My Favorite Dictator

My Favorite Dictator

 In September 2006, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan made his first of two appearances on walked onstage Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.” Bouncing out from the wings in western dress to the customary rock house-band introduction, the audience cheers. Musharraf salutes them and takes his seat. After offering the General and head of state a Twinkie, Stewart wryly cuts to the chase, leaning forward, like chums at a bar where no one else is listening, and asks Musharraf if he knew where Osama bin Laden was.

Uproarious laughter.

In the second show (aired in July 2011), “former” President Musharraf enters to the swelling string and woodwind music of what one would think is the Pakistani national anthem. It sounded more like the soundtrack for the climactic scene in underdog sports movies where the hero hits the game-ending home run or the camera goes into slow-motion mode as the soccer ball bounces against the mesh net for a field goal.

Same suit. Same cheering audience. Same salute.

This time, Stewart offered Musharraf a Powerade and a Balance Bar. They debated the Osama bin Laden assassination in Abbottabad, known as Pakistan’s West Point. Apparently, OBL had been there for years, just down the road from General President Musharraf’s compound.

That was weird. Do you know else is weird? My conversations with President Musharraf about Islam and development, that’s what’s weird. I did that, a person whose only true God is Sandy Koufax. Me, the Jewish kid from the San Fernando Valley. Actually, I enjoyed speaking with Musharraf, and he liked me, I believe. I know this to be true because his confidant said so, and because I have a signed photograph from him. I don’t know about you, but I consider this to be a pretty compelling affirmation.

Let me ask you this: do you have a signed photograph from a dictator? Here’s mine:

This all started at a meeting Jane Goodall convened in New York. In her capacity as a U.N. Messenger of Peace, she sought international perspectives on political trends post September 11th, as well as strategies for addressing global environmental issues. For two days, a dozen of us discussed global issues affecting our respective fields.

I represented the teachers’ perspective. At one point, I exclaimed, “There’s far too much of an emphasis on out-dated textbooks that characterize the world outside of the United States as foreign and scary. Instead of learning about “foreigners” in some pre-packaged form, why not create learning experiences so that teachers and students can learn from and with “distant friends.”

Dr. Riffat Hassan, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Louisville, agreed. She identified herself as an Islamic feminist and theologian. She spoke of her support for abortion rights and contraception as a Muslim because of Islam’s emphasis on family planning. Eve was not created from Adam’s rib, but at the same time. They were equals. After having received her Ph.D from Durham University, Dr. Hassan taught at Oklahoma State University and Harvard. She described the Qu’ran as the Magna Carta of Islam – the key to pressing issues of justice, absolutely opposed to honor killings, and a proponent of universal education. She expressed her dismay at the global sweep of Islamophobia and its association with fanaticism. She implored us to find ways, together, of doing something about this injustice.

Dr. Hassan then spoke of having just received a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The grant involved gathering a cohort of progressive Muslim scholars (mostly living in the United States) who would travel to India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh to share ideas and culture with their colleagues from those countries. The State Department’s Bureau of Educational Affairs wanted scholars to lead the way.

A good idea then, I believed, and do so today. The global exchange of scholars (and the assurance of their protection) is needed now more than ever.

I was asked to come to the University of Louisville to deliver talks on education and Islam. Soon, I was on a plane to Islamabad.

Three months later, Dr. Hassan announced the establishment of the Iqbal Institute for Research, Dialogue and Education (IRED) Institute, inspired by Allama Iqbal, t great poet-philosopher, social activist, and the founder of modern Pakistan.

I was invited, along with world-class Islamic scholars, to the compound in Lahore, Pakistan. When I arrived, my name was already on the door. I could stay as long as I liked. She asked me to write on the subject of Islam and its contribution to modern teaching methods. Everyone had a niche topic, but progressive Islam was the general, underlying theme.

It was also a clever strategy for President Musharraf.

I studied as much as I could: the Qu’ran and interpretations of the Qu’ran. Books written about the oral tradition and words of deeds of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), the Sunnah. Sayings, the Hadith. Karen Armstrong books. Internet resources.

If I could point to a time in my life in which I questioned my sanity, this was it. There were plenty of people with infinitely more knowledge from universities and international agencies around the world. But, apparently, it did not matter. I filled a void at the right time and at the right place. I was, somehow, connected. This was not about luck favoring the prepared mind. This was absurd, dumb luck and clearly gave me a sense that the world of international development is not run as a meritocracy, because if that were so, I wouldn’t be asked for my opinion on a subject for which I had soundbites and a reader’s guide.

I made this explicitly clear, but it did not matter.

So, what does one do when given such a momentous task? If you’re anything like me, you snap into action. And make lists.

I made what I call a list of “Islam-is-not-evil-but-inherently-good” quotations from the Qur’an and Hadiths so that I would be ready to counter the global anti-Islamic rhetoric and make the case for Islam as a development engine, rather than an impediment. Absurd and shallow, patronizing and selective, I knew, but I had to start somewhere.

  1. “None of you is a believer until you love for your brother what you love for yourself .”
  2. “Most surely man is in loss, except those who believe and do good, and enjoin on each other truth, and enjoin of each other patience” (Qurna, Surah CIII:2-3).
  3. “If you see a disputing, arrogant, and bigoted person, bear in mind that they are utterly lost .”

And an Islamic contributions list to prove that “Islam-is-not-about-destruction-but-has-inspired-scientific breakthroughs.”

  1. Trigonometry, sine, tangent, co-tangent, along with Omar Khayyaam’s hit: quadrilateral trigonometry
  2. The concept of “zero” (a bit of a tug of war with India here), and systems of numerals packaged as algorithms
  3. The earth is round (16th century)
  4. The identification and treatment of smallpox
  5. Alcohol as an antiseptic
  6. Champions like Ptolemy, The Elements of Euclid, and the works of Hippocrates were all made available in Arabic
  7. And you heard it here: an explanation for rainbows

My “Islam-is-all-about-education-and-madrassas-are-not-all-about-training-terrorists” list designed to show progressive thinking about teaching and learning long before “thought-leader” blogs:

  1. Global education: “Seek knowledge even in China”
  2. Lifelong education: “Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave”
  3. Knowledge for its own sake: “Verily the men of knowledge are the inheritors of the prophets”

And a “Islam-is-Collaborative-and-Open” list:

  1. Justification for the idea of the modern seminar
  2. Baghdad has been a beacon of intellectual energy full of libraries and bookstores
  3. Booklist after booklist highlighting Islamic Art, poetry, politics.

This was the best I could do? No question about it, I was in over my head. I spoke neither Arabic nor Urdu. I had a communist Bar Mitzvah. My academic background did not include Islam. I received a doctorate from a Jesuit University. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that it was an insult to the very notion of progressive Islam or, for that matter, religion to have me play any role, there.

I was trapped, and when the going gets tough, the tough go to the library, though the trip to Bangladesh, as part of the project of global Islamic scholarship exchange, made it worse.

At a university devoted to inter-religious dialogue, an American professor and I asked to see the library, the subject of much praise. There were religious symbols around the room: cross (Bahai), crescent. I saw the Star of David and moseyed over, thumbing through the English titles, to see what they had. At first, I could not find any books about the Jews or, for that matter, a translated Jewish text–a siddur, perhaps, left behind in a four-star hotel downtown?

Nothing–only spillover from the other religion sections. But then one title–the only one in fact–caught my eye: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Hitler made this anti-Semitic textbook required reading and considered it his “warrant for genocide.” Henry Ford was also a fan and published a half-million copies. Available for .99 cents, by the way, for your Kindle. OK, I said to myself, lemme take a deep breath.

It is important to point out my father is a veteran who landed on the beach at Normandy and helped to liberate Nordhausen, a “Vernichtungslager” or extermination camp designed for ill prisoners, no gas chambers – just starvation and no medical care. My in-laws were liberated on a train from Auschwitz. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was not exactly what I wanted to see.

It was almost as if I needed to show that I was not evil, not the other way around.

On one of the trips to India, alas, I did not help my case. The Islamic scholars decided to visit a synagogue in New Delhi. I remember gathering a little head of steam on the ride over, explaining what little I knew of Friday night services.

The congregation was made up of diplomats and other official government staffers living in India, as well as Indian nationals. In a strange way, I had a sensation of warm familiarity.

All of a sudden, I heard my name. I was being called to the bema (the podium or platform from which the Torah is taken from a little closet, read, passed around the synagogue, and returned). The rabbi was asking me to lead the service.

I had no idea what to do. Having lived in Israel for a year right out of college, I could certainly sound out Hebrew words and had some basic conversational Hebrew under my belt. But I never got the vowels (the Morse code under the characters) that served as clues, so this would be painful for everyone.

Mostly for me. I could not even be what they wanted me to be!

This was my time to start praying, I thought because divine intervention, a stroke, or an electrical storm would be needed here to extricate me from this situation.

I thought about going showbiz and asking for a show of hands to see who was really Jewish or just there for the entertainment.

If there were fewer than 10 Jews there (a minyan or quorum), I’d have to call the game because of insufficient players (I mean, prayers).

Or maybe I would be so moved by this whole thing that I would speak in tongues. That might freak everyone out, but I was onto something. And so I began to daven (pronounced daa-ven), a term associated with prayer, stemming from the Hebrew word dovaiv, which means “to move the lips.”

Perfect! Davening is when Jews move their lips. Could be silent, could be aloud, could be a mumble. Bingo! I figured everyone knows I’m a foreigner. Maybe I could mumble my way through the prayers.

I did. The rabbi was perplexed, occasionally guiding my hand back to the sacred text and pressing the yad (or pointing stick) into my hand so that I could find my place. But soon he figured out my scam. Out of pity or fear of a lynch mob, he played along, asking the congregation to rise and sit down at the appropriate times.

I got through it. I had to do just one last thing – make a sermon. Sermon? Now we’re talking. I was in a non-profit leader’s familiar territory. We’re all about sermons. “In English is fine, ” he smiled.

I decided to regale them with my one Hassidic tale, an interpretation of the story of Jacob’s ladder. I had heard it from a headmaster at the school for which I was a principal. The Zohar, the primary work of Kabbalah, explains that Jacob falls asleep and has a dream about a ladder. Angels are using this ladder pretty regularly – up and down, up and down, up and down. This all meaning that by praying, we are capable of higher things, elevating ourselves. The ladder joining heaven and earth, therefore, symbolizes prayer. I began to think if escalators made praying any better or quicker, but quickly refocused.

Riffing from that theme, the condensed version goes something like this: In a Polish town, the villagers were concerned because a fool on the hill was jumping all day long, his arm extended, as if were trying to reach something on a top shelf. An inquisitive child asks about the jumping man. “Why does he do that?” the boy asked. The villagers tell the child to leave the old man alone. “He’s old and crazy, never mind.” The boy’s curiosity gets the better of him, so one day after school, he takes a different path home from school, this time near the hill where he could see the jumping man and ask him directly. Indeed, the man was there, jumping and straining, and reaching.

“Why are you jumping?” the little boy asked.

The old man responded, “I figured that if I jump and keep jumping every day, perhaps God’s hand will reach down and pull me up!”

I allowed for the palpable, teacher’s instinct for silence, the space in which real learning occurs. I then proceeded to stretch logic to emphasize the idea of public service as if it were a 21st century secular form of prayer. Like faith, the belief in something when everyone thinks you are crazy. That faith in faith itself (a particularly egregious claim in my case) allows one to take bold steps forward.


And for my after-school special moment, the pep talk of champions: “When we continue despite the odds, despite the derision, despite our fears, we all rise. We’re all reaching God.”

I ended with a blessing (in Hebrew) over the wine, candles, and challah (which I do know), and we all filed out to the waiting van. I looked for bolts of lightning before sliding the door shut.

Three days later, I found myself in Musharraf’s office, fully prepared to apologize. It was nothing of the sort.

In the plus column, President Musharraf took power in a bloodless coup. Pakistan’s economy grew during his reign. He organized free elections (though, I’ll admit one is never certain of such things) and even accepted Supreme Court rulings (influence peddling being less certain). Historians say that he truly did try to end the fighting in Afghanistan (prior to 2001).

In the minus column, we’ve got problems. Musharraf engaged paramilitary forces to infiltrate the disputed Kargil territory of Kashmir, inflaming tensions with India. His cover for that escapade involved blaming Kashmiri insurgents. No need for CSI-Kashmir to figure out what happened. Documents found at the scene poke holes in his story.

Many fingers also point to Musharraf for the direct assassination of Benazir Bhutto (which she predicted), either by sending in a mercenary or by failing to provide her with adequate protection. Musharraf also manipulated the Pakistani Constitution to suspend (or consider “non functional”) the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Which could be a problem if one makes speeches in favor of such institutions.

The call came signaling that he had agreed to receive us. Since rumors were circulating that potential assassins had developed new techniques for targeting his vehicles–several attempts had already been made–we started out in a taxi (after it was thoroughly inspected for bugs or improvised explosive devices). After a few kilometers, the taxi let us off on a busy street where we were told to step into a well-fortified Mercedes Benz. We drove in a

hilly neighborhood and came upon another Benz. Each driver was huge. I wondered about whether they would have to size us up for Kevlar vests. By far the shortest member of our team, I figured I would have to take a child’s size. I sat in the middle, straddling a fire extinguisher.

We arrived at a circular driveway shielded by the kind of white tents rented for expensive weddings. We stepped behind a curtain and met a security force. They were ready for us–tall, mustachioed Mogul guys wearing berets, red turtlenecks under brown uniforms adorned with white sashes and white gloves, red cummerbunds with an equally wide red strip, emblazoned with the Pakistani seal, trailing down their left legs. Impressive bunch, these guards, standing shoulder to shoulder, and then walking robot-like to escort us to the waiting room.

For some reason, I was not worried about the formalities of meeting a head of state or what shape our conversation would take. However, upon seeing the individual tea sets–fine china: teapot, cup, saucer, and two-inch plate on a tiny table–terror took hold. I imagined that, in my haste and desire to impress him with my “erudition,” I would gesticulate wildly and sweep the plate and saucer onto the floor. It so happens that my seat (each identified by our name-tag) was not on a silk rug, but closer to President Musharraf, whose throne-like chair (and the two beside it) sat on white marble. I could see it now – the suddenness of shattered porcelain, the click and snap of rifles engaged.

No such drama. He entered the room with an air of confidence. The introductions went seamlessly. He seemed to fill in his military uniform quite nicely, accented by a green Miss America sash, 15 ribbon medals (which looked like pieces of suspenders hooked to special-edition quarters), and three medallions. Graying at the temples (the rest of his hair appearing dyed), he looked at each of us when we spoke. He was engaged and articulate.

No question about it–the guy gets “A” for Appearance and Deportment.

Musharraf noticed that we were all eyeing his uniform and said that it was his “second skin.” However, he explained, it was his goal to transition to civilian dress as a symbol of a new era in his presidency. He didn’t shuffle papers. He looked at us directly. He seemed genuinely interested, and I appreciated that. He spoke of his commitment to “enlightened moderation,” a concept he introduced at a 2002 Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting in Malaysia. He sought to show that the Muslim world must counter the characterization of Islam as a religion devoted to terror and the resolution of conflict through military confrontation. An enlightened approach shows provides evidence of Islam’s contributions to modernity and that the teachings of Qu’ran provide evidence for, and testimony to, democracy and development.

He told us that he was looking to the west, he said, to help Pakistan and the Muslim world. “The Muslim world must turn away from extremism and adopt the path of socioeconomic uplift.”   That Islam extended the teachings of Judaism and Christianity and is a religion of peace. Words were being taken out of context in all religions, in fact, in order justify demonize or dominate. Islam, however, is the boogey-man. He praised our efforts at the Institute for our efforts to bring the issues to light and he inquired about the progress of the State Department-sponsored tour was promoting this more enlightened view of Islam. He talked of madrassas as not evil by nature, but simply as religious schools. Besides, he said, everyone in the west wants to close fundamentalist schools abroad, but 40% of American schools call themselves fundamentalist. Wouldn’t it be considered hypocrisy if we do not close them, too? They, like all schools run by an ideology, must be watched.

He expressed his concern about those who ignore, sanitize, demonize, or deify Islam. The left wing (often associated with the international development and aid community), he asserted, wants to ignore it. They give lip service to Islam, but would prefer that it go away, that it oppresses women and retards initiative, and stands in the way of development – the opiate of the people argument. Then sanitizers (I would put myself in this camp), pick a quotation here and there to hold up the argument that Islam is a nice religion, just like all the other nice religions. Here, Islam is a choice, like which cereal to buy. Right-wing demonizers (the Jerry Falwell crowd) view Islam as part of a “clash of civilizations” and must be stopped, and that Muslims are evil.

Finally, there are the garden-variety deifyers, the ones who have hijacked the religion and its inspiration, the ones who strap explosives to their children. All the more reasons for moderation. Compelling, when you come to think of it. Despite a wellspring of brainpower in the room, 90% of our questions were deferential, if not downright anemic, for two obvious reasons: (1) Don’t ever disagree with dictators (2) Watch the tea set. Nevertheless, one brave soul managed to inquire about how President Musharraf counters the criticism that Pakistan harbors terrorists. “Untrue,” he quipped. “We find them and kill them.” A clear answer, no doubt, but a bit unsettling to hear, wouldn’t you say?

The meeting ended on that note. He thanked us and stood up. We did as well. Two guards joined him as he walked through the gilded double doors. We waited for him to leave, and then followed the guards out to our waiting limo-to-limo-to taxi ride home. One thing in his favor: He didn’t ask us to pray or p-r-e-y. Back at the ranch, this notion of enlightened moderation had been the subject of almost every conversation and now I got it. This group was advising him. During the day, we were to participate in a media event and planning meetings, return to our rooms to crank out articles, then meet for meals, where the discussion got, well, downright Talmudic.

For three weeks, I listened to these scholars as they wrestled with issues pitting ancient faith and modern perception. Dr. Hassan was gone most evenings, several with President Musharraf. I would make three trips, and on one, I had the opportunity of presenting President Musharraf with a plan for supporting those NGOs who were integrating “enlightened moderation” into their practice. I talked about teacher training and starting with a new generation of future leaders. By the time I had returned to the United States, the signed photograph was on its way.

Throughout my time at the Institute, the most inspiring scholar I had the honor to meet was Dr. Fathi Osman, already in his late 70s, from Egypt. Kind and soft- spoken, he had devoted his life to finding ways to show the west that Islam could be understood, made accessible. He built his advocacy for inter-religious cooperation on a deep moral conviction, supported by the highest form of intellectual rigor. Having been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1940s, Fathi Osman earned his law degree from Alexandria University and his master’s degree from Cairo University. As a faculty member at Al-Azhar University, he worked on a plan to restructure the way Islam was taught in higher education. His doctorate in Near Eastern studies from Princeton University focused on taxation and Islamic land ownership.

I traveled to India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh with Dr. Osman and his wife, Aida Abdel-Rahman Osman, absolutely lovely as well, and a scholar in her own right. He was recognized everywhere, and with the same level of equanimity, humility, and grace, he engaged everyone in true conversation. I visited him during the time he was working with the Islamic Center of Southern California. He graciously inscribed an affectionate note in a copy of his 1,000 page-book, “Concepts of the Quran: A Topical Reading.” For my trip back to Seattle, I decided against packing it in my carry-on and Fedex’d it instead, just to be safe.

Dr. Osman passed away on September 11th, 2010. The New York Times obituary described how he offered “an expansive, liberal interpretation of Koranic teaching. He wrote about the rights of women; democratic pluralism; the competing claims of Islamic, or Shariah, law and civic law; and the obligation of Muslims in the West to embrace Western civic values.” He fed us all. He was Riffat Hassan’s intellectual colleague, and she passed the word upstairs. Pervez Musharraf’s “enlightened moderation” was, most certainly, not an easy sell.

Interestingly enough, both the left and right and right wing agree that the term, “fundamentalist” (as a noun and adjective), must not be considered pejorative. The true Islamic fundamentalist is enlightened because Islam is, by definition, enlightened. They differ, of course, on what to do next. Others considered the whole “enlightened moderation” thing to be a shameless PR stunt and tacky sound byte. They claimed that it was all a thinly veiled, sycophantic strategy to curry favor with the West. He was simply adopting western language and anointing himself a beacon of goodness and regional chess piece. By doing so, Musharraf would assure himself a steady flow of millions, if not billions, especially because the U.S. knew he had a nuclear bomb in his back pocket.

Musharraf was, and remains, the subject of vitriolic attacks, having been called an American stooge and a cowboy. Many of us have formed our own insight into Pervez Musharraf. He appeared (twice) on   The Iqbal Institute for Research, Dialogue and Education eventually folded from criticism, poor management, and Musharraf’s increasing political trouble. The guards and the facility were simply too expensive. I, for one, was accused of being a CIA agent. Someone suggested I get a Canadian passport from an expert forger in downtown Lahore. I declined. I never got a chance to see Pervez Musharraf again. After all that, I’m still confused.

I know this, though. In the field of Islamic scholarship, I’m a moron. But opportunities like this don’t necessary go to the best or the brightest. t’s unfair. It’s wrong. It’s illogical. You make of it what you will. I’ve just chalked it up to experience.

That and the fact that it was weird, very weird.



“Interviews, Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan, nuclear, Osama bin Laden, 9/11, Afghanistan, terrorism”

The John Stewart Show

Interview with Pervez Musharraf, Pt. 1