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AJCongress Opens Talks With Group Of Islamists

The American Jewish Congress has opened an initial discussion with a Muslim group associated with the main Islamist party in Pakistan and is considering deeper contacts.

The dialogue, involving the Jewish group and the Islamic Circle of North America, has been approved by Jewish, Israeli and American officials, according to AJCongress sources. The Muslim group is said to be close to the Jamaat-e-Islami party, the oldest and most prominent Islamic party in Pakistan, which does not recognize Israel and whose leaders have expressed sympathy for the Taliban.

“This is a knowing effort to reach out to Muslim fundamentalists,” said an AJCongress source, stressing that the group had made clear to its interlocutors its strong commitment to Israel.

The move, which comes in the midst of a series of back-channel contacts between Israel and Pakistan, has drawn sharp criticism and cast a light on a simmering debate over the nature of Islamic fundamentalism. The debate pits those who see Islamic fundamentalism as an implacably hostile entity against those who believe the Islamist movement has a more moderate wing willing to coexist with the West. The second group favors dialogue between the West — including Israel and Jewish groups — and what it considers the moderate wing of Islamic fundamentalism.

Critics, including terrorism analyst Steven Emerson, accuse the American-based Islamic group of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an international organization that they describe as the ideological godfather of all radical Islamic movements, including Hamas and Al Qaeda. Documents show that Hamas officials have spoken at ICNA conferences and that some incendiary anti-Israel and anti-Western speeches have been delivered at the group’s meetings in recent years.

But in an interview with the Forward, ICNA’s secretary-general, Naeem Baig, denied that the group has links to the Jamaat-e-Islami or the Muslim Brotherhood and said that the group was not linked to terrorism. “We are not linked to any political party,” Baig said. “As Muslims, we don’t condone violence by any group or state. We believe it is an opportunity to start a dialogue, and we should take it.”

Several independent experts, however, told the Forward on condition of anonymity that ICNA was close to the Islamic party and that the party’s ideology was similar to the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, sources close to AJCongress confirmed that those ties were part of the reason for its decision to reach out to the Muslim group.

One of the most vocal critics of such outreach efforts is Stephen Schwartz, director of the Islam and Democracy program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington and the author of “The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa’Ud from Tradition to Terror.”

“The Wahhabis, al-Qaeda, Ikhwan [i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood], Taliban, all have declared war first on the rest of the world’s Muslims, and they seek first to control and dominate the rest of the world’s Muslims,” Schwartz wrote in an e-mail to the Forward. “To some extent this is with the idea that they can then launch the world’s Muslims into jihad against everyone else, but in the short term terrorism against Israel and the United States is intended as much to intimidate and mobilize Muslims to the Wahhabi cause as it is to directly inflict harm on the U.S. and Israelis.”

Efforts to lump all Islamic fundamentalist groups together have been criticized by several observers, including Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Shin Bet, the Israeli general security service. “We need to see the nuances of fundamentalist Islam in order to understand it and deal with it,” Ayalon said. “I have had to deal firsthand with those groups, and I can say there is a huge difference between Hamas and Al Qaeda. Hamas hails from the Muslim Brotherhood and has red lines it will never cross, for instance the idea to kill other Muslims to advance the cause. But for Al Qaeda, killing other Muslims is perfectly legitimate.”

The debate has policy implications in the way Israel handles Hamas, which is considered the Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood. While the Israeli government has apparently decided that it is not worth engaging the group and is now committed to dismantling it, Ayalon believes Hamas should be given a chance to eschew terrorism and become a political party.

It was against the backdrop of this debate that Phil Baum, the former professional head of AJCongress and adviser to the organization, was contacted by a Pakistani and put in touch with the ICNA.

“They said they were willing to speak out against terrorism if we would make clear that Israel was not seeking to destroy the Muslim holy sites,” an AJCongress official said. “For us, it was an easy thing to do.”

After ICNA leaders invited Baum to speak at their annual convention, AJCongress sources said, he checked up on the group with critics of Islamic fundamentalism, as well as with Israeli officials and American officials at the National Security Council and the State Department.

“They contacted me as a friend to see if there was any problem with this,” said Alon Pinkas, Israeli consul general in New York, “to which I replied that I would encourage outreach to any Muslim group, as long as they put the onus on them.”

Both Israeli and U.S. officials reportedly encouraged him to go ahead and he eventually decided to send a letter, which was publicly read at the convention in Philadelphia during the July 4 weekend. The letter was later published, at the Islamic circle’s initiative, in a leading newspaper in Pakistan, Dawn.

“The idea of a dialogue between our two communities is at its earliest stages and must traverse a lengthy road filled with obstacles,” Baum wrote in the letter, according to a copy obtained by the Forward. The June 30 letter was first reported on by United Press International earlier this month.

Baum sent the letter soon after Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf visited the United States and hinted that his country might eventually recognize Israel. This provoked outrage in Pakistan, especially amid Islamic parties.

Baig, ICNA’s secretary-general, insisted that the offer to start a dialogue had nothing to do with Musharraf’s visit, saying the efforts started back in March, when some members of his group came into contact with Baum. AJCongress officials said they did not know if the decision was linked to back-channel contacts between Israel and Pakistan.

“The assumption has to be that ICNA consulted the Jamaat before doing this, and the Jamaat felt it was better to do this kind of outreach abroad than at home because it would be explosive to do that in Pakistan,” an observer said, adding that there had been a flurry of “feelers” between Israel and Pakistan in recent months, especially now that Israel is getting closer to India.

Baig told the Forward that his organization had sent a letter back to AJCongress offering to meet and start a dialogue. Baig said he had suggested in the letter that another major group, the Islamic Society of North America, or ISNA, be invited to participate — and AJCongress officials approved. The Islamic society, which is more Arab-dominated than ICNA, is often portrayed as the largest Muslim group in the United States and is said to have close links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

AJCongress officials confirmed that the second Muslim group had joined the discussion, but insisted that they still had not decided on whether to proceed with a more formal dialogue. One issue is whether the Islamic groups will issue a clear and public condemnation of terrorism against Israelis.

Attempts by AJCongress to set up a dialogue with the Islamic groups were criticized by some observers.

“There are serious dangers attending to giving legitimacy to radical Islamic groups in the same way as there is danger to attend legitimacy to racist groups like the KKK,” said Emerson, director of the Washington-based Investigative Project and a longtime critic of radical Islamic groups.

“When you talk about common ground, I am sure David Duke is against crime and pollution. But the issue is terrorism and ICNA and ISNA are disciples of the Muslim Brotherhood, which gave birth to Al Qaeda and Hamas.”

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