Opinion

Pakistan's New anti-Soros Campaign Reflects Its anti-Semitic, Conspiracist Politics

When blaming a Jewish conspiracy is Pakistan's common explanation for every fiasco, there should be no surprise that George Soros is Karachi's latest target

Supporters of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami hold signs decalring 'Death to Israel' at a rally against U.S. President Donald Trump's Jerusalem decision. Karachi, Pakistan, December 17, 2017
REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

There’s a chance that Pakistan Interior Ministry’s decision to shut down the Open Society Foundations, a charity founded by hedge fund billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, could’ve been influenced by the surge of the anti-liberal anti-Soros wave in the West.

But it could just as easily - perhaps more likely – to have been a knee-jerk reaction by ministry officials late to discovering the Jewish identity of the charity’s founder, without any clear intention to jump aboard the anti-Soros bandwagon that's making its way through eastern and central Europe, as well as the U.S. and Israel. The ministry itself has failed to provide a rationale for its decision.

Considering that anti-Jewish sentiments are already on a periodic spike in Pakistan, following U.S. President Donald Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem, shutting down the Soros Foundation couldn’t have been better timed, with a considerable number of political brownie points up for grabs.

Activists from the Egyutt (Together) party tear down an ad by the Hungarian government against George Soros, Budapest, July 12, 2017.
Pablo Gorondi / AP

Pakistani politicians have always deemed ‘foreign conspirators’ and Jews synonymous, and any differentiation has always been considered superfluous.

Thus behind every conspiracy, every attempt to contaminate Pakistani society and its proper governing – Jewish agents, or Israel’s tentacles, or a mixture of both.

This is because while analysts see the rise of the anti-Soros phenomenon in the West as a reincarnation of old anti-Semitic tropes about nefarious Jewish financial and social engineering designs, this kind of conspiracist thinking about Jews have never left the Pakistani ethos  - so it's more a question of continual peaking rather than resurfacing. In other words, anti-Semitism is a feature, not a bug, of Pakistani politics.

Even so, touting them as conspiracy theories doesn’t quite do justice to how deeply entrenched anti-Jewish sentiments are in Pakistan.

Last Friday, for instance, in expectation of the Supreme Court verdict on Imran Khan, the chairman of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), the main opposition party in the country, the Federal Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb accused Khan of being "funded by Jews and Hindus."

The PTI chairman has long been condemned for being paid by a "Jewish lobby", a less-than-oblique reference to his first marriage to Jemima Goldsmith, who, despite converting to Islam and divorcing Khan, continues to be targeted by the rivals of the cricketer-turned-politician.

That constant assault on Khan has led to the charge that Pakistan is a state without Jews where anti-Semitism flourishes.

Considering it was Jemima Goldsmith’s own tracking down of 15-year-old bank statements that saved Khan from money laundering charges last week, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leaders are sure to continue to play the ‘Jew and Hindu’ card leading up to the general elections next year.

A supporter of the Jamaat-e-Islami party wears a headband with the Urdu slogan: 'I am here, Al Quds' at a rally against U.S. President Donald Trump's Jerusalem decision, Karachi, Pakistan. December 17, 2017
REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

The conflation of these two religious communities is rooted in the idea of ‘Hindu India’ and ‘Jewish Israel’ being perpetual enemies of ‘Muslim Pakistan’.

For many, the conspiracy was exposed when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel this July, resulting in the coming together of two ‘anti-Muslim’ leaders being interpreted as a joint declaration of "nuclear war against Pakistan and Islam." 

While the prevailing anti-Hindu bigotry is rooted in the legacy of the violent Indo-Pakistani Partition, and Pakistan’s need to justify its creation, the ubiquitous anti-Semitism in the country has Islamist roots. A literalist reading of the Islamic scriptures serves as a justification for espousing violent anti-Jewish sentiments, a characteristic of jihadism.

These fundamentalists take the Quran’s warnings against yahoodo nisara (Jews and Christians) at face value to perpetuate violence against Pakistan's Christian minority as well, such as Sunday’s church bombing in Quetta or the Easter attack last year in a children’s park in Lahore.

Aftermath of a suicide bomb attack, claimed by ISIS and killing at least 8 people and wounding 30 during a service in a Methodist church in Quetta. December 18, 2017
AFP PHOTO / BANARAS KHAN

Even though alternative viewpoints offer to interpret those anti-Jewish verses in a different, contextualized light, those efforts are focused on confronting the West's Islamophobes rather than calling out the widespread, popular belief of many Muslims, not least in Pakistan, in these literal interpretations.

This has meant that Pakistan, with a registered Jewish population of precisely one person, where both the left and right wings perpetuate anti-Semitism through quasi 'anti-colonialism' and Islamism respectively, remains ripe for political point-scoring through perpetuating anti-Jewish bigotry.

It is for that precise reason that the Pakistani government has politicized the NGOs working in the country, accusing many of being "U.S., Indian and Israeli" agents plotting the destruction of Pakistan.

Pakistan banned a dozen NGOs working on women’s rights in January this year, while Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was asked to shut down medical activities in September. 

Pakistan’s recent phobia of NGOs originates in Save the Children "being used by the CIA" to hunt down Osama bin Laden back in 2011, prompting the charity’s expulsion from the country.

Pakistani protesters burn an effigy of U.S. President Donald Trump during a rally in Peshawar, Pakistan. Placard at left reads, 'Whoever is a friend of America is a traitor.' Dec. 8, 2017
AP Photo/Muhammad Sajjad

Shakil Afridi, the doctor who allegedly cooperated with the CIA in tracking down bin Laden, remains in jail after almost seven years, officially charged with treason for assisting the U.S. He's also been accused – among others – of being an "Israeli agent" who is "responsible for polio" in Pakistan.

While bigoted conspiracy theories remain the mask for Pakistan’s action against the NGOs, another reason why the state has sprung into action against charity groups is that they underscore the incompetence of the government.

And so, while the Open Society Foundation, which began working in Pakistan after the devastating 2005 earthquake, will be shunned as a "Jewish agent", its $37.8 million-worth of funding dedicated to education, human rights, justice, free speech and government transparency, will simultaneously be binned as ‘anti-state’ activities.

This would allow the embattled ruling party to take credit for "saving Pakistan" from the "nefarious designs" of outsider "cunning Jews" (the usual buzzwords used in the Pakistani media and political life to refer to Jews) in the next few days, while simultaneously making anti-Semitic jibes at their domestic opposition.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist and a correspondent at The Diplomat. His work has been published in The GuardianThe IndependentForeign PolicyCourrier InternationalNew StatesmanThe Telegraph MIT Review, and Arab News among other publications. Twitter: @khuldune