From Daily Times,
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
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
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
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