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.