For all Pakistan’s frenetic diplomatic efforts and expressions of outrage over the conflict between the Hamas and Israel, the tenuous ceasefire between the two sides came as a result of Egypt’s quiet diplomacy and intermediation. While Egypt was playing a quiet and constructive role, Pakistan was indulging in diplomatic showmanship, in fact diplomatic one-upmanship, primarily aimed at domestic audiences and diplomatic dividends that Islamabad imagined will come with its strident advocacy of ‘Islamic’ causes. It appears that Pakistan has miscalculated and overplayed its hand, both at home and abroad?
Domestically, Imran Khan has got no real political boost by going ballistic over the whole Palestine issue. With absolutely nothing to show for back home, he has latched on to ‘Islamic causes’ – blasphemy against the Prophet, Palestine and Kashmir – to retain his following. In the process, he has rubbed the Pakistan Army the wrong way by sabotaging its efforts to try and normalise relations with India. The policy of stridency on the blasphemy issue has seen Pakistan isolated. Worse, the European Union has reacted quite strongly with an almost unanimous resolution passed by the European Parliament against the persecution of religious minorities and misuse of the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan. The EU is now considering withdrawing the GSP+ concessions given to Pakistani exports, something that will deal a body blow to Pakistan’s failing economy. On the Palestine issue, the Pakistani overzealousness could have serious adverse consequences – more on that in a bit. But the unkindest cut of all is that none of this has improved Imran Khan’s political standing back home. The Army is exasperated with his blundering ways. His own party is imploding. His allies are restive and the Opposition is baying for blood, what with new scandals erupting every day. The Pakistani street are seeing a surge of resentment with the rising inflation and joblessness.
Diplomatically, the Pakistani hysterics over Palestine could backfire. At one level, it has exposed Pakistan’s deep-seated anti- Semitism. The anti-Semitic trope of Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in his CNN interview is only the tip of the iceberg. Speeches in Parliament made by Pakistani politicians, including members of Imran Khan’s party, lauding Hitler, wishing for the extermination of Jews, suggesting that Pakistan should use its nuclear weapons to threaten Israel, calling for jihad against
Israel and Jews, have ripped the veil from the face of Pakistan and its ruling party. Incidentally, it is the same Imran Khan who has been bad-mouthing his Indian counterpart as a ‘Hitler-incarnate’ and a Fascist. But given the admiration that his party colleagues (more of a cult that follows Imran Khan) for Hitler and their openly professing admiration for the massacre of Jews by the Nazis, it seems the real kernel of fascism is budding in Islamabad.
Apart from Pakistanis revealing their real face to the world, the hysterics of Imran Khan’s government on Palestine has raised more than a few eyebrows, including in Pakistan. Many people are asking how come Imran Khan has been so active on the Israel-vs- Hamas conflict – raising diplomatic hell, sending his foreign minister on shuttle diplomacy to various Islamic countries to drum up support and forge a united Islamic response to Israel’s retaliation against Hamas rocket attacks – was so inactive after India annexed Jammu and Kashmir. After all, J&K is a Pakistan’s ‘jugular vein’ while Palestine is a land thousands of miles away. Why didn’t Imran Khan show similar zeal and commitment on Kashmir that he and his foreign minister have shown on Israeli actions in Gaza?
Perhaps the reason for Pakistan’ hyper activism on the Palestine issue is multi-fold, at the heart of which lies low political cunning masquerading as high diplomacy. Apart from an eye on domestic politics, Imran Khan is trying to position himself as a leader of the Islamic world, someone who doesn’t compromise on the so-called ‘Islamic causes’. This for long has been one of the pet obsessions of Pakistani leaders. But Imran Khan has taken it to the next level and in the process is stepping on a few toes. The fact is that unlike many other Islamic countries which have a natural, even historical claim, to leadership of the ‘Ummah’, Pakistan is more sort of side-kick that is recruited as and when required. Its claims for leading the Islamic world are hardly going to be taken seriously leave alone accepted. If anything, it will be seen as a gauntlet that Pakistan is throwing before countries from which it seeks financial and other economic assistance to stay afloat.
The Pakistani gambit is also going to rile, or at the minimum cause some amount of concern, in some important Arab countries. For one, Pakistan is once again making a joint front with Turkey to raise the Palestine issue. Last time Pakistan tried this, it made the Saudis and other important Arab countries like UAE furious and had serious diplomatic and economic consequences for Islamabad. A chastised Pakistan backed down and leaned over backward to assuage the Saudis. This time again, just a couple of days after Imran Khan’s visit to Riyadh, he has joined Turkey and a couple of other Islamic countries to make the Islamic bloc take positions that many of the Arab countries are not comfortable with and which undermine their strategic interests.
Secondly, the harsh stand taken by Pakistan is also a not- so-subtle way of shaming the Arabs into action. At the very least, the way Pakistan is trying to amplify its call for united action is going to be embarrassing for some of the Arab countries which are taking a more nuanced stand. Within Pakistan, the Arabs are being disparaged and derided for not going on the war path and for behaving like normal states protecting their interests on highly emotive issues like blasphemy or political issues like Palestine and Kashmir. The propaganda campaign against the Arab states in Pakistan’s controlled media should raise alarm bells but also wake up the Arabs to the ungrateful nature of Pakistan which seeks doles and debt relief from the Arab world but then reserves the most vile and contemptuous comments for these very same benefactors.
Third, and more dangerously, the narrative Pakistan is trying to build could agitate the Arab street and create anger against Arab governments. The constant airing of lurid and often fake or manipulated images can lead to some people taking to terrorism in Arab countries, either against their own authorities or against Jews and Israelis in these countries. In fact, it was fear of such nature that made UAE suspend all visas to Pakistanis after it normalised relations with Israel. There were intelligence reports of Pakistanis in UAE, or Pakistani terror groups in going to the UAE and targeting Israelis. The calls for jihad against Jews and Israel could stoke terrorist attacks in these countries by Pakistanis or Pakistan-inspired terrorists.
The dangerous escalation of Pakistani rhetoric is aimed not just against the Arab states but also against Europeans and the US. While the US has for long been an object of love and hate in Pakistan, the Europeans are now being issued veiled threats. Speaking in the Pakistani parliament, Foreign Minister Qureshi pointed to 65 million Muslims living in Europe and said that European countries should understand that there will never be any peace in Europe if it doesn’t act against Israel. This was a subtle way of warning, even threatening; European countries that they should be prepared to pay a price for their silence and support for Israel. The fact that like in the Arab states, there is a fairly large Pakistani diaspora in a number of European countries and many of these people have been found linked to radical Islamist groups and even some terrorist groups should shake Europe out of its slumber on the threat that Pakistan could come to pose to their security and their sovereignty.
For Imran Khan, this stridency is aimed not just for protecting his political fortunes and enhancing his image in the Islamic world, but also a fall-back excuse in the event of his ouster. The way Imran Khan sees it, if his government falls, he will go to town and claim that it was an international conspiracy and the usual suspects Hindu-Jewish-American lobby will be blamed for orchestrating his removal from office because he took up the Islamic causes. But beyond Imran Khan, what the Arab world and the Europeans need to worry about is the long term impact of the template that is now being adopted against them in a nuclear armed, highly radicalised country, like Pakistan.