Pro-Palestinian Protests Are Erupting From Karachi to London

As Israel’s murderous onslaught on Gaza continues, the cause of Palestinian freedom is attracting support in countries throughout the world, across race, religion, and nationality.

Protesters wave Palestinian flags during a pro-Palestinian demonstration in the Nasr City district of Cairo, Egypt, on October 20, 2023. (Islam Safwat / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In the last few days, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people have taken to the streets demanding an end to the murderous Israeli onslaught against the people of Gaza, which had claimed over five thousand lives by October 23. In Cairo on Friday, protesters ignored the tame demonstration organized by supporters of the dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and made their way through police lines into Tahrir Square, symbolic site of the 2011 uprising.

The following day, an estimated three hundred thousand people marched through London in solidarity with Gaza, despite threats of legal repression from the Conservative home secretary Suella Braverman. There were similar protests in cities throughout Europe and North America, from Paris and Madrid to New York and Washington, even as Western governments continue to cheerlead for Israel.

The protests in support of the Palestinian people are a powerful response to all those who would try to force the war on Gaza into the framework of a “clash of civilizations,” as the US political scientist Samuel Huntington infamously dubbed it. The cause of Palestinian freedom is a universal one, and it is attracting support across the carefully constructed and enforced boundaries of race, religion, and nationality.

Nurturing the Religious Right

There have been huge demonstrations in other Muslim countries as well, including my home, Pakistan. While embattled progressives have organized as much and as best as they can, parties of the religious right have led most of the Pakistani protests so far. This reflects the wider shift in the balance of forces between left-wing and Islamist groups since the 1960s and ’70s.

Our story is similar to that of many other Muslim-majority countries, where anti-colonial struggles like the Palestinian cause were once largely fought and led by secular, left-wing forces. That was before Western governments — with US imperialism in the lead — directly undermined progressives by patronizing the religious right.

The most obvious — and ultimately disastrous — example was neighboring Afghanistan, where the United States and its allies colluded with the Pakistani military and Gulf monarchies to wage “jihad” against the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) during the 1970s and ’80s. The Pakistani military dictator who presided over that fateful alliance, General Zia-ul-Haq, previously took part in the Jordanian king Hussein bin Talal’s 1970 assault on the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) while he was on a training mission in Jordan.

The PLO had many failings, and its effective surrender to Israel’s endless building of settlements in the occupied West Bank through the Oslo Accords of the 1990s set the stage for the rise of Hamas. But it is the worst form of historical myopia to neglect the role that Pakistan’s ruling class played, along with that of Jordan, Egypt, and many other Muslim-majority states, in working with Western powers to crush secular and left movements, thus paving the way for Islamists to become more dominant.

Members of the US foreign policy establishment regularly invoked the term “blowback” after the 9/11 attacks in reference to erstwhile jihadi proteges of Washington that were now seen as terrorists to be exterminated. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now too busy ethnically cleansing Gaza to acknowledge the way Israel welcomed the rise of Mujama al-Islamiya, the organization that would metamorphize into Hamas, in the hope it would become a rival to Fatah and left-wing Palestinian groups.

Even those who buy into the Manichean discourse around “terrorism” should be able to acknowledge that the October 7 attack shows us that Western backing for Israel’s ever-intensifying occupation and its wars on Gaza certainly did not undermine Hamas.

A Universal Struggle

Most Pakistani progressives see whoever comes out on the streets right now as an ally, because the immediate imperative is stopping the murderous bombing and siege of Gazans. For those who have lost their lives, even an immediate ceasefire will come too late.

But the carnage is still unfolding, and popular protests are already forcing Western governments to demand concessions from Tel Aviv, such as the lifting of border controls to allow food and medical supplies into Gaza. Progressives everywhere are refusing to be cowed by the narrative that equates Palestinians with Hamas and legitimates the genocidal violence that has been perpetrated by Israel after October 7 in Gaza and the West Bank alike.

The 9/11 attacks precipitated ahistorical and sometimes outright racist discourses that were eerily similar to what we are hearing today. Vengeful, maniacal voices — and corporate interests, it must be noted — drove the US war machine to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq.

Twenty years later, an entire generation of Afghans and Iraqis are still picking up the pieces, while the “terrorists” that Western leaders boasted about bombing back into the Stone Age are alive and well. The Taliban is currently running the government in Kabul, and its Pakistani allies are once again perpetrating violence against innocent civilians and progressives, thereby further weakening an already-emaciated public and political sphere.

If there is a silver lining to Israel’s unceasing brutality over the past two weeks, it is the fact that the Palestinian cause has been manifestly shown to be anything but a purely Muslim cause. It is a cause of national liberation that unites internationalists everywhere. When Jews, Christians, Hindus, and people around the world who have no direct connection to Palestine take to the streets, demanding an end to the occupation, it drives home this universal message.

This harkens to a bygone era when solidarity activists viewed anti-colonial struggles across the world through a shared, internationalist lens. The struggle against the war in Vietnam or the boycott of apartheid South Africa, to take but two examples, brought together millions across the world.

Thankfully, some global leaders are espousing such internationalist visions today, most notably Colombia’s president Gustavo Petro, and a number of Spanish ministers from the left-wing party Podemos. Israeli has predictably accused them of aligning themselves with Hamas, and will direct the same charge at others who take similar positions.

The extreme right everywhere feeds on the politics of hate. While peaceful protestors around the world may not be able to stop the Israeli Defense Forces’ brutal ethnic cleansing of Gaza, genuine internationalist solidarity with the Palestinian cause represents a defeat for colonial ideologies that have no place in our putatively shared world. It is up to progressives around the world to build on this moment and link the Palestinian liberation struggle with colonized peoples like the Kurds, Balochs, and many more to transcend the failed liberal world order.