Musharraf Missed Many Good Opportunities in His Jewish Debut

By Judea Pearl

LOS ANGELES, September 28(2005): The September 17 meeting in New York, at which Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf addressed the Jewish community under the auspices of the American Jewish Congress, was characterized by many observers as “historic.”


Indeed, formally speaking, Musharraf’s address was unprecedented in that it was it was the first time that a leader of a Muslim nation, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, held a public dialogue with Jewish leaders.

However, the signals radiating from that meeting need to be evaluated on their individual merits, in the context of the opportunities that the meeting opened to Musharraf and the Jewish community.

Make no mistake about it, the symbolic gestures produced at the Saturday meeting will have a significant impact on the Pakistani public, to whom organized world Jewry is generally presented as a hostile force with an anti-Islamic agenda.

Musharraf’s very appearance, his prayer with rabbis and imams, the standing ovations that punctuated his speech, the praise that he received from prominent Jewish leaders, the conciliatory words that he expressed and his portrayal of Jews as champions of humanity, even fighters for Muslim’s rights, were all broadcast back to Pakistan with full media fanfare. Considering that positive portrayal of Jews is practicably non-existent in the Pakistani media (and strictly tabooed on Al-Jazeera), these respect-building symbols will undoubtedly lead to some re-humanization of the Jewish image and a broad legitimization of dialogue between Jews and Muslims.

Another significant message of the event was Musharraf’s acknowledgment, albeit tacit, of the inextricable bond between Jews and Israel. Unlike so many Muslim leaders, he did not try to drive a wedge between Judaism and Zionism. Rather, by speaking to the Jewish leadership as a monolithic body that stands uniformly and unconditionally behind Israel, he in effect sent his countrymen an unspoken, hard and long overdue message: Respect for Jews entails respect for Zionism.

On the substantive level, however, Musharraf’s speech was thin in innovative thoughts. Of course, no one expected him to make bold political proclamations such as recognizing Israel, or even lifting restrictions on trade with Israel. Nevertheless, there were nonpolitical, mostly ideological steps that a leader in his capacity could have taken; he did not.

The boldest explicit statement Musharraf made in his address was actually aimed at terrorism. By stating unequivocally that terrorism “cannot be condoned for any reason or cause,” including by implication the Palestinian cause, he bravely positioned himself against powerful Muslim clerics and popular leftist ideologues who, through a variety of logic-twisting arguments, labor to expel Israeli victims of terror from the scope of moral considerations. He should be applauded for this stance.

But going back to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Musharraf missed a golden opportunity to make a constructive contribution to the peace process. He knows quite well that the major obstacle to peace in the Middle East is not Israel’s presence in the West Bark nor the final status of Jerusalem but the issue of Palestinian refugees and the continuing Arab rejection of the historical legitimacy of Israel.

After all, Pakistan herself voted against the UN partition plan of 1947, which entailed an independent Palestinian state in twice the area of the West Bank and Gaza and no refugee problem to cope with.

Musharraf also knows that the vast majority of Muslims today, including his countrymen, still view Israel as an outpost of European colonialism, and that such a rejectionist view paralyzes Israel from considering major territorial concessions. He could, therefore, have made a bold historical move by declaring Israel the legitimate historical homeland of the Jewish people. Alternatively, to make things perfectly symmetrical, he could have framed the Middle East conflict as a clash between “two legitimate national movements.”

Instead, and before an audience familiar with Palestinian textbooks, Musharraf advocated the old theory that the Palestinians’ aspirations are limited to an independent state within the 1967 borders while skillfully skirting the issue of Israel legitimacy.

In his speech to the UN that same week, he had said: “Almost everyone has recognized that Israel is there now to stay” – namely, Israel is a necessary evil that others have been forced to recognize, not an asset to the region that I, Musharraf, am prepared to recognize.

Musharraf has thus missed the historic opportunity of being the first Muslim leader to jolt his countrymen from the pit of rejectionism to the height of mutual acceptance.

Another missed opportunity was Musharraf’s failure to solidify his promise to “support inter-faith and inter-civilizational dialogue and harmony” in a concrete institutional commitment. Prior to his meeting in New York, I requested that Musharraf consider the establishment of a Muslim-Jewish Dialogue Center in Karachi named after my late son, Daniel Pearl, who was murdered in Karachi and who came to symbolize the very idea of East-West dialogue. Such a Center would have given Musharraf’s vision of open society and “enlightened moderation” the credibility that comes from concrete embodiment.

I was disappointed that Musharraf did not respond to my request. But I am, at least, encouraged by the fact that Representative Tom Lantos has lent his support to the idea and raised the issue with Musharraf at the New York meeting.

The writer is a professor of computer science at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, named after his son, a Wall Street Journal reporter murdered in 2002 in Pakistan.

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