The above photo: New Delhi: Left leaders protest against Israel’s attack on Gaza at Parliament House in New Delhi on July 18. PTI Photo by Atul Yadav
Palestine is a pivotal cause for the Global left ummah. This support is a puzzle. It is certainly not the pre-eminent human rights crisis in our neighborhood or even in the world. Baluchs speak of thousands killed or made to vanish by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. The suffering of Bangladeshi Hindus that have endured an ethnic cleansing of a scale that has changed the religious demographics of Bangladesh similarly is not a cause for the Indian or the global left. The case of the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits has been repeated often. It is simply not about anti-Hinduism though. China’s brutal repression and genocide of Tibetan Buddhists is also not a big issue for the left. What is special about Palestine specifically and Islamists in general that the Left is so sympathetic to them?
The Chinese killed several hundred thousand Tibetans in their invasion and their cultural genocide continues to this date. Children were forced to shoot their parents, Buddhist nuns and monks were made to fornicate in public and shot. Buddhist nuns were raped on a mass scale. Dissidents were killed or brutally tortured. The process of erasing Tibetan language, culture and history continues today. What China did in Tibet and its continuingculture genocide is more relevant to India, closer to home and more brutal, yet it has not been a cause for the Indian left. It is also far more brutal than anything Israel did against Palestine. Even Arabs within Israel are provided the opportunity to study in Arabic-medium by the Jewish state.
We will not go into the specific merits of the Israel-Palestine conflict since that is not the central question here. Suffice to say that there are many human rights causes across the world that are relevant, actionable and far more egregious in scale from Sudan to Syria that do not get the Left worked up as Palestine does. While the Indian far-left questions the very existence of Indian nationhood, it is passionate about Palestinian nationalism. As an example, consider the Tweets of Kavita Krishnan, Secretary, AIPWA and Polit Bureau member of CPI (ML).
Firstly, linking Palestine to the colonial struggle for freedom is a bit far-fetched. Israel is not a prototypical colonial power. Not everything about the treatment of Palestinians is fair but Israel is hardly a representative of colonial exploitation. The creation of Israel was driven by religious zeal of the Promised Land. They did not set out to colonise or extort resources to be carted away. Secondly, it is not clear why the Balochs or Tibetans for instance deserve any less sympathy than Palestinians. Thirdly, despite Krishnan’s attempt to Indianise her stance, she is merely the echo chamber of the global Left, for which Palestine is a key cause. The question we keep returning to is why.
Simplistic India-centric arguments like vote bank politics, offered on Twitter in response to my question, do not work here. CPI-ML is hardly a major force in electoral politics. Also, Palestine is a cause not only of the Indian left, but of the global Left ummah as much as of the Muslim ummah, an alliance that, on first looks, is quite strange. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remarked to CNN:
“This is the strangest union you could possibly contemplate. Radical Muslims stone women, they execute gays, they are against any human rights, against feminism, against what have you. And the far Left is supposed to be for these things.”
Some commentators trace this alliance to the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in which the Left collaborated with Ayatollah Khomeini, ironically leading to the establishment of a repressive religious right state. Others point to the common hatred of the United States.
“One seemingly unlikely alliance that the socialist left has forged is its alliance with radical, fundamentalist Islam, which emphatically and unambiguously rejects virtually everything for which the socialist left claims to stand: the peaceful resolution of international conflict, respect and tolerance for other cultures and faiths, civil liberties, freedom of expression, freedom of thought, human rights, democracy, women’s rights, gay rights, and the separation of church and state.
There could be no stranger bedfellows than Western leftists and Islamic extremists. Yet they have been brought together by the one overriding trait they do share — their hatred for America; their belief that the US is the very embodiment of evil on earth and must consequently be destroyed.
Ghaffar Hussain, writing in the Guardian, also makes the case of the common enemy bring these unlikely friends together. “Islamists and the radical left have little in common apart from a hatred of the West.“ Of course, there are things in common between the leftists and the extremists. Both are totalitarian movements and both look at armed struggle as a key part to achieving their ends. And there is a reasonable argument that this temporary alliance is brought about by a common foe. Whenever Islamists or communist actually gain power in the state, they go back to the natural totalitarian state of suppressing each other, whether in Iran or in China.
But this passion of the Left for Islamists has deeper roots. (I say passion of left for Islamists, since the Islamists while happy with the alliance by and large do not reciprocate this passion and are more likely to regard the former as useful kaffir idiots). There are three lines of enquiry, which I would call preliminary thoughts as a starting point of further research.
Firstly, in Europe, the Christian Right was the principal opponent of the Left. Here Islam was used as a polemical argument against Christianity, with Islam being held up, for example, as less repressive of women than Christianity and more egalitarian. The former argument that Islam treated women better than Christians did, was true for a large part of history, while the latter, the idea of Islamic egalitarian is largely “reverse-engineered” onto Islam by the left. In practice, Islamic society hardly shows up as a model of egalitarianism anywhere in the world. Similarly, early Arab and Persian society had an intellectual culture, where Christians burned books of the pagan Greeks, Arabs managed to preserve them and their rediscovery was part of the European Renaissance. Finally, more recently, Edward Said’s “Orientalism” that questioned Western stereotypes of Islamic society played a part. Ironically, left academics have not sufficiently applied the lessons from Orientalism onto Western accounts of India and Hindu society as the “unchanging Orient” caught for millennia in a “static caste” order. All of this created a favorable sense of Islam in the European Left.
Secondly, the existence of Israel is deeply challenging to the Left ideologically. It has been pointed out that the Left largely ignores the brutal actions of Arab and Muslim dictators from Syria to Libya, in its condemnation of Israel. Strangely enough this comes from a residual Orientalism that patronises human rights violations in Arab society. This is because, despite the solidarity with Islam, Arab rulers are not counted among ‘people like us’ by the Left. Israel is a challenge because it is a modern democratic almost ‘European’ state, yet it is overtly religious. The Western world remains deeply Christian but it has a secularised veneer. Israel as a state founded on an unambiguously religious basis removes that veneer from Western modernity. Israel is more challenging to the Western left because it is a state by ‘people like us’ versus the Arab dictatorships. Yet, from its commune farming, to being both modern and religious, it creates an ideological challenge to Marx’s stages of history that move from theocracy to capitalism to communism. Thus its existence and actions are more galling than say China’s brutality in Tibet that fits into the Marxist teleology.
Finally, the Indian left largely toes the party line of the global left ummah, very little is original other than mapping Western categories to the Indian experience. In the case of Palestine, it is largely playing out the Western left’s angst about Israel. There is hardly anything original about Kavita Krishnan’s stand. The Indian traditions are mapped onto ‘religion’ that serves as an opiate of the masses that needs to be destroyed. The Chinese genocidal suppression of Tibet is similarly explained by the need to move Tibet from a ‘theocratic state’ to a modern one. However, these ideological blinders fail to interrogate China’s turn to capitalism and the large-scale inhumane treatment of factory workers by Chinese mega-corporations like Foxconn producing devices for even larger companies like Apple. Chinese workers, in tragic irony, are not even allowed to form independent trade unions to band together for their rights. So much for workers losing their chains.
Of course, the Left’s love affair with Islam is related, but not identical, to its support for Palestine. But the contradictions of Islamism and the supposedly ‘liberal’ values of the left, the Indian left’s wholescale embrace of Western conceptual models while decrying colonialism and its support of China despite the latter’s clear turn to capitalist inequality remain enduring research problems.
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