January 13, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 251

Pakistan's Islamic Clerics Debate Normalization Of Relations With Israel

January 13, 2021 | By Tufail Ahmad*
Pakistan | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 251

Pakistan is once again engaged in an intellectual debate about its religious identity. The issue is whether to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, which, seen as the Jewish state, Pakistanis deem ideologically incompatible with the Islamic State of Pakistan. Pakistanis view their country as the Medina-e-Saani, the second Medina, after the holy city of Medina, which was the first Islamic state established by Prophet Muhammad after he proclaimed Islam.

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Although this debate has been a recurring theme in Pakistan's intellectual life, it re-emerged recently after several Islamic countries – the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco – decided to normalize relations with Israel. In December 2020, Pakistan's top-ranking Islamic scholar, Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani, reignited this debate by publicly advocating normalization with Israel.

Sherani is not an ordinary Islamic cleric in Pakistan. He has served two terms in Pakistan's National Assembly and has also served as chairman of Pakistan's Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), a constitutional body tasked with ensuring that the religious identity of the state of Pakistan remains in compliance with Islamic shari'a. He was also a central leader of the religious-political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) but has now been expelled.

Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani: "Educated Muslims Need To Understand That The Koran And History Prove To Us That The Land Of Israel Belongs Only To The Jews"

In an interview, Sherani said: "This is an international issue. I support recognition of Israel [by the state of Pakistan]"; "Educated Muslims need to understand that the Koran and history prove to us that the Land of Israel belongs only to the Jews. King David built the house of God in Jerusalem for the Israelis [sic] and not for the Palestinians."[1] He said: "It is worthy of the intellectual Muslims to read the Holy Koran ... [where Allah] said to the Prophet Moses: We have given land in your name or we have given land to your followers."[2]

Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani (center)

In Pakistan, the matter of establishing relations with Israel is sensitive due to decades of antisemitism propagated by Islamic clerics, politicians, and policymakers – an issue of mass anti-Jewish prejudice examined by this writer in an earlier research paper published by MEMRI.[3] Sherani's comment was not a passing remark. It appears that the religious scholar, before expressing his views, thought through this issue carefully in light of the decision by several Islamic states to establish diplomatic ties with Israel.

Sherani, who is respected as an elderly scholar, argued that Israel had been under the Ottoman Caliphate led by Turkey, which has accepted and recognized the state of Israel; that Israel was "a problem of the Arabs" but that they too accepted it; and that Pakistanis, sitting thousands of miles away, must not be emotional and should recognize Israel.[4] Pakistan's mainstream newspapers either totally ignored Sherani's statement or gave it just a few inches. Sherani's statement about the need to recognize Israel appeared on some websites on December 21-23, 2020.

Urdu Daily Roznama Ummat: "The Government Of Prime Minister Imran Khan Clearly Announced That Pakistan Will Not Recognize Israel"

Roznama Ummat, an Islamist newspaper, wrote an editorial titled "Are Ulema Too Pro-Israel?" which questioned the pro-Israel stance of Sherani and other clerics.[5] It stated: "Liberal and non-religious elements have adopted this stance from day one: that Israel snatched Palestinian land and that therefore it's an Arab problem, and there is no reason for Pakistan to have animosity towards Israel. Now, the argument is, if the Arabs are recognizing Israel, why should Pakistan nurse the entire world's grief in its heart? Now, even the Ulema [Islamic scholars] are explaining the blessings of recognizing Israel."[6]

A day later, on December 23, Roznama Ummat published a report titled: "[America's] Attempt To Buy Indonesia For Israel For Billions Of Dollars."[7] The report, which did not talk about Sherani's statement, noted that the U.S. had offered to double its investments in the largest Islamic nation, Indonesia, if it recognized the state of Israel.[8] On December 24, it published another front page report, not referring to Sherani, titled: "Pakistan, Saudi [Arabia] Not Ready To Recognize Israel – Israel Admits."[9] It added: "The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has clearly announced that Pakistan will not recognize Israel until the resolution of the Palestinian issue."[10]

However, the Roznama Ummat editorial, in its attempt to discredit Sherani and others, provided some historical insights on whether Pakistan should recognize Israel. Speaking of Pakistan's historical position towards Israel, it noted: "The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had himself... established this position by rejecting acceptance of the Zionist state," and in a 1940 speech, before Pakistan's creation in 1947, he warned the British rulers that "the conspiracy [i.e., Israel] being hatched against Palestinians will not be accepted."[11]

In 1948, the editorial noted, Pakistan's foreign minister, Zafarullah Khan, held talks on this subject with Israeli President Chaim Weizmann, and the issue came up between then U.S. President George W. Bush and then Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf in 2003.[12] However, it also pointed out that although Prime Minister Imran Khan's government has openly adopted a clear stance on Israel, "some doubts and conjectures remain" that some circles might be promoting the idea of normalizing relations.[13]

Maulana Ajmal Qadri: "Most Of The Discussion Was On Trade Matters Because Pakistani Textiles Are Popular Among Israelis, And Israeli Fertilizer And Other Such Matters [Were Discussed With Israel In The 1990s]"

In December 2020, Samaa TV, one of the few mainstream media that debated this issue, broadcast a program on normalization of relations with Israel, focusing especially on media reports that the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sent at least two secret delegations to Israel in the 1990s. Samaa TV host Ali Haider invited Islamic cleric Maulana Ajmal Qadri, who acknowledged being part of the one of the delegations and defended the idea of diplomatic recognition of Israel.[14] Maulana Ajmal Qadri, like Maulana Sherani, belonged to JUI-F.

It has always been easy for liberal, English-speaking Pakistani commentators to speak favorably about Israel or to counter hatred of Jews in Pakistani society, but it is remarkable for Islamic clerics like Maulana Sherani and Maulana Qadri to do so and requires great courage, since antisemitism is rife among the Pakistani masses. However, it would be a mistake to think that Islamic clerics who favor recognition of Israel have become enlightened overnight.

Following are translations of excerpts from Maulana Ajmal Qadri's interview with TV host Ali Haider of Samaa TV:[15]

Ali Haider: "Did Nawaz Sharif ask you to visit Israel? If so, what agenda, what message did he give, for what objective you were sent to Israel?"

Maulana Ajmal Qadri: "The officials of our foreign ministry in that era had this view: can we establish relations with them or not? And if we establish relations with them, will the direction of all those interests be in Pakistan's favor, or not? So, it was a kind of study trip and the start of relations."

Maulana Ajmal Qadri (right) appearing on Samaa TV

Ali Haider: "Maulana [Qadri], what parameters were you given? On the basis of what parameters were you to judge – that if the Israelis met those parameters, we would accept them?"

Maulana Ajmal Qadri: "There were many points in it. For example, the way India is our enemy, we don't have business with it, but Nawaz Sharif, knowing the direction of trade, wanted for vegetables and tomatoes, instead of coming via Dubai to Pakistan, to be imported directly from Amritsar [which is next door]. Similarly, we had to see whether the benefit of this trade or these relations [with Israel] would be in Pakistan's interests or not...."  

Ali Haider: "So Maulana [Qadri], did you meet with Israeli officials there?"

Maulana Ajmal Qadri: "Yes, two-three higher officials of their Foreign Ministry were there; and there were two ministers of their cabinet who came to meet us in our hotel. And we had detailed discussions with them."

Ali Haider: "What matters were discussed regarding the likelihood of Israel's acceptance by Pakistan?"

Maulana Ajmal Qadri: "Most of the discussion was on trade matters because Pakistani textiles are popular among Israelis. And Israeli fertilizer and other such matters, such as, they are ahead in agriculture; so discussion was held regarding cheap seeds and other such things, which were basic discussions."

Maulana Ajmal Qadri: "Just As We Have Thousands Of Differences With India But Nevertheless Accept Them... There Is No Problem In Establishing Diplomatic Relations [With Israel]"

Maulana Ajmal Qadri: "Regarding political and diplomatic relations, it was decided that if their foundation was not made dependent on establishment of a Palestinian state, then it would be more acceptable to the Israelis. But I made them realize that unless a higher Israeli leadership assures us regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state and if we cannot get that [assurance], then we cannot take this forward."

Ali Haider: "Maulana Qadri, what did you tell Nawaz Sharif after your return...?"

Maulana Ajmal Qadri: "This was my opinion, which I gave to the prime minister twice, once in the Prime Minister's House, and once in his office, the Secretariat – that there should be [discussion on] this from the forum of the Pakistani Parliament, or a national dialogue should be held on this topic. After that we reach at a certain level [decision], because even if Nawaz Sharif accepted it, the subsequent government could reject it..."

Ali Haider: "Was it your view that it should be accepted after you saw the situation by visiting there?"

Maulana Ajmal Qadri: "If the entire Parliament agrees on it, then I understand that just as we have thousands of differences with India but nevertheless accept them, many of our issues with them demand a solution, but despite that, there is no problem in establishing diplomatic relations [with Israel]."

Ali Haider: "Then what was Nawaz Sharif's response...?"

Maulana Ajmal Qadri: "Mian sahab [Nawaz Sharif] was very passionate and he was very energetic, but the political situation of that time suddenly changed [leading to his overthrow in a 1999 military coup by Pakistan Army chief General Pervez Musharraf], and after that, this matter retreated into the background."

Ali Haider: "Was Mian sahab [Nawaz Sharif] taking an interest individually, or were there others involved in the decision to send you there?"

Maulana Ajmal Qadri: "I think there were some other quarters, and after discussions with them, this decision was taken."

* Tufail Ahmad is Senior Fellow for the MEMRI Islamism and Counter-Radicalization Initiative


[1] (Pakistan), December 23, 2020. It may be that one of the reasons Maulana Sherani and other Islamic clerics are speaking favorably of Israel is to challenge the leadership of JUI-F Party, headed by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who has been leading anti-government protests.

[2] (Pakistan), December 23, 2020.

[3] MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 676, Pakistan's Jewish Problem, March 11, 2011.

[4], December 22, 2020.

[5] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), December 22, 2020.

[6] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), December 22, 2020.

[7] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), December 23, 2020.

[8] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), December 23, 2020.

[9] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), December 24, 2020.

[10] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), December 24, 2020.

[11] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), December 22, 2020.

[12] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), December 22, 2020.

[13] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), December 22, 2020.

[14], December 24, 2020.

[15], December 24, 2020.

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