SrinagarA delegation of Indo-Israeli Friendship Society was in Kashmir recently to build goodwill for the Jewish state among Kashmiri Muslims and to remove what it called misconceptions created by years of hostile propaganda.
Asif Iqbal, a high profile figure among diplomatic circles in India heads Indo-Israel Friendship Society. He was earlier honorary consul general of Republic of Surinam for South India. Iqbal also heads Indian Economic Trade Organisation (IETO).
Iqbal shot into limelight when he organized first ever Iftar for Muslim clergy and business leaders at Israeli Consulate in Bangalore last year. Since then he has been active in promoting Israel among Muslim community, removing what he calls misconceptions about the Zionist state.
Kashmir Observer caught up with Asif Iqbal to know the purpose of his visit and the success he achieved.
What was the real purpose of your visit to Kashmir. It came at a time when GOI has activated channels of communication with Kashmir resistance. Is there any hidden agenda you are pursuing?
I was a part of the delegation that came to explore business opportunities and the knowledge exchange programs and the visit of interlocutor was only coincidental. I saw there is a great opportunity for technology and innovation from Israel and how it can help many youth in Kashmir. I also wanted to see how people would receive this idea of collaborating with companies in Israel. I was surprised to see a very positive response. And most of the youth who are in Kashmir today are well informed about Israel.
Why is Israel suddenly interested in Kashmir?
It is the Indo-Israel Friendship Society on a mission to improve relations and take off misconceptions about Israel and educate people that Muslims are a welcome community in that country.
How do you think Israel fits in the scheme of things in Kashmir?
The youth of Kashmir, especially the student community who are a product of the conflict are very active and also receptive to ideas which are new. Currently Israel is a leader in innovation, scientific research, medical studies and various other forms of new ideas that can help collaborate with the youth of Kashmir. I was focusing on various startups that are coming up in Kashmir and how they can get the various tips from Israeli companies.
Students are very happy and I have given them the list of the scholarship available by the Israeli government for Research and Fellowships. They are going to be filling up the forms and looking forward for association.
You met political and business leaders. Are they open to dealings with the Israeli state?
Yes there was a positive response. I was pleasantly surprised.
You also met the Hurriyat leader and Kashmir head priest Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. How did he respond to Israeli advances?
He is also a young leader who has lost his father in the conflict. He is open to new ideas and any kind of a novel discussion considering the new geo-political realities. He is happy for the youth of Kashmir to be helped by anybody that can take care of their interest as far as employment and knowledge and education is concerned. He is also very eager to look at new ways of having a dialogue with the government.
But what was his response to Israeli involvement in Kashmir?
Meeting with Mirwaiz was a part of foreign delegation which had Bosnian ambassador and myself. He was more interested in knowing how Bosnia has relations with Israel. Israel also doesn’t see the Kashmir issue as a religious conflict. After 2003 Israel has started looking at Pakistan as an important country of the Muslim world. So there is a delicate balance of relations and stand of Israel and with many Israel delegations planning to visit next year. Cordial understanding with Muslim leadership in Kashmir is of prime importance for smooth co ordination.
How do you see Israels role in playing a peace maker in the India and Pakistan conflict ?
Israel has its own diplomacy and which is experienced in resolving conflicts as they have gone through their own issues in the last many years. They could be very good to discuss these issues. But it is up to the leaders to discuss these things. I am only here to build bridges and build peaceful relations between Kashmir and Israel. As the friendship society I would like to connect these people together so they can enjoy the culture, food and arts.
Israel itself is mired in a conflict. How do you think that country can help people caught up in another conflict, like Kashmir?
I can say with absolute certainty that the situation in Israel is very calm and that it is a very peaceful state. Muslims are 20% in number and they enjoy all the benefits. They are living very peacefully. There are mosques everywhere and Arab markets are bustling. In fact, there is a prayer room in the parliament of Jerusalem. The Prime Minister of Israel wished everyone a very Happy Ramadan. I am planning to take a small delegation of Muslims from Srinagar to Israel in January.
How is the Indo-Israel Friendship Society involved in Kashmir?
We are trying to rope in as many people of importance as possible. We will take a delegation to Israel in February next year. Before that I will take a student delegation to Tel Aviv in January. I am sure when a friendship society delegation visits Israel in January and comes back to Srinagar to explain the people about all the good things that Israel has to offer. It’s religious diversity and welcoming nature.
Will you be bringing Israeli delegations to Kashmir as well?
As of now I intend to bring a delegation sometime in February, before that I would be taking a small section of students to visit the largest conference of cyber security in the end of January which is going to be held in Tel Aviv. I would like to focus on education, knowledge for collaboration and exchange. I am sure the students will be happy to forget the political part and focus more on knowledge. I will be happy to change the narrative for them so they become better citizens and look towards growth and prosperity of their country.
Last year you hosted the Muslims in South India for an Iftar at the consulate of Israel. Do you intend to do something similar in Srinagar?
I already met a couple of people who are interested in doing trade and commerce with Israel. There are traders from Kashmir I met who sell lot of Kashmiri handicrafts and carpets to Israeli buyers. I would be happy to host for them an evening of Israeli dates and olives at some point. I will invite some Israeli friends for them to talk with and to understand more about the country.
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