Did Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, satisfy his audience of several hundred American Jewish leaders in New York on Saturday night in addressing the Mideast conflict and Islamic-Jewish relations?Some praised Musharraf, who heads the largest Islamic republic with nuclear power, for his courage in publicly calling for peaceful means to resolve the longstanding blood wars.Noting that the Israeli and Pakistani foreign ministers had met only days earlier, through Turkish auspices, American Jewish Congress president Jack Rosen said Musharraf’s call for a “new Islamic society based on pluralism and tolerance” could herald a new era of peace.” Rosen called the meeting with American Jewish leaders a “historic moment.”Other Jewish leaders expressed disappointment, however, following Musharraf’s 30-minute address, during which he described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a root cause of world terror and said full diplomatic relations between Israel and Pakistan would come only after the creation of a Palestinian state.“What have we achieved?” asked Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “In his world, in his culture, this is a major step. From our perspective it isn’t.”Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, criticized Musharraf for making demands on Israel — the Pakistani president called for withdrawal from the West Bank now — while giving the Palestinians “a free pass.”
But for many of those at the kosher dinner at the Marriott Hotel, perhaps the most significant aspect of the evening may not have been Musharraf’s words but his presence along with about 60 Pakistani officials and American Pakistanis — including the president’s brothers, a doctor from Chicago and businessman from Atlanta — under the banner of the AJCongress’ Council for World Jewry. The proceedings were heavily covered by the media, including Pakistani television.The Jewish leaders were aware that Musharraf, a military man who came to power seven years ago, heads a country that as he affirmed, strongly identifies with the cause of the Palestinian people. He has survived at least two attempts on his life in recent months by al-Qaeda, so there was a sense that his highly publicized appearance with Jewish leaders, during which he acknowledged the legitimacy of the Jewish religion, was a significant step in the Muslim world.Rosen, who worked for many months behind the scenes to make the event a reality, said it was unfair to expect too much from Musharraf at the outset of what the AJCongress president hopes will be a long and fruitful dialogue.
“We couldn’t have expected him to become a Zionist Saturday night,” Rosen said in an interview two days later. “It takes time.”Rosen was more impressed with Musharraf’s comments about seeking peaceful ways to address differences in the Jewish-Muslim relationship than his remarks about resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which Rosen noted were similar to those of Western European countries like France in putting the onus on Israel.“What we do know is that the Muslim press heard and reported him saying that he looks forward to normalized relations, that Jews and Muslims need to bridge the gap between them, and that Jews suffered from the Holocaust,” Rosen said. “That to me is a key victory for us.”
In his speech Saturday night, Musharraf emphasized his strategy of “Enlightened Moderation,” which he characterized as advocating “reform, social and economic progress and rejection of extremism in Islamic societies” coupled with the West’s need to resolve the “Palestinian problem.”After the speech, he took five questions from the audience, and his responses seemed more sincere than those of many politicians, sometimes admitting he had not considered fully the issue raised.Asked about the madrasas in his country, he said there are positive and negative aspects to the 12,000 religious schools. While providing free education and lodging for even the poorest children, the schools sometimes indoctrinate students with religious hatred, he acknowledged.Musharraf pledged to “mainstream these students into society” and have the schools teach subjects other than religion, but noted that “this is easier said than done.”Asked by Foxman about why the need to postpone diplomatic relations with Israel until after Palestinian statehood, Musharraf said the decades of bitterness could not be undone overnight.“I believe in seizing opportunities,” the president said, “but this is not the moment.”Daniel Pipes, an academic and outspoken critic of militant Islam, asked Musharraf if he would make known to the Muslim world the long and important history of Jewish-Muslim relations from centuries past. No, Musharraf responded, not at the moment.David Makovsky, a journalist and Mideast expert, called on Musharraf to tell the Muslim world of Israel’s legitimacy and historical ties to the land, and to make clear that Palestinian refugees will go to Palestine, not Israel, as part of any future peace negotiations.Musharraf said he would consider the suggestions but had not thought of them until now.
He said his next step was to move toward normalizing relations with Jews.Judea Pearl, a professor at UCLA whose son, Daniel, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was murdered in Pakistan, told The Jewish Week that Musharraf deserved praise for publicly meeting with American Jews and “legitimizing further dialogue.”
But Pearl said he was disappointed the president did not take the lead in making clear Israel’s right to exist and in admitting that he is unwilling to go against the opinion of his people, whom he described as deeply sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.“He’s not ready,” said Pearl, “but I hope dialogue will lead to more information exchange because Pakistanis don’t know that Israel is important to Jews or even what Zionism is.”Pearl had requested in a recent letter to Musharraf that Pakistan open a Muslim-Jewish center for dialogue in Karachi, where his son was killed, in memory of Daniel. He said he had yet to receive a response from the president.JTA contributed to this report.