From Daily Times, Pakistan
WASHINGTON, 1 November 2003

A Small Step Toward Interfaith Dialogue
Akbar S. Ahmed, Special to Arab News


I have never seen nor do I intend ever to see the video of the last minutes of Daniel Pearls life made by his murderers in Karachi. The tragedy of a young man killed brutally in his prime is too great and its symbolism too heavy to bear.


So when I was invited to take part in a one-to-one public dialogue with Daniel Pearls father, Dr. Judea Pearl, I was not sure how to respond and what would happen if I did.


I knew, however, that for me it would be a dialogue with the ghost of Daniel Pearl for what his death has come to mean to the world and its understanding of Islam.


The dialogue, the first of its kind for both of us, was scheduled for Oct. 23, 2003 in Pittsburgh.


What was I to say to a man whose son had been killed in the city where I grew up, and at the hands of those belonging to my own faith? In turn, how could I communicate the political anarchy and social implosion that provided the setting within which we are to understand the murder? And what purpose would dialogue serve in the first place?


I agreed to go to Pittsburgh in order to express my support to the Pearl family for creating in Daniel a symbol of compassion in spite of the personal tragedy. As a Pakistani I felt it would also allow me to express my deep sympathy. As a Muslim I could make the point that Dannys murder was un-Islamic. Indeed Dannys death symbolized that far too many innocent people Muslims and non-Muslimsin different places, in different societies were being brutally killed in our world.


In explaining why he agreed to the dialogue, Dr. Pearl said that he was a scientist who wished to avenge Dannys murder by attacking the hatred that took his sons life and by challenging the ideology that permitted the hatred to bloom. There was also another reason. During our public exchange, he said I was the first Muslim that he had read who showed any empathyfor the sense of siege Jews feel in the contemporary world. He read out some sentences from a book of mine. My thesis suggests that the feeling of siege experienced by Muslim societies in Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya and the Balkans is found amongst other people as well.


Dr. Pearls test was of Biblical proportions and was addressed with inspired strength a son savagely slain and a father whose response was driven by a compassion that transcended rage and hatred. Dr. Pearls grace exceeded the challenge before him.


On the surface little more than one terrible tragedy the death of Daniel linked the two of us. Dr. Pearl, a Jew, was born in Tel Aviv, Israel. He became a computer scientist and is a leading specialist on artificial intelligence.


I was born in South Asia, a Muslim, and have been involved in the study of contemporary Islam for decades. Despite all our differences in discipline and background, we both saw Daniels death as a symptom of the hatred that divides different civilizations. At the same time, we both believed reason and compassion are able to triumph over rage and hatred.


Nicholas Lane moderated the event with polish and wit, and over 400 people attended. After our presentation the audience asked many difficult and awkward questions.


I had invited my friend Umar Ghuman, a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan. Umar spoke with eloquent passion. He asked forgivenessfrom the Pearl family. This to my mind was the first time that a public figure had asked for forgiveness in such a public manner. Umar also pointed out a link between our backgrounds that had not been highlighted: Only three nations were founded in the pursuit of religious freedom the US, Israel and Pakistan. These were bold and courageous statements considering the confrontational political climate dividing the Abrahamic faiths in many parts of the world.


Gerald Krell, the producer of Auteur Productions, there to film the dialogue as part of a documentary on Abrahamic dialogue, went to Umar after his speech and threw his arms around him. With tears in his eyes he said, You have made me cry today with what you have said.


I had also invited another friend, Professor Faizan Haq, the secretary-general of the Pakistan American Congress. Echoing Umars sentiment, he emphasized the need for compassion and dialogue between the Abrahamic faiths. He noted with sorrow that young Muslim men had been killed in America in the aftermath of Sept. 11.


Dr. Pearl was moved by these brave officials, and their sincere commitmentto tolerance and acceptance.But he said he wished that Islamic clerics would also follow their examples and instruct people in the true teachings of Islam.


I was pleased to see 40 to 50 Muslims in the audience including the president of the Islamic Council of Pittsburgh. There had been debate in the Muslim community both in Pittsburgh and elsewhere about the event. Many felt that the victimization and killing of Muslims around the world provided no reason to talk to the Jews. Others pointed out that the Pearl family was associated with Israel and therefore no dialogue or reconciliation could take place unless the problem of the Palestinians was resolved. Still others distrusted dialogue attempts because they felt they had been let down too many times in the past. The criticism made my task of public dialogue even more difficult.


Many issues were raised but required a later, more detailed discussion. Judeas comment that Islam needs a reformationis one such example. A renaissance, I suggested. Reformation has theological implications and will lead us into a cul-de-sac. A renaissance is possible and offers hope for the future. Next morning the Press Club of Pittsburgh, invited us for a breakfast meeting. The event was followed by an interfaith lunch with leading members of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities.


I felt that such tiny steps toward mutual understanding and dialogue could pick up momentum. Long journeys invariably start in this manner. Indeed the question was repeatedly asked over the two days in Pittsburgh: What next?


The answer came even before Dr. Pearl and I left Pittsburgh. San Francisco, Detroit, Cleveland and Philadelphia were asking whether they could host similar events.

Many people had asked why this dialogue was being conducted in Pittsburgh rather than in Washington D.C. or New York?


Lewis Jaffe, president of 21st Century Networking, based near Pittsburgh, and initiator of the conference is the answer. David Shtulman, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, Pittsburgh, supported him. The two dreamt up and executed the dialogue, making it one of the most successfully managed dialogues in which I have participated.


I even learned a Yiddish word in the process. David Shtulman called me a mensch. I later discreetly asked Lewis what it meant. He said it meant a good man or a kind-hearted person. But the creators of this dialogue deserved the title mensch more than I did the family of Danny deserved it more than anyone else for creating the opportunity for us to understand each other through our shared pain and sense of compassion.

Akbar S. Ahmed holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington, D.C. and is author of Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World, Polity Press (2003).

Published in Pakistan’s Daily Times