The worldwide Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or the BDS movement, against Israel now appears to have found a new target: democratic India. The BDS has been widely denounced as anti-Semitic and hypocritical because it singles out the only Jewish State and the only democracy in the region, Israel, for unique criticism. But now Kashmir is emerging as their new punching bag. The BDS brigade recently claimed that “India’s policies in Kashmir resemble Israel’s settler colonialism,” that “India also borrows methods of repression from Israel,” and also, absurdly, that “the weapons that Israel ‘field-tests’ on Palestinian bodies are today being deployed in Kashmir.”
Nobody has called for a boycott against India. But this kind of comparative language and suggested equivalence is unique and deserves to be flagged.
India the ‘oppressor’
Writing earlier this month in The Muslim Vibe, a media outlet aimed at Western Muslims, commentator Hamzah Zahid made a forceful case about what Muslims in the West must do concerning the issue of Kashmir, the Muslim-majority region long coveted by Pakistan, saying that Kashmir needs to be turned into “a similar vein as the anti-Apartheid, anti-Fascism, and the Palestine movements.”
While Zahid’s pronouncement was unusually specific, there have been campaigns going on for years that propagate similar thought. This campaign does not solely consist of groups with a South Asian origin, such as the Western branches of Jamaat-e-Islami, but of Middle East-linked groups that had previously focused almost solely on Palestine.
In fact, the campaign was underway even before the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. In early 2019, New York-based journalist Azad Essa published an op-ed declaring that “when it comes to Palestine and Kashmir, India and Israel are oppressors-in-arms.” According to Essa, “Free Gaza” and “India Go Home” are the same message to those who champion the cause of separating Kashmir. Essa insists that both the issues surrounding Kashmir and Israel represent the same sort of “settler-colonialism” theme and are, in essence, the same issue.
Increasingly, Western-focused foes of both Israel and India are acting to make Essa’s claims ubiquitous. Painting India as the “oppressor,” as Essa’s op-ed did, just two weeks after a brutal terrorist attack killed 40 Indian security personnel in Pulwama district in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, may seem bold. But Israel’s foes in the West, driven largely by theocratic Islamic organisations and their allies on the far-Left, now use this sort of rhetoric as a matter of course.
Indian patriots and Zionists on the same page?
BDS is hardly alone. American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) explicitly claimed that by removing the special status of Kashmir, India was adopting a “Zionist settler-colonialist model,” and that “like Israel, the Indian government has brazenly violated several UN resolutions and human rights conventions,” accusing it of a “brutal crackdown.” They steered their members toward the newly created, shadowy group, Stand with Kashmir (SWK), an entity that frequently lauds terrorists and assorted theocrats as inoffensive and peaceful political actors.
The SWK was quick to ‘return the favour’, quoting an article by Zainab Ramahi, a ‘coordinating member’ of Students for Justice in Palestine, which is heavily funded by AMP and shares a common founder. According to Ramahi, “Hindutva nationalists and Zionists often try to reframe the conflicts,” over Kashmir and the Palestinian territories, as caused by Islamists, which she claims is merely an effort to distract from what she calls “repression” in the name of fighting terrorism.
Not much later, the SWK partnered with AMP to organise a march in San Francisco on Kashmir.
Of course, the South Asian-origin radicals are also part of this push. The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), which Professor Vali Nasr of Johns Hopkins states is one of the eight most important franchises of South Asia’s violent Islamist movement Jamaat-e-Islami, a group long dedicated to separating Kashmir from India, worked with the SWK to support protests shortly after the removal of Kashmir’s special status.
But they were not alone. ICNA partnered on these protests with foes of Israel more closely aligned with Middle Eastern Islamist movements, such as the Muslim American Society (MAS), which prosecutors named in 2007 as an “overt arm” of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), an unindicted co-conspirator in a scheme to fund the Hamas terrorist organisation in the Palestinian territories, founded by Palestinian Nihad Awad, a self-declared supporter of Hamas, also promoted various protests over Kashmir. Awad even spoke at the protest outside India’s embassy.
Islamists, hard Left and their identical argument
The above examples are by no means exhaustive and meant only to illustrate the nearly ubiquitous events, articles, tweets and newsletters of various Islamist groups and their friends on the hard-Left, making identical arguments. These efforts have clear, real-world effects. Decision makers and opinion leaders with significant political power, such as Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN), are now high-profile opponents of India.
Last year, Omar went out of her way to join a hearing on Human Rights in South Asia, in spite of the fact that she was not a member of the relevant Congressional Subcommittee, to viciously attack Indian reporter and witness Aarti Tikoo Singh, a Kashmiri Pandit exiled from her home by Islamist militants almost 30 years ago, after she suggested Jihadists were at the heart of the problem in Kashmir. Omar used rhetoric closely echoing an article that SWK had published the day before the hearing attacking Singh. Omar later appeared in an interview for the SWK conducted by Professor Mark Lamont Hill, notorious himself for expressing extreme anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Anti-Israel network politically invaluable for India’s foes
Given that Kashmir is an issue few Americans are intimately familiar with, one might question why this movement would want an ally like Omar. Known for rhetoric so anti-Semitic that it earned her the support of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon David Duke, Omar’s support comes with drawbacks. But the support of Omar, and the broader anti-Israel community, also comes with a built-in constituency, and tailor-made rhetoric to rally supporters. That’s politically invaluable. Indeed, fellow “Squad” member, Representative Rashada Talib (D-MI), an ethnic Palestinian, has joined Omar in supporting the Islamist cause in Kashmir.
Of course, this collaboration is not purely tactical. In significant part, it is ideological. While there are fair-minded critiques of India’s and Israel’s governments, their most steadfast critics are not enlightened advocates of liberty, but theocrats who recognise no higher good than Islamist rule. This is doubly clear upon examining the rhetoric and actions of both Western Islamist organisations and Jihadist groups in both South Asia and the Middle East.
The Indian community has largely been caught flat-footed by this activism campaign. Islamists had a ready-made network, a built-in constituency, and pre-programmed rhetoric to indoctrinate indifferent politicians and a largely naïve public, based on their decades of activism on behalf of the Palestinian cause.
Friends of both Israel and India must work to counter this shockingly effective political activism before it is too late. To do otherwise risks enshrining this inaccurate, but effective, narrative into Western policy.
Clifford Smith @CliffSmithZBRDZ is director of the Middle East Forum’s Washington Project. Views are personal.