The original sin in conflicts

The Western discourse on the Middle East conflict is instructive for people in other polarised nations.
Picture credit: AP
Picture credit: AP

There’s something rotten in the state of global opinion, because it’s become impossible to criticise either the October 7 Hamas attack or Israel’s dilapidation of Gaza without being press-ganged into the ranks of the supporter of the other side. If you criticise the arbitrary violence of Israel’s invasion of Gaza, then, of course, you must be a Holocaust-denier. And if you criticise Hamas for hijacking the Palestinians’ right to resist being corralled in an open-air human zoo, then you must be a terrorist.

The struggle between Zionists and Palestine has run for so long and has featured so much violence that no party can claim to be in the right anymore. Everyone is sort of wrong, all the way back to the colonial-era mandates in the Middle East when there were no formal nations in the region. What’s rotten about the majority discourse backing Israel is that it suggests that the curtain went up on October 7, when Hamas committed the original sin of attacking civilians. Hamas did attack civilians on that day, and that is a war crime, but it wasn’t the original sin. There’s no point looking for an original sin because such a thing does not exist in history which, in the case of Palestine, rolls back to remote antiquity.

Worse, the story that Hamas started it all, which is like the complaint that teachers field after schoolyard brawls, is being used to justify the indiscriminate punishment of the whole Palestinian community, including its children, using military weapons. The attack on the Al Buraq school and Al-Shifa Hospital, the biggest in Gaza, where displaced people were sheltering, was justified by the claim that Hamas operates from the facility. The argument of an original sin which started it all can be used to justify any attack on civilians and their refuges, and even to urge them to flee to Egypt, to which a border crossing is pointedly held open. Depopulating a nation is also a sin.

Sin is the concern of religion and culture, which are built on traditions of storytelling and mythmaking which contrast good and evil, light and darkness, angel and demon. But history rests on facts, without moral reasoning. It is complicated and messy, and original sins are not notable in its annals. Mixing the two makes bad medicine.

The Western discourse on the Middle East conflict is instructive for people in other polarised nations. The phenomenon itself is visible in India, where protesters agitating against the Israeli onslaught on Gaza are being rounded up and herded off to police stations. These restraints on the right to protest have no legal basis. They can be justified only by the polarising logic cited above: anyone who sticks up for Palestinian civilians’ right to life must be a terrorist. And anyway, critics of the use of state force must have sedition on the mind.

The Semitic idea of original sin, whose philosophy was defined by St Augustine of Hippo, speaks of an innate sin implicit in birth itself. The prospect that everyone must spend their lives working towards redemption is pretty bleak, but seeking the origins of violence in one group is even more depressing. Because typically, it’s hopeless to seek the first wrong.

This idea of an original sin, which brought violence into a prehistoric idyll, has been visible in Indian politics from the earliest days of the mandir-masjid dispute. Four years before the rising of 1857, sadhus of the Nimrohi Akhara claimed ownership of the Babri Masjid site and the administration divided the property in response, awarding one part to Muslims and the other to Hindus. Over time, the Hindu movement was framed as a reaction to the original sin of the emperor Babur, whose general Mir Baqi built the mosque on the site of Rama’s birthplace.

The Baburnama, an unnervingly honest autobiography, has accounts from the emperor’s first foray into India, where his band encountered native Indians on their travels and dispatched them without a qualm amid scenes of hunting, feasting and poetry competitions. This was not unusual by the reckoning of the times and the society in which Babur grew up, and, though later generations of Muslim rulers caused anxieties by inflicting taxes rather than death, the theory of bloodthirsty Muslim invaders has flourished in modern times.

Last week a Pakistani cabbie in Brooklyn, from a family who were caretakers of a Sufi shrine near Peshawar before they were forced to take the wheel, told me, “Look at the American and Australian populations. How many aboriginal Americans and Australians do you see? That’s what happens when a bloodthirsty invader visits your country. And how many original Indians do you see in the subcontinent? What does it say about the theory of Muslim invasion?”

That’s anecdotal, of course. More plausibly, entrants into India understood that they could not possibly erase prior populations because size matters. Present advocates of cleansing, who have been increasingly voluble over the last decade, don’t appreciate this dreary practical problem standing in the way of their desires. In common with Zionists, they have fantastical dreams of the mass extinction of the other. In Israel, former heritage minister Amichay Eliyahu had said that dropping a nuclear bomb on Gaza was an option, unaware that it would erase Israel, too. In Modi’s first term in office, eager voters had seriously expected the PM to nuke Pakistan and were uncaring about the implications for their own lives. If there is an original sin at all, it is probably stupidity. Sadly, that’s in surplus in majoritarian politics across the world.

Pratik Kanjilal

Editor of The India Cable

(Tweets @pratik_k)

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