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In Surprise Move, Pakistani Leader to Address American Jewish Groups

August 24, 2005
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When Pakistan’s president visits the United States in September for the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly, his itinerary will include an unusual stop for the leader of a Muslim nation with no ties to Israel: the American Jewish Congress. Pervez Musharraf’s decision to address a group of American Jewish leaders at a New York meeting hosted by the AJCongress, shortly after the U.N. meetings is a bold move, those familiar with details of the visit say, especially considering that he already has survived several assassination attempts by Muslim extremists.

“Someone needs to break the ice so that Muslims, Westerners, Jews and other religions can have a dialogue and end the confrontation that we’re in,” said Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress, whose Council for World Jewry is sponsoring the Musharraf dinner. “If he’s willing to take that risk and do it, then we are willing to give a home to that platform.”

In May, Rosen — along with Phil Baum, the AJCongress’ senior adviser on foreign affairs, and David Twersky, the group’s director of international affairs — met Musharraf in Islamabad. Discussions focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, normalization of relations with Israel, Muslim extremism, terrorism and Musharraf’s theory of “enlightened moderation.”

The Pakistani president “was very personal, easy to talk to,” Rosen said of the 90-minute meeting. “He understood his subject matters well on all the topics we brought up. We had a very interesting and enlightening conversation.”

During the discussion, Rosen said, the American Jews suggested to Musharraf that he address a Jewish audience on his next visit to the United States. Three weeks ago, he accepted their invitation.

The event will be held in mid-September, shortly after the opening session of the General Assembly.

Pakistani officials could not be immediately be reached for comment.

Jewish officials lauded the move.

“It’s a good opportunity,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “Pakistan is a key country. We have had contact in the past, and I think his willingness to do a public event of this kind is significant.”

Indeed, Jewish officials say, Musharraf’s address could inspire other Muslim leaders to speak out more vocally for religious moderation.

Rosen said he hopes the event “will attract others and allow others to step forward as well, and maybe it will spark something new here and be the beginning a of a dialogue that has to take place here between Muslims and the West, and certainly Muslims and the Jews.”

Israel’s recent Gaza Strip withdrawal may have a similar effect.

“We are finding greater openness, desire for dialogue between leaders of Muslim countries, both in the Middle East and elsewhere — African Muslim leaders, Asian Muslim leaders,” Hoenlein said. “The disengagement enhances what already was a trend before that.”

But not everyone is thrilled by Musharraf’s approaching visit. Though he said U.S. Jewry should take every opportunity to to sensitize Musharraf to Jewish concerns, Abraham Foxman said he is wary of the Pakistani leader’s intentions.

Pakistan, said Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, long has been a center of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda, and has turned a “blind eye when it comes to terrorism against Israel, Jews.”

Like leaders of other Muslim nations, Musharraff may believe that the path to better relations with Washington runs through the Jewish community. He may also want to balance Israel’s growing ties with India, Pakistan’s historic rival.

“I think we’re being used by the Pakistanis,” Foxman said. “I don’t feel comfortable with that. I don’t think they’ve earned for us to be used. They find it in their interest to show Washington that, Look, we’re meeting with the Jewish community. I find that distasteful.”

Further, some complain that Pakistan has not done enough to fight terrorism within its borders and to tamp down on the radical version of Islam being taught in some of its madrassas, or religious academies.

But AJCongress officials said that makes the visit even more important.

“At a time where it is difficult, if not almost impossible, to find a moderate Muslim leader of any stature to speak out publicly” against terrorism, “we feel this is an opportunity that shouldn’t be passed by,” Rosen said.

“We are facing a war of civilizations here, and we have to take some risks,” he added.

Musharraff raised Jewish leaders’ expectations two years ago, when he spoke of the possibility of Pakistan establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. He later backtracked in the face of Muslim anger over his comments.

Rosen said he expects Musharraf’s remarks to address his philosophy of “enlightened moderation.” Musharraf outlined the policy in the summer of 2003 and has spoken about it repeatedly since, arguing that it’s the best method to counter extremism and terrorism.

The strategy calls on Muslims to shun violence and extremism in favor of “socioeconomic uplift,” and urges the West to resolve all political disputes justly and with an eye toward the economic betterment of the Muslim world.

“He’s not going to say anything new here,” Rosen said. “What’s unique here is the constituency that he’s going to be speaking to — a constituency that the Muslim world has been demonizing.”

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