Friday, September 02, 2005

POLITICS/COMMENT: Twin Nations Finally Start Talking

Pakistan and Israel were founded hardly a year apart. They were both nations carved out for a religious minority. The creation of both these states involved uprooting millions of indigenous peoples who had been living there for centuries. They both have had difficult relations with their neighbours.

Pakistan and Israel are both close allies of the United States, and have been so since their creation. The religions that inspired their creation could be regarded as near-identical twins. Add Jesus, John the Baptist, Mary and Muhammad to Jewish theological equation and you have Islam.

Pakistan if often described as an Islamic Israel. And Israel could just as easily be described as a Jewish Pakistan. So why has it taken so long for these two nations to start talking?

On 1 September, the foreign ministers of both nations met and talks in Istanbul. The Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom described the event as an “historic meeting”. Meanwhile, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri described his country’s willingness to “engage” with Israel, though stopping short at this stage of establishing full diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

So what led to all this? Was Pakistan pushed? Did the United States lean on President Musharraf and threaten sanctions of talks did not commence?

In fact, none of these scenarios are realistic. What is realistic is a growing sense of realism in the Muslim world. With international media showing scenes of Israeli soldiers forcibly removing settlements from the Occupied territories, and with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon openly describing settlers as “Jewish terrorists”, Muslims are beginning to realise that Israel is prepared to make concessions.

It seems the Muslim world is going through a process one may describe as “Saladdinisation”. Saladdin, the Kurdish general who fought the Crusaders, fought to remove the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem and liberate the city. Saladdin is regarded as a hero, a veritable warrior-saint in Muslim consciousness.

Yet Saladdin was no blind warrior. He was a wily politician who realised that the real battle was the one not involving loss of life. He was more concerned with political posturing than with killing infidels.

Saladdin fought the Christian kingdoms but had no hesitation in recognising them and holding dialogues and entering treaties with them. Yet perhaps more significantly, Saladdin did not see the fight against the Crusaders as a war on all Christians.

He actively recruited soldiers and advisers from Christian communities, and made a point to understand and address the ideological motivations of the Crusader warriors. He also exploited their weaknesses, the poverty of their soldiers and the tribal and ethnic rivalries between the various Crusader factions.

Saladdin won battles in the battlefield, but also won lasting respect off the battlefield. His military successes are well remembered, but his diplomatic successes were all the more remarkable.

Had Saladdin taken the rejectionist ad isolationist approach which so many of his junior officers advised he take, he would never have even come close to liberating Jerusalem and removing the Crusaders from the region. Yet it is this very approach which most Arab and Muslim nations continue to take.

The failure of Muslim nations to have friendly relations with a Jewish entity is an anomaly in Muslim history. Saladdin’s own personal physician and adviser was also a rabbi. In fact, he was perhaps the greatest medieval Jewish theologian, known to Muslims as Shaykh Musa bin Maymoun al-Qurtubi and to Jews as Moses Maimonides.

In the Indian sub-continent, Jews and Muslims have always had friendly relations. The Jewish communities in Bombay and Poona often use the word “namaz” to describe their prayer, a word generally used by Muslims to describe the 5 daily prayers.

The powerful Memon Muslim tribes in the Gujarat state of India have always traded with Jewish communities. Substantial Memon communities exist in South Africa, and they trade extensively Jewish South Africans of Lithuanian and Latvian ethnicity. Even in Australia, there are strong business and social links between South African Muslim and Jewish migrants.

It was, therefore, only a matter of time before Pakistan’s government would cave into pressure from its own influential Memon business sector and commence talks with Israel. Pakistan’s dialogue with Israel is probably more about rupees than any ideological shift.

Pakistan’s Islamist sector will attempt to hijack the discussions. But their efforts will be thwarted by the fact that these talks are being hosted by Turkey’s Islamist government. Perhaps Pakistani Islamists could learn some pragmatism from the sensible AK Party of Turkey.

Talks between Israel and Pakistan are a welcome step. One can only hope that these talks will be the beginning of a new era in Muslim-Jewish relations which will revive the historically strong ties between the two faiths.