Dialogue as revenge
Feb. 26, 2004

by Judea Pearl


February 21 was the second anniversary of the murder of my son, Daniel Pearl.


This murder has come to symbolize the post-9/11 species of anti-Semitism as well as the blatant rejection by militant Islam of any form of dialogue with the West.


For the past two years I have found myself totally immersed in projects aimed at building trust between Muslim and Western communities. I see this process as a form of revenge and, compelled by the spirit of Danny, I try to channel all the positive energy and goodwill that the tragedy has evoked toward one aim: fighting the hatred that took Danny’s life.


To this end, the Daniel Pearl Foundation brings Pakistani journalists on fellowships to work at US newspapers, organizes worldwide concerts that promote intercultural respect, and sponsors public dialogues between Jews and Muslims to explore common ground and air grievances.


I constantly ask myself how effective these projects are and whether they contribute in a meaningful way to the goal of hate reduction.


The answer hinges critically on the nature of the struggle that currently goes on within the Muslim world itself.


According to one theory, the struggle in Islam rages between the vast majority of peaceful, good Muslims who simply wish to live their lives alongside those who think and pray differently, and a tiny minority of Muslims, such as the Taliban and other extremists, whose fanaticism is in fact a rejection of true Islam.


A more pessimistic theory claims that the vast majority of Muslims sympathize deeply with bin Laden’s ideology, both religiously and politically (though not engaging in actual violence), while moderate forces are but a thin intellectual veneer, lacking power, credibility, and leadership, and trying to lull the West into believing in the optimistic theory above.


My current assessment, based on readings and speaking with moderate Muslims after the murder of my son, is that the true state of affairs lies somewhere between these two theories.


Moreover, even though the pessimistic theory bears the weight of much evidence, we should adapt the optimistic theory as a working hypothesis, constantly guarding against the dangers lurking from its pessimistic alternative.


The evidence against the optimistic theory is substantial.


The anti-Semitism radiating from the authorities, the clergy, and the media in Muslim countries and their persistent dehumanization of Israel and the West certainly do not add credence to the peaceful theory of Islam. But the continuing silence of Muslim clergy in the face of so-called “non-Islamic”
acts committed in the name of Islam is even more telling.


The fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie in 1989 (and recently renewed) shows that Islam has powerful instruments to deal with those who are perceived to be anti-Islam. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, no fatwa has ever been issued against suicide bombers and their mentors or against bin Laden and his followers or against the murderers of my son. Since Danny’s murderers are still at large, a well-publicized fatwa could well lead to their apprehension.


The explanation I am usually given for this silence is that the role of Muslim clergy differs from that of religious leaders in the West. Clerics in Muslim countries are usually political appointees who are expected to echo, not lead, their followers in matters of world affairs.


Accordingly, due to the anti-West sentiments evoked by the war on terrorism and the lingering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, clerics cannot risk trumpeting the compassionate voice of Islam to condemn those who act against its true teachings.


IF WE accept this explanation, we are left with the conclusion that it is only from the mosques in the West that we can expect an emergence of reconciliation with the West and explicit religious rejection of jihadi mentality.


Clergy in the West are not under the direct scrutiny of repressive regimes, and the influence of Saudi money on Muslim education is on the decline.
Muslims in the West are exposed to the practices of other religions and hence expect clerics to take on a more active leadership role in their communities. Likewise, these Muslims are exposed to modern standards of pluralism and human rights and are increasingly adamant about incorporating such standards in their religious teachings and practices. Most importantly, Western Muslims are the most direct victims of post-9/11 Islamophobia and the distorted image of Islam that their leaders’ silence is projecting; they would benefit substantially from seeing that silence broken.


I envision, therefore, a natural partnership developing between Muslims and Jews in the West and slowly making its way, through religious channels, toward the Middle East and other regions.


Jews are seasoned veterans of religious reformation, as well as world experts in fighting defamation and discrimination. They can therefore offer invaluable assistance to Western Muslims who feel besieged and are struggling for dignity and social acceptance.


Western Muslims, on the other hand, can help the Jewish community by speaking out, in religious vocabulary, against sins of anti-Semitism, terrorism, incitement, and the teachings of Islamic fanaticism. Indeed, my public dialogue programs with Professor Akbar Ahmed (author of Islam under
Siege) have spawned new alliances between Jewish and Muslim organizations which, in turn, have paved a path of legitimacy for such a partnership to evolve.


Finally, helping our Muslim cousins achieve modernity is only part of the battle against jihadi hatred. The other part calls for strengthening our ranks with pride and self-respect to withstand the ideological attacks periodically launched against us.


To this end, my wife and I have edited a new book entitled I am Jewish:
Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl, which was published this month by Jewish Lights Publishing.


The book contains about 150 essays by leading Jewish personalities, from Thomas Friedman and Shimon Peres to Richard Dreyfus, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, and Larry King, each answering a simple question: “When you say ‘I am Jewish,’ what does it mean to you?”


The result is an honest mirror of how modern Jews define themselves, as well as diverse and insightful new answers to the difficult question of Jewish identity.


To us, this book represents another victory of Danny over his killers and their ideological sympathizers. Whereas those murderers tried to sow fear, humiliation, and confusion among Jews, Danny’s words and the book inspired by them will lead to empowerment, pride, and a greater understanding of Jewish identity; hence, eventually, to a stronger, more united Jewish people.

The writer, a computer scientist, is president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (http://www.danielpearl.org).