From The Orange County Register
May 16th, 2005

Religion, politics? Dialogue goes on
Two scholars – one Muslim, the other Jewish – will bring their provocative tour de force to UCI tonight.
By ANN PEPPER

 

Two grandfatherly immigrants will take seats on a stage at UC Irvine tonight, just to talk. From Washington, D.C., to Toronto, crowds have come to hear what has been described as risky, unexpected and challenging conversation. Renowned computer scientist Judea Pearl – the Jewish father of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter killed by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002 – and Akbar Ahmed – a former diplomat, a highly respected U.S.-based scholar of contemporary Islam and a Pakistani-born Muslim – never know where their conversations will take them.

 

“Sometimes we get into unexpected avenues with our discussions and sometimes we are sorry we got there,” Pearl said by telephone from his Encino home. “But you take risks and learn from mistakes. “Once the Pakistani and Israeli ambassadors to Canada came and sat in the same row” to hear them, he said. “It may not lead to diplomatic relations … but we demonstrate that … hard issues can be discussed with respect and friendship. And that no issue is taboo.” They started their tour two years ago at what was supposed to be a one-time event in Pittsburgh. Back then, audiences wanted to hear what Daniel Pearl’s father would have to say to a Muslim who grew up in Karachi, the city where his son was kidnapped and died so horribly by beheading.

 

Pearl has said the event was an opportunity for revenge – the only revenge with meaning for him: killing the hate. Quickly, as invitations to Pearl and Ahmed began to pour in, the presentation became “The Daniel Pearl Dialogue for Muslim-Jewish Understanding.” It is about as low-tech as it gets – two men talking about their religions and the strife between them – but the discussion can be electric. Critics complain the effort is too small. Or elitist. Or that one or the other of the men is betraying his own people. Hate mail, veiled threats, and the occasional shouted epithet have come with the territory.

 

Nevertheless, Pearl and Ahmed have a hit, a small tour de force on behalf of understanding and sanity in an anxious world. “The world must be in worse shape than I thought if two old men talking gives people hope,” Ahmed likes to say. The men didn’t know each other before the first dialogue. They have grown to be friends and share a deep respect for one another. But they clearly do not agree on everything.

 

Ahmed and Pearl keep the dialogues fresh by referring to the most current issues of the day: recent events in the Middle East; a book they’ve read with a challenging premise; a new idea one wants the other to consider – and by talking about them together for the first time in front of an audience. The talk is never staged. Their hope is that local communities will build on the example. They also take questions, often hostile ones, from the audience. Explain the bombs, someone will ask. “It’s never easy,” Ahmed said by phone from Washington, where he holds positions in Islamic studies and international relations at American University. “What is surprising, though … is the amount of support we are getting. Incredible turnouts. Auditoriums of 1,000, completely full. “People are aware it is a critical time in world history and that dialogue is imperative.”

 

He attributes much of the interest to a widespread unease. “Americans feel under siege. Islam feels under siege. Jews feel under siege. As a result, all of us become defensive and ignore the needs and the pain of the other. If you set it in that context, you reach out to the pain of the other.” Pearl says he wants to focus on a discussion that equates prejudice against Islam with anti-Zionism. “People used to equate Islamophobia with anti-Semitism, but that is old-fashioned,” he said. Anti-Semitism refers to hate against the Jews as a people. “At Duke (University) we introduced a new equation that has changed the level of the conversation for the better.”

 

That new equation, Pearl said, is Islamophobia and anti-Zionism. Zionism is the policy and movement for establishing a Jewish homeland. The locations for the conversations are carefully selected for impact – where there is a good geographical or ethnic or political diversity from which to draw an audience.

 

At UCI in recent years, tension between Jewish and Muslim students has escalated, mostly over politics involving Israel and Palestine. Natalie Korthamar, 20, a UCI pre-med and sociology student and president of Hillel, an on-campus Jewish organization, said she finds the dialogue a great opportunity to ease that tension. “It would be the goal of Hillel and myself to hold an event that is not biased or slanted to one group,” Korthamar said.”That’s really difficult, but I am optimistic that this will be an event to show that this is possible.”

 

Yousuf Khan, 22, a UCI student in international studies and Ahmed’s nephew, spent the past couple of weeks encouraging fellow Muslims to attend the dialogue. “Surprisingly, a lot of people have said they are really interested in coming. They are wondering how it is going to be. I can’t wait.”