global politics." Till date, Saudi Arabia has been the leader of the Ummah, with strong contention from Iran. However, with dramatic changes in the Middle East, the Ummah is at crossroads. For example, the US Middle East policy in 2020 has resulted in shifting policies in the Arab world with regard to Israel. While the UAE and Bahrain have realigned their policy to recognize Israel, they have borne the accusations of betraying the Palestinian cause. Most opinions in media outlets express that the two countries would not have implemented the decision without a nod from Saudi Arabia. (Muhammad Amir Rana, "Changes in the Muslim world," Dawn, 23 August 2020)
While Pakistan firmly reiterated its support to Palestine, it took the opportunity also to reaffirm its growing affinity with Turkey who strongly opposed the normalization of ties with Israel. While Pakistan previously aligned with the Saudi Arabian camp in the Ummah, there is a deepening divide between the two as Pakistan leans towards Turkey. In recent events, Pakistan appreciated Turkey's decision to declare Hagia Sophia as a mosque and also supported Azerbaijan, which is backed by Turkey in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Turkey, since the latter half of 2020, has been assertive in the region, thereby drawing flak from Arab countries.
In all the above situations - whether to prove a point to the West or to realign its Arab affiliations - Pakistan is trying to find its identity. For example, one reason why the Turkish serial Ertugrul, personally endorsed by Imran Khan, found a massive audience in Pakistan is that the country has been facing an identity crisis since decades. The civilian and military elites have attempted to promote Islamic identity. Recent rallying for the larger Muslim cause could be an indicator that "Pakistan moving away from the larger South-Asian ethos and seeking an identity in the Arabian sands." (Lakshmi V Menon, "Pakistan is smitten by the 'Ertugrul', a Turkish TV Series: Will it bite them in the long run?" Pakistan Reader, 15 September 2020)
The paradox in standing up for Muslims
While it is appreciable that Pakistan is coming out in support of Muslims in the US, Europe and the Middle East, it is necessary to conduct a reality check. Pakistan's longstanding geostrategic and economic partner, China has been committing human rights violations towards the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. However, Pakistan is far from condemning China; there are no rallies to severe ties with China; there are no remarks that Chinese leaders are provoking the sentiments of their own citizens. The selective criticism hurts Pakistan's own narrative of standing up for the Muslims. Internally, Pakistan has deep sectarian divides; targeted attacks against Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslims continue. Will Pakistan address these issues, or are they too volatile to be touched? Time and again, these issues have been shelved. Then, who is Pakistan then rallying for?
Pakistan has chosen a risky path. On the one hand, the country has been strongly opposing the European governance, which calls for freedom of speech, and it has criticized the US for its Middle East policy over the last year. On the other hand, Pakistan is yet to deal with its own internal divisions and externally; it is drifting away from the traditional Ummah led by Saudi Arabia. In either case, there is no win visible for Pakistan on the horizon at the moment. As Pakistan has already chosen to walk this dangerous path, it may as well-tread carefully.
About the author
Apoorva Sudhakar is a research assistant at the "Pakistan Reader", at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore. She is a part of the Editorial team that publishes "PR Evening Brief", a daily e-alert on Pakistan. Her research focus includes issues relating to environment, gender, minorities and ethnic movements.