Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has agreed to speak to a group of Jewish communal leaders when he comes to New York in September for the United Nations General Assembly.
The event was planned after a secret meeting in Pakistan between Musharraf and three top officials at the American Jewish Congress in late May. Invitations have been sent out to officials from American Jewish organizations, as well as to a number of diplomats from Muslim nations that have been described as moderate by the Bush administration.
The announcement comes as Musharraf is trying to strike a difficult balancing act between improving relations with Western countries and maintaining support among religious Muslims at home. He has sided publicly with the United States in the global war on terror and pushed a vision of “enlightened moderation” for Islamic nations.
Musharraf’s critics said that he has failed to deliver on promises to foster democracy and fight terrorism. But an official at the State Department, along with leaders of Jewish organizations, told the Forward that Musharraf’s very willingness to meet publicly with Jewish leaders shows the importance of engaging him, in spite of the continuing problems in Pakistan.
“It’s still a very complicated and difficult country,” said a State Department official, who asked not to be identified. “But the fact is that the president of Pakistan is trying to articulate a vision of Islam that is different than the one in which terrorists find comfort.”
Invitations have been sent out to diplomats from Egypt, Russia and India, among other nations, but the AJCongress leaders described the meeting foremost as one with American Jewish leaders. The Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee are among the other Jewish groups that have been invited.
A spokeswoman at the Pakistani embassy, however, used different language to describe the event, saying it would be an “interfaith gathering,” that would be “attended by followers of all faiths including Muslims, Christians and Jews.”
Officials from the invited Jewish organizations expressed excitement about the potential meeting. In the past, Jewish groups have met clandestinely with Muslim leaders for private discussions, frequently in concert with the U.N. General Assembly in New York, but the planned dinner is a new step. David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said, “It’s an important step forward if the Pakistani president is now willing to go public with American Jewish leadership.”
At least one top communal official, however, was less enthusiastic about the event. Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said he was not sure if he would attend, given Pakistan’s continuing place as a hotbed for Islamic terrorists.
“Pakistan is not the enemy of the Jewish people, but I’m not sure I’m ready to break bread with this man,” Foxman said. “I find that a little uncomfortable.”
Whatever the risks for Jewish groups, though, they are nothing compared to the risk that Musharraf is taking in accepting the invitation from the AJCongress, some observers said. Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, has been a frequent target of Islamic fundamentalists since he began working with the United States four years ago to fight Al Qaeda after the September 11 terrorist attacks. In the past 18 months there have been at least eight attempts on his life.
“I didn’t think he would go this far,” said Dana Dillon, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, about Musharraf’s dinner plans. “He does have a large radical Muslim population. If they find out he is meeting with Jews, they’ll accuse him of all kinds of things. It’s another brave move on his part.”
At least some of the Islamic anger over Musharraf in the past has related to Israel. In 2003, just before traveling to the United States to meet with President Bush, Musharraf broke new ground when he suggested that Pakistan might need to rethink its refusal to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Musharraf’s comments were met with harsh derision from Islamic political parties in Pakistan.
Since then, the Pakistani president has said repeatedly that official diplomatic ties could come only after an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
An official at the Israeli embassy in Washington told the Forward that “Israel would welcome expanding ties with Pakistan.”
A number of experts on Pakistan said that Musharraf’s government has been making an effort to improve relations with Israel in an effort to neutralize Israel’s budding relationship with India, Pakistan’s foe in the ongoing battle over the disputed Kashmir region.
The larger cause of Musharraf’s problems has been his moves against Islamic fundamentalists. Before 9/11, Pakistan had been allied closely with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but afterward Musharraf allowed the United States to use Pakistan as a launching pad for the war in Afghanistan.
On the domestic front, Musharraf vowed in 2001 to crack down on the Islamic Muslim schools — known as madrassas — which analysts said were a prime training ground for terrorists. Three of the four terrorists implicated in the July 7 terrorist attacks in London came from Pakistan.
Giving all his statements and initiatives a strategic framework, last year Musharraf made a call to Muslims for “enlightened moderation.” In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Musharraf wrote: “We have refused to learn or acquire from others. We have reached the depths of despair and despondency. We need to face stark reality.”
Heritage Foundation analyst Dillon and other Pakistan experts say that Musharraf’s discussions of reform have been followed by differing levels of follow through. After the London bombings, Musharraf was attacked in Britain for not having cracked down on the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan. This past spring, the International Crisis Group released a report in which it said that “instead of empowering liberal, democratic voices, the [Pakistani] government has co-opted the religious right and continues to rely on it to counter civilian opposition.”
Leaders at the AJCongress said they recognized the progress that still has to be made in Pakistan, but said it was no reason to swear off dialogue.
“We can’t go on forever just in the confrontational war mode,” said David Twersky, director of international affairs for the AJCongress. “He’s the best opportunity on the table today, not only for the Jewish community but for America.”
The AJCongress officials held informal talks with Pakistani officials for two years before they were invited for the meeting with Musharraf. The meeting in May lasted for an hour, and included Musharraf, one cabinet minister, a military attaché and Musharraf’s chief of staff. The AJCongress was represented by Twersky, the AJCongress’s chairman, Jack Rosen, and its former executive director, Phil Baum.
Historically known for its domestic civil rights platform, the AJCongress has been making waves in recent years with bold international initiatives. The organization took an aggressive position on antisemitism in France and aligned earlier this year with a Chabad-dominated Russian Jewish group that has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Much of the new work has been led by Rosen, the chairman and former president of the AJCongress, who recently helped created the organization’s Council on World Jewry. Rosen is a supporter of President Bush and visited with the president in Crawford, Texas, a few weeks before the invitations to the Musharraf event went out. According to Rosen, after he told Bush about the meeting, the president said, “Great!”