Complicity Talk for Teaching/Writing about Palestine in North American Academia

I begin this short essay by clearly stating at the outset that I am against the colonial occupation of Palestine, and I firmly stand in solidarity with Palestinians fighting for their freedoms, sovereignty, life, and the right to return home. I am in complete solidarity with all kinds of movements by Palestinians and allies such as the increasingly strengthening global boycott, divestments, and sanctions (BDS) movement. I am writing this essay with the hope that those of us who understand ourselves to be in solidarity will sit with the questions I am asking, and think about how we approach Palestine in academia. What are the ethics of writing about Palestine for non-Palestinian academics in North America? There is, I believe, a difference between ethically, intellectually, politically, and spiritually supporting the freedoms of a people versus teaching courses and writing about their occupation and the violence against them for publications, conference presentations, and tenure in the academy. I believe that the latter, this ‘doing’ of Palestine in academia has the potential to become just a fashion statement amongst progressive scholars, those of us who write and teach about issues of social justice. This is not to take away from critical scholarship and other intellectual and political work happening by allies in academia, but we have to keep asking important and difficult questions of ourselves so that we do not become too comfortable in our work. We have to keep asking how for us non-Palestinians, Palestine has the potential to become a fashionable site of solidarity when it is uttered as declarations at conferences, and written about using certain kinds of new/in-style frameworks? What are our ethics of care for actual Palestinian scholars and students struggling against the pre-dominantly Zionist, white supremacist North American academia?

There are two things I would like to state before I go further into my reflections. Firstly, I need to clearly state that I have deep respect for Indigenous scholars/activists from North America who have visited Palestine, who have invested in forming relations of solidarity and friendship with Palestinians. White settler colonialism in Palestine and the US and Canada for example, are intimately inter/connected. There is a genuine need to expose and challenge the technologies of power through which these white settler states operate under neoliberalism. I have deep respect for Black and Palestinian academics and activists in various diasporas who are making connections between their varied but often interconnected liberation struggles against state violence. I have learned so much from exchanges between other occupied people such as Kashmiri people who support Palestinian freedoms and right to return, and vice versa. Or the relations of solidarity offered by South Africans, who fought against the crime of apartheid, to Palestinians. I also deeply respect campus activism work from Canada, the US, Mexico, Senegal, and France to several other places around the world. In writing these critiques, I do not mean to erase these historicized, beautiful, brave, relational, and futuristic acts of solidarity among variously colonized and racialized people(s) that do exist in academia, always under conditions of constant surveillance, threat, and other risks such as of losing one’s employment accompanied by other challenges at continuing to survive.[i]

Secondly, I humbly request the reader not to consider my ethico-political stance here as a patronizing or instructional one for Palestinians or any other occupied people. Living with the quotidian experiences of terror, Palestinian people have graciously accepted various kinds of solidarities from different(ly) colonized, racialized, and white people who have expressed an interest in their struggles for land, life, and dignity. Anti-occupation work, the mere survival, requires several different techniques, compromises, negotiations, and strategies. I am not presuming to explain what genuine solidarity should look like, or whose solidarity should be accepted. Instead, my focus is on questions of complicity, accountability and thinking through the difficult question of what are the things that many of us must keep attending to for us to consider ourselves to be in solidarity with Palestinian people. This article is addressed to white people and non-Black, non-Indigenous people of color here.

As I said before, the question of complicity and accountability are driving my reflections and critiques here. It comes from things I have witnessed and thought through. For instance, at a very popular annual national women’s conference in North America one year, I attended a panel on Palestine organized by South Asians with no Palestinians at the table. As a Pakistani Muslim scholar, I notice that sometimes we South Asians write about Palestine, teach about Palestine without thinking through other interconnections.  My argument isn’t that only Palestinians should write about Palestine. I am not making that kind of a simplistic argument. But what I want us to think through is how Palestine is sensationalized, and takes primacy over and at the expense of attending to other occupations that are in ‘our’ proverbial backyards so to say.  

For example, several Indian Hindu savarna (upper-caste), and mostly Brahmin, scholars who are dominant in North American academia (in terms of number and also tenure-track/tenured positions) who are seen under the category of “South Asian,” or racialized people regularly declare solidarity with Palestinian people.[ii] They write articles, edit books on the conditions of Palestinians, attend rallies to chant “Free, free Palestine”.  However, and I do not state this as true for all, but many do not want to talk about the Indian occupation of Kashmir.[iii] They do not want to talk about how they have and continue to actively benefit from that violent and vindictive occupation done in their name, by them, and their government. Even when they talk about this occupation, there is a tendency to beat around the bush. The occupation becomes a matter of “administration” rather, and the word colonialism is never uttered. Or, it’s a “damage-centered” narrative about the poor condition and trauma of Kashmiris where the structure of Indian occupation and their own active investments in that colonialism are erased, or decentered. Equally importantly, the talk becomes de-casted.[iv] Just like we cannot discuss Israeli occupation of Palestine without discussing white supremacy and U.S. Empire, our analysis of Kashmir’s occupation remains partial, even misguided without paying attention to caste. As several Kashmiri Muslim feminist scholars, for example, have regularly pointed out, the occupation of Kashmir is a Brahminical occupation and caste cannot be untangled from the ways in which this occupation is upheld by the Indian state, its military, and its ordinary citizens.

A telling example of this is the widely-read, respected, and circulated Indian political theorist and historian, Partha Chatterjee. In his essay titled, “Why I support the boycott of Israeli institutions,” Chatterjee explains that he does not visit Israel because “the thought of applying for a visa at an Israeli embassy, passing through Israeli immigration and, who knows, answering questions at check points and barriers put me off”. For these same reasons, he claims, he also does not accept invitations to visit Palestine. Then, wanting to not be accused of “double standards,” that is, of not wanting to be accused of critiquing Israel’s coloniality but not that of India’s, he notes that he “does see the signs of colonial superiority in the country of which I am a citizen”. He means India. Superiority is not the same as saying that he does see and acknowledge Indian occupation everywhere. His own pusillanimity, complacency, and complicity are very much revealed in the very next sentence where he writes: “I have visited every state of India except two – Kashmir and Tripura” (emphasis added). These are spaces occupied by India. Since I am focused here on Kashmir, let me say this clearly: Kashmir is not a state of India. It is occupied and remains the most militarized zone in the world where since 1990, at least 70,000 people have been killed, but also where occupied people have never stopped fighting for their freedom from the tyrannical Brahminical colonial Indian occupation and Pakistan’s manipulative support and complicity.

In her stunning, powerful and generously teachable moment response to Chatterjee, Kashmiri Muslim feminist scholar living in exile, Huma Dar, writes:

You [Chatterjee] write unproblematically of Kashmir and Tripura as the only two “states” of India you have not visited. Please let me point out that to call Kashmir, Tripura, and many other areas like Assam, Manipur, Nagaland et al as “states of India” is as uninformed at best and discursively as violent at worst as calling Israel the sole democracy in “Middle East” and denying the nakba while ignoring the ongoing Occupation of Palestine.

 As Dar further points out, Chatterjee would not be perceived as “just another ‘Indian’” on the streets of Kashmir as he writes. In fact, for Dar and for other occupied Kashmiri Muslims, he is a “privileged, male, rights-bearing citizen of ‘Brahminical colonial India’ — one capable of knowledge production, no less!” Casteism is pervasive in diaspora too. While I cannot go into detail here, please see Equality Lab’s 2018 survey on casteism of South Asians in the US and how those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy and Dalit people continue to be marked for eviction from humanity.[v] Whether it is Delhi or Los Angeles or London, it makes no difference in how casteism is experienced by Dalit-Bahujan people.. Brahminical supremacy is a global order, working in tandem with white supremacy in very intersectional and relational ways. Whether it was the case of brown sahibs supporting their white British masters in colonizing India, or the upper caste Hindus supporting Trump today, histories of collaboration between the two are long. For these Hindus, the investment in supporting caste supremacy takes precedence over every other agenda. [vi] As Anu Ramdas, a prolific Dalit theorist writes: 

...there is no Brahmin supremacy in societies that do not have a fully functional caste society. The Brahmin supremacy has territorial limits within the subcontinent. Outside of it, the Brahmin is simply another Brown person. To reclaim his superior status in the diaspora he has to be within South Asian groups at all times. He loses it the moment he is outside such Indian/SAsian groups or the occasional whites fascinated with the Browns...He is faced with the improbable task of institutionalizing caste as a global order for Brahmin supremacy to be given a chance outside of India’s borders.

Brahmins know that upholding and supporting the violence of white supremacy and working in tandem with the agenda of the white settler plantation state consolidates their caste supremacy in diaspora. The Brahmin Ramdas discusses might be just another brown person here, but he won’t let go of that fact that he remains Brahmin even in that ordinariness. He will speak out against racism here and there, roll his eyes at white people Orientalizing an object or practice he sees as Hindu, but won’t let go of his janeu (‘sacred thread’), endogamy for maintaining caste purity, and every other violent belief maintaining his caste supremacy in diaspora.

Thinking/Writing/Teaching about Kashmir for people like me then requires a constant questioning of one’s religious, caste, citizenship, and other privileges. For us South Asians, it requires paying attention to how caste hierarchies and white supremacy work relationally. So what does it mean to de-caste yourself, to unsee, and passionately erase the many occupations and their attendant casteist, anti-Muslim, anti-Indigenous-people violences thriving under India and declare that we stand in solidarity with Palestine? I particularly ask  Brahmin and savarna Hindu academics in North America: Can you do the work of talking about your caste supremacy, the occupations you actively uphold? Can you ask yourself, your families, your government about its viciously anti-Muslim, Brahminical and Hindutva agenda and the arms and soldier training exchanges between India and Israel? How might you unintentionally be supporting Israel by refusing to ethically engage with Indian occupation of Kashmir? By unseeing your complicity?

Since I am thinking about questions of complicity in talking about Palestine and Kashmir, I cannot end without also demanding accountability from myself and other Pakistani academics at home and in diaspora. There are certain ways in which we have been socialized to see the world (through formal and informal education); we need to attend to the ways in which we have oriented ourselves to our multitude of Others. In order to account for my complicity, I need to think about conversations I have commonly participated in or at least, witnessed. I have too often heard very zealous comments made about the fortitude of Pakistani military by Pakistanis in diaspora. I myself grew up singing a very popular nationalistic song, “Dil, dil Pakistan” (literal trans: Heart, heart Pakistan, obviously meaning that Pakistan is my heart) with a reverence for the flag, the army, the rugged land, and frequent (Urdu) utterances of “Insha’Allah Kashmir humara hoga” (trans: God Willing, Kashmir will be ours). Laying siege to Kashmir in our hearts, desires, and prayers (only matched in intensity by the nation’s prayers for victory in Cricket matches) is such an ordinary feeling. But besides that, what is also very obvious is our reverence for the army and the often unanimous acceptance that everything it does is for our safety from India and ironically, from Islamists too. For example, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in northwestern Pakistan is ravaged by the violence of colonial-era frontier rules, Islamic militants created and supported by the CIA, now wanted by the FBI, the abuses of Pakistani military, and over a decade of drone strikes carried out by the U.S., with hundreds of thousands of dead and displaced people. Yet, Pakistani military’s operations, and support for the U.S. drones are welcomed as necessary acts of violence for weeding out “those militants,” the poisonous others of us so-called liberal, progressive, secular Pakistanis. We do not want to think about them as Pakistani civilians. We love Malala Yousafzai, buy our children books on her, watch her documentary, but do we utter the name of Nabila Rehman? Do we talk to our children about her, or think about the hundreds of other people charred by these drone strikes in Pakistan? 

So many of us actively refuse to see how Pakistan is also an occupier.[vii]  I want to briefly pause here to say that talking about my complicity as a Pakistani woman is difficult because of the rampant anti-Muslimness amongst white people, and amongst Brahmin and other savarna scholars in North American academia. I know how quickly they latch onto our critiques of Pakistan in the diaspora to claim that “we are all equally terrible,” so that asking for accountability for the pervasive anti-Muslim violence in India, for example, becomes that much more difficult. Few years ago, a Brahmin friend had asked me, “What about Hindus in Pakistan?” It is an important question, but was asked to shut down my talk about lynching of Dalit Bahujan Muslims in India.

But I am going to take that risk here and address other Pakistani Muslims and those willing to have an honest conversation: Why do we not actively think about the occupation in Balochistan, for example?  We want to “Free, free people of Gaza,” and yet occupations like those of Balochistan and Waziristan often matter little to us. The drone strikes are seen as collateral damage. We wear the kaffiyeh, pride ourselves on how well we can speak Arabic, we will cross the checkpoints to go meet Palestinian families but we will not support resistance movements of people occupied in our name, by us, and by our government and military. From Karachi to Toronto, I will march for freedoms of Palestinians but will hesitate to even post about the then-72 year old Mama Qadeer’s more than 2000 km long historic march on foot from Quetta to Islamabad in 2014 to bring attention to government enforced disappearances in Balochistan. I don’t know who Zar Jan, Seema Baloch, Zarina Baloch, Lateef Johar and so many other Baloch heroes fighting (for life) everyday are. I don’t know about their hunger strikes, their resistance strategies, the movements they lead. And these are just some of the very basic, glaring examples of a long series of powerful, more visual acts of solidarity which I have unseen, and actively erased. What are my investments in upholding Pakistan as a strong post-colonial Muslim state rather than acknowledging that it is indeed a casteist, anti-Black, powerful Sunni, militarized state in bed with Saudi Arabia and the U.S.? I am continuing to think through that question. That is my work.  

I need to read more, engage with occupied and marginalized peoples whose lives are made unliveable because of my life. I cannot make hearts around the “Free, free Palestine” posts on social media, because I really need to think about my own complicity. I need to learn and teach about those first. I cannot get to talk about freeing Gaza without prioritizing freedom of Kashmir and territories occupied by Pakistan and ravaged by the U.S. This is not some idealistic, liberal talk. The weapons which Israel tests on Palestinians are tested by the U.S. in FATA. If I am for the freedom of Palestinians, I cannot ignore these loud interconnections of violences. So how can my solidarity work not take into account these very material connections?

As a side note, I would like to address white people doing solidarity work for Palestine and occupations here. I have been told on more than one occasion that Kashmir is a “brown people problem”. I wish it wasn’t stated that cruelly and crudely and yet it was. When the killers are the same skin color as those being killed, white Westerners might feel like it’s an “internal” issue, that it’s a matter at home for us to sort out amongst ourselves. But please know this: These occupations I have been talking about are not internal issues; rather they are international matters, needing urgent attention of the rest of the world. Even at a basic level, educate yourself about the fractures in these overly simplified categories of “South Asian” and “people of color”. You should slow down, and carefully study the politics of academics you are supporting by inviting them to contribute articles and give talks. This is not because Black and brown people need your blessings. But the structural truth on the ground is that white academics are often powerful actors.  So it is your everyday responsibility to fight the Orientalist, racist, often very anti-Muslim frameworks, and pay attention to what the occupied people themselves are saying.

I began this article, and focused quite a bit, on Palestine. I began with asking a question about the ethics of talking about Palestine in academia. But Palestine is an important archetype, an important site for my critiques and reflections. As my discussions above clearly show, I am critical of all ‘objects’ (by which I mean spaces, events, and structures) which have or can become a site for performing unhelpful (if not harmful) radicality for academics.  I am critical of Brahmin scholars who write about caste without making their positionality and intentions clear, without carefully and ethically centering Dalit-Bahujan theorists in non-fetishizing ways; I am suspicious of several kinds of works on Kashmir by savarna scholars that do not begin with their own dinner table conversations and calling Indian occupation by its name; I am invested in thinking about how I talk about white settler colonialism and anti-Blackness to perform my radical politics, without thinking about all the violences done in my name to so many of my Others in Pakistan. Whether it’s Palestine, or Kashmir, or Balochistan, or caste-talk, all of these can become sites for counter-productive work if we stop asking these important questions about complicity. Some Palestinian colleagues recently told me that global attention to Palestine’s occupation, according to their observation, has probably waned over last few years. This, I believe, at least for us on the Left is because of how we might have framed our question(s) about solidarity work. Therefore, I am asking from all of us a commitment to politics based on self-critique grounded in ongoing reflections and asking hard questions of ourselves. If we did that work, all of us non-Palestinian, non-Black, non-Indigenous people in North American academia, we all will be able to concretely trace where out complicity might be in the structures of violence which keep Palestinians as occupied people.

Even as I am teaching my graduate course on complicating the local and global politics of solidarity work, I tell my students that I remain uncertain about what being in solidarity means. There are so many questions about the philosophies and politics of solidarity that remain unclear to me. But I strongly believe that we need to constantly attend to the ethics of doing solidarity work as academics, and that is what motivated this post. I am not saying don’t teach about Palestine. We must stand in solidarity with Palestinians. I plan to approach the occupation of Palestine through talking to my students about Kashmir, Waziristan, Balochistan and other occupations including the ones here in the U.S., of course. And I will also continue to watch myself.

As I grow older, as I begin to get a better sense of how certain ideas circulate in the public sphere, and the more I believe in the importance of keeping these critiques alive. Repeating, restating, reframing our arguments is important intellectual and political work. And, sometimes, it is the very mundane that is actually profound.

[i] I am particularly focused on Palestinian academics here. I am thinking of more widely circulated cases of Dr. Steven Salaita and Dr. Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi here, for instance. Being evicted/expelled from academia as in the case of Dr. Salaita, and the constant terror directed at Dr. Abdulhandi are stories that have been widely circulated amongst the pro-Palestinian groups. However, I am also thinking about the many Palestinian scholar colleagues and friends who feel the terror of working in the Zionist academia here every day. I am also thinking about Palestinian students who are targeted in various ways on and off campus.

[ii] These are not mutually exclusive categories. For example, Muslims can be Dalit or upper-caste. I also use Pakistani as a national identity but without wanting to erase religious, caste, ethnic, sectarian and other differences. Not all people who are considered Pakistanis by the census or the government see themselves as Pakistanis. Like all modern nation-states, diversity is mobilized only to support the narrative of “we are united and for our country” but these are dangerous lies that stand over bodies and lands of occupied, dispossessed, dead, and marginalized people(s). I write here as a Pakistani woman whose parents came to Pakistan from Chittagong and Dhaka as refugees with their families in 1971. I do not wish to erase the violent acts committed by the Pakistani military against people now known as Bangladeshis. But I call myself Pakistani to be able to account for my complicity in ongoing occupations by the country I was born in.

[iii] In writing this, I want to clarify to the reader that I am not saying none of these Hindu savarna academics ethically think through questions of accountability, or that their work on solidarity hasn’t been important. But, here I am discussing the structural. Brahminical supremacy is a structure just like white supremacy. People of color can also participate in white supremacy, and so, non-Brahmins too participate in upholding Brahminical supremacy. These are the structures we uphold, work within, and continue to challenge. Clarifying this hopefully will deter questions about, “what about xyz Brahmin scholar who writes about Kashmir too?” If critiquing white supremacy is not about criticizing all white people, then neither is my argument about all Brahmin or all other savarna scholars.

[iv] I want to quickly point out that I understand that in some cases, Kashmiri Muslim feminists in diaspora have also used the word Indian “administered” rather than occupied for Kashmir. However, I find it disingenuous for Indian savarna and Brahmin scholars to do the same.

[v] If you would like more familiarity with learning about what caste is and how it operates in North America, please see Equality Lab’s, a South Asian organization in the US, 2018 report on casteism in the US:

[vi] As an example, as one of the few amongst many, please see Dalit activist-theorist, Thenmozhi Soundarajan’s article on South Asians supporting Trump:

[vii] In making the statement that Pakistan is also an occupying state in today’s context, there are other histories such as that of 1971 which I have in mind but I can’t explore those here.

Shaista Patel works as an Assistant Professor of Critical Muslim Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Trained to be an interdisciplinary scholar, her primary research questions are in conversation with theories of critical Muslim, transnational, critical Indigenous, Black feminist, and anti-caste literature.