WASN’T BENJAMIN NETANYAHU going to extend “Israeli sovereignty” to 30 percent of the West Bank, beginning July 1? Well, July 1 came and slipped quietly away, but the Israeli prime minister didn’t annex an inch of the Palestinian territory.
What has happened to his plan?
Rabbi Sharon Brous tells us what has. An influential leader of American Jews, she indicated that wiser Jewish views drove home to Netanyahu that annexing a large chunk of Palestinian land would be “catastrophic” to Israel. Writing in the online newspaper The Forward, the Los Angeles rabbi said that these Jews are worried that taking in 30% or even less of the West Bank with its large Palestinian population would whittle away Israel’s Jewish culture and democratic institutions.
Her argument touched a chord in me as I have been exploring in my political memoir if or how a liberal democratic state can handle cultural pluralism. Western democracies don’t face the problem because they are mostly white-Christian cultural monochromes. The democratic process in these countries turns up governments that represent the bulk of the populations and their values and cultures, and government policies don’t alienate or estrange significant segments those societies.
In Pakistan, where I lived many years, the first nationwide democratic elections in 1970 triggered a secessionist movement that led to the breakup of that country and the rebirth of its Bengalee-inhabited eastern province as independent Bangladesh. In
neighboring India, where I was born, the last two elections have produced a
virulently anti-Muslim government, whose policies and actions have endangered the rights and cultures of 200 million Indian Muslims. Mind you, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government was elected in 2014 and reelected in 2019 by large majorities of
Indian Hindus, who make up 83 percent of the Indian population.
Liberalism has given us freedom and democracy. The two concepts can, and often do, clash in multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies, as they have in Lebanon, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, Pakistan and elsewhere. Democratic elections in those countries have often threatened the freedoms of their minorities. The agony of liberal democracy has been aggravated by the rise of people’s consciousness about their faiths and cultures. More and more people are voting for their ethnic and religious interests, leading to violence between rival ethnic and cultural groups.
In Israel, gone are the days when secular socialists ruled the country. The last several elections produced right-wing Jewish governments that are gobbling up the lands of Palestinian Muslims, threatening their lives and culture. Rabbi Brous and other cool-headed Jews are worried that Israel’s further expansion would dangerously enlarge and stimulate Israel’s Palestinian Muslim subculture that could destabilize the Israeli state and society. This ties into a theme I am trying to tackle in my memoir: Does majoritarian democracy fit societies with robust, incongruent cultures?
Brous reminded me of an encounter between a Pakistani diplomat and a Pakistani politician I witnessed in New York decades ago. I was covering a U.N. General Assembly session in New York for the Pakistan Observer newspaper, published from Dhaka, now the Bangladeshi capital. On the evening of Oct. 9, 1971, I got a bombshell of a scoop. Over dinner in his kitchen in Washington, the departing Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Agha Hilaly, told me on condition of anonymity of a visit from Henry Kissinger, then U.S. national security adviser.
“The CIA has learned,” the Pakistani envoy quoted Kissinger to me, “that India will overrun East Pakistan in mid-November.” Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her security Cabinet had made the decision the previous week.
“How reliable is the CIA’s source?” I asked.
Reminding me of the not-for-attribution basis of the interview, the ambassador speculated that Morarji Desai, then deputy prime minister of India and Indira Gandhi’s nemesis, might have leaked the information to the CIA. I suspected that Yahya’s unceremonious recall of Hilaly had prompted the ambassador to spill the beans to me.
A secessionist movement among ethnic Bengalees had been raging in Pakistan’s eastern province. A Pakistan-wide election the previous year had got a Bengalee political party, the Awami League, a parliamentary majority. That party had been agitating against repression by Pakistan’s military dictatorship and exploitation by economic interests supported by it. The Awami League wanted to tear East Pakistan away from West Pakistan, the bastion of Pakistan’s military and economic power. Democracy had given the party the opportunity to gain the independence of the province it already had been calling Bangladesh. In a desperate attempt to forestall its secession, Yahya brushed aside the electoral verdict and launched a brutal military crackdown in East Pakistan. And the dictator had got two Bengalee politicians from East Pakistan to lead Pakistan’s U.N. delegation to try to show the world that some East Pakistani leaders loved Pakistan and opposed the secession of East Pakistan, which they indeed did.
Back from the Hilaly interview, I called up Mahmud Ali, the Bengalee leader of the Pakistani delegation, from my room in Hotel Carlton in Washington. Ali was staying at Plaza Hotel in New York.
I asked Ali if he was with any visitors.
“No, go ahead,” he said.
“Do you know about the CIA tip that Nixon has sent to Yahya Khan?”
“What was that?”
“That India is going to invade East Pakistan in mid-November.”
“Who told you this cock-and-bull story?” he said.
I realized that Yahya was continuing to use the Bengalee leader without telling him about the impending Indian invasion of his native East Pakistan.Then I rang up the Bengalee deputy leader of the delegation, Shah Azizur Rahman, at Tudor Hotel in New York. (Eight years later he would become prime minister of Bangladesh.)
“Shah Bhai,” I said. “I’m returning tomorrow morning. I want to see you. It’s very important.”
Shah Aziz’s eyeballs were popping out when I narrated my conversation with Hilaly. He then drooped forward, holding his head with both his palms. A minute later he slowly leaned back against the back of his chair, staring blank at the ceiling.
Having regained his composure, the East Pakistani leader got up. “Let us catch Alvi,” he said, picking up his jacket. “Let’s see what the bastard has to say.”
M.A. Alvi (I forget what “M.A.” stood for) was Pakistan’s assistant foreign secretary, accompanying the delegation. In his Plaza Hotel suite, Alvi looked intently and incredulously into my eyes as I rehashed my conversation with Hilaly. He asked me if the ambassador had given Nixon’s message “directly to the president,” Yahya Khan. It was obvious to me and Shah Aziz that Alvi, too, had not heard about the CIA alert.
But the Pakistani diplomat decided, anyway, to embark on an anti-India tirade. If Indira Gandhi were to “make the stupid mistake” of sending Indian troops into East Pakistan, he roared, Pakistan would “bomb every major Indian city” and march on to “Delhi and Lucknow before the bitch can tell what is happening” to her country.
Shah Aziz was in no mood to listen to the bullshit from the megalomaniac diplomat.
“Mr. Alvi,” he said, “for Allah’s sake, please don’t conquer India.” (Pakistan had lost its two previous wars with India.) He laughed loudly to vent his sarcasm. Muslims in the Indian subcontinent, he continued, “struggled very hard and made enormous sacrifices” to slice out “a piece of land” from old India to create “a Muslim homeland,” Pakistan.
Getting up to leave, Shah Aziz asked Alvi, again sarcastically, if he “want us to rejoin India” through an invasion. Did Alvi want to let Indian Hindus “demolish our mosques and ban the Qurbani?”
On their Eid al-Adha festival Muslims kill cows and goats to commemorate Abraham’s preparation to kill his son at the behest of God. The ritual is called Qurbani. In many places in old India Hindus used to attack Muslims for killing cows, which are sacred to them.
Ironically, India’s Hindu nationalist government today appears to be vindicating the Muslim argument that had led to the creation of Pakistan, namely that India’s huge Hindu majority would subvert Islamic culture and the interests of its Muslim minority. Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has abolished the autonomy of the Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir state and restricted the domicile and citizenship rights of Muslims in Assam state. It has renamed a host of towns and cities that bore Muslim names and
looked the other way as its supporters abused and lynched Muslims. And cow slaughter and serving meat in restaurants are banned in several Indian states.
Democracy in India has clearly undermined the freedom of its Muslim minority, as it has the freedom of minorities in many other non-Western societies. Enlightenment thinkers, living in white-Christian societies, could not obviously anticipate the plight of these minorities in democratic non-Western societies. It’s time for more inclusive, communitarian political models for freedom-loving, identity-conscious minorities in societies outside the West.
- Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington.