When the Malaysian currency tanked in late 1997, the country’s then-prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, said he had “definite information” that Jews were the cause. “We do not want to say that this is a plot by the Jews, but in reality it is a Jew who triggered the currency plunge, and coincidentally [financier George] Soros is a Jew.” Mahathir went on to say that just as “the Jews would rob Palestinians … this is what they are doing to our country.”
Mahathir’s antisemitism is so typical of discourse in the Muslim world over the last generation that I have found an “uneasy parallel” between it and Nazi Germany of the 1930s.
This background makes clear the historic nature of a speech by the president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, to the American Jewish Congress on Sep. 17. More coincidentally, he too singled out George Soros as a symbol of Jewish financial prowess, but very differently.
Lauding Jewish groups in the United States, Musharraf remarked that they “were at the forefront in opposing the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Bosnia,” adding: “I am told that the largest contributor to the Bosnian cause was the Jewish-American businessman and philanthropist, George Soros.”
Most news coverage of the Musharraf speech focused on the prospect of Pakistan opening diplomatic relations with Israel (Reuters: “Pakistan leader urges US Jews to help make peace”), but what is potentially of lasting importance about the Musharraf address – beyond the mere fact of its being delivered to a Jewish organization – was the president’s respectful, accurate, and constructive comments about Jews.
He began with the important observation that Jews and Muslims “have many similarities and few divergences in their faith and culture,” then listed three specifics: belief in the oneness of God, shared ways of greeting, and a common phrase in the Talmud and Koran. And Moses, he pointed out, is the prophet most often referred to in the Koran.
Musharraf noted how “our experiences and histories intertwine” and then elaborated on what he called the two communities’ “rich and very long” history of interaction. He mentioned the “shining examples” of Cordova, Baghdad, Istanbul, and Bukhara, the golden period of Muslim Spain, and the joint experience of the Spanish Inquisition. Generalizing from the inquisition, he correctly asserted that Jews and Muslims “have not only lived together and shared prosperity, but also suffered together.”
Against this background, Musharraf portrayed the period since 1945 as an aberration. As I have also noted, 1945 was the pivotal year when Jews stopped leaving Christendom for Islamdom and reversed directions. The past six decades, in other words, broke a pattern of thirteen centuries. Musharraf resisted ascribing blame for this gulf but limited himself to noting that the problems occurred during the “bloodiest century in human history.”
He commended American Jews for their role in protecting Bosnian Muslims and praised them for offering “legal and other assistance” to Muslims in the United States. “I wish to acknowledge and appreciate this,” he said. Musharraf also flattered Jews as “probably the most distinguished and influential community” in the United States. Looking to the future, he emphasized the role of compassion in repairing Muslim-Jewish relations.
Properly to appreciate the significance of this speech means hearing it with Muslim ears. It may not sound like much, for example, that he referred to the Holocaust as the Jewish people’s “greatest tragedy,” but the profusion of Muslim Holocaust deniers, including Mahmoud Abbas, makes this an important statement.
Musharraf’s speech can significantly affect Muslim views of Jews only if it is part of a larger effort. So, in the question period, I asked him if he would take steps to ensure that his vision of Jews be spread. He admitted to having not thought this through but on the spot there, in public, in view of a bank of television cameras, he made a commitment to do precisely that.
Musharraf’s reaching out to Jews is part of a much broader project of developing what he calls “Enlightened Moderation” in Islam. Although until now more talk than action, even the talk is a major achievement. Sadly, only Musharraf and one other Muslim leader, King Abdullah II of Jordan, are articulating a moderate version of Islam, but at least those two are doing so.
For his efforts, Musharraf deserves appreciation and encouragement.