Today, August 14th, is celebrated annually as Pakistan’s Independence Day, commemorating the nation’s 1947 partition from India. We’re soon to publish Faisal Devji’s Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea, a work heralded as a “brilliant, counterintuitive meditation on the analogy between ideologies of Zionism and Pakistani/Muslim nationalism.” Below, Devji details that rarely acknowledged symmetry between the founding of Pakistan and Israel.
By the time he uttered these words in a 1981 interview with The Economist magazine, Pakistan’s president Zia-ul-Haq was simply mouthing a stereotype. For Zionism had long provided a model for Muslims who sought to carve a new state out of India. Over the course of the nineteenth century, after all, European Jewry had come to represent the archetypical minority for states that were increasingly being defined as the property of their national majorities.
Pakistan’s founders routinely invoked the history of non-Muslim minorities, and particularly the Jews, rather than comparing themselves to other Muslim peoples. So in Pakistan and Muslim India, a pamphlet published in 1943 with a preface by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the man who would become Pakistan’s father, we read that “if small peoples like the Protestant Irish in Ireland, the Christian Arabs in Syria and the Jews in Palestine do not wish to lose their separate political identity, and are supported in this desire for separate existence by two of the foremost democratic nations, there is no reason why Indian Muslims should be forced to accept the position of a minority.”
Given its identification with non-Muslim groups, Pakistan is in some ways not part of Islam’s modern history. Although it was the world’s first Islamic republic, then, Pakistan is also the only country to be created on the basis of Islam alone, just as Israel is the only state to be founded on that of Judaism. And in fact the similarities between these two otherwise very different and even opposed states are striking. Both were created as homelands for dispersed religious minorities; both were conceived by politicians and supported by populations from beyond their borders; and both emerged from bloody partitions supervised by Britain.
Indeed Pakistan’s creation in 1947 was cited as the legal precedent for Israel’s founding a year later. Sir Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, Pakistan’s representative at the UN, tried to deny this similarity, pointing out that the majority of his country’s population was already Muslim before partition, and painting Jewish immigrants to Israel as foreigners. But the partition of India was a far more violent affair than that of Palestine, involving millions more dead and displaced; while Muslims emigrating to Pakistan often originated from much further distances than Middle Eastern Jews proceeding to Israel, and unlike the latter shared neither language nor culture with its existing inhabitants.
Yet before their achievement of national homelands, Jews and Muslims were something more than minorities scattered across the vast subcontinents of Europe and India. This was why Zia, in describing Pakistan and Israel as founded on self-conscious ideas rather than inherited prejudices, recognized that they had abandoned the old-fashioned nationalism of blood and soil. It was this kind of nationality, after all, that had done so much to make groups like Jews into suspect minorities. These new countries, then, sought both to join and escape a world of nation states, which in Europe were defined by the romantic myth of a continuous and immemorial link with the land.
Pakistan and Israel are “ideological” states, as Zia put it, founded, like America and other New World countries, not on heredity but the mobility of ideas and peoples. And it is this that also makes of them international entities. For both states claim to represent not simply their own citizens, but all Europe’s Jews or India’s Muslims, with co-religionists from elsewhere at least theoretically capable of joining either nation. The anonymous author of Pakistan and Muslim India, therefore, invoked the idea of a national majority only to internationalize it, by stating that “The Indian Muslims who form one fourth of the total population and number 90 millions are in their opinion comparable to minorities in European countries or even to the Jews who are scattered all over the world.”
At the same time as these minorities were struggling to become majorities in their own homelands, they were also losing their national character within a novel internationalism. Described by their enemies as a Jewish conspiracy or pan-Islamism, this international identity linked European Jews and Indian Muslims to the emergence of new forms of intellectual and political mobility in the wake of the First World War. It is their modernity that makes these nations so distinctive, preventing them from regressing to Europe's blood-and-soil type of nationalism.
Such conventional forms of nationality are instead characteristic of minority populations in both countries: Hindus, Sikhs and Christians in Pakistan and Christians and Muslims in Israel, whose claims to autochthony stand as a challenge to both the Jewish State and Islamic Republic. For whatever emphasis is put upon the land these new Muslim and Jewish populations have won, both debate and resolve their nationality by a question that in effect divests the nation of its state: who is a Jew and who a Muslim?