Morality, Renaissance and Dialogue
by Judea Pearl
Chapter from After
Terror: From Clash of Civilizations to Dialogue,
Akbar Ahmed and Brian Forst editors, Polity Press, Winter
In his speech of April 15, 2004, President George Bush
linked the murder of my son, Daniel Pearl, to a global
"ideology of murder." "The terrorist who takes hostages,
or plants a roadside bomb near Baghdad" said Bush "is
serving the same ideology of murder that kills innocent
people on trains in Madrid, and murders children on
buses in Jerusalem, and blows up a nightclub in Bali,
and cuts the throat of a young reporter for being a
A week later, while engaging in a Jewish-Muslim dialogue
in Williamsburg, Virginia, the first question reporters
asked me was: "What is your reaction to the President's
mention of your son?" My answer was:
"I agree with the President's observation that Daniel's
tragedy is pivotal for understanding the current tide
of madness." However, I consider Danny's legacy as a
communicator and bridge builder to be equally pivotal
in inspiring and revitalizing East/West dialogues, an
effort to which I am devoting my energies.
The wave of violence now rocking the planet is of a
fundamentally different character than anything this
planet has known in the past few centuries. For the
first time in recent history a friendly messenger is
killed by calculated design, in front of millions of
spectators, for the sheer purpose of transmitting a
message to those it deems its enemies.
True, planet earth has known cruelty before, and on
a much greater scale. Yet even the Nazis labored to
hide their gruesome deeds, thus unveiling some inkling
of shame, doubt or fear. Daniel's murderers, in shocking
contrast, boasted openly in their cruelty, totally secured
in faith and righteousness, triumphantly expecting spectators
to rally in sympathy. More shocking yet, many of their
spectators did rally in sympathy (according to reports
from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) and, as the recent murders
of Nicholas Berg and Fabrizio Quattrocchi indicate,
message-transmission killing has become an increasingly
acceptable practice in certain parts of the world.
Such brazen assault on the sanctity of human life marks
a profound transgression in the evolution of human civilization,
and we must ask ourselves what the origin of this transgression
is, and whether it can be isolated, understood and controlled.
I used to believe that, in its core, the current global
conflict reflects a clash between two camps, one inclusive,
embracing those who are respectful of differences among
cultures and viewpoints, the other exclusive, for those
intolerant to such differences. I had this distinction
in mind when I wrote "we must galvanize people along
a new frontier, one defined not along national or religious
lines but along lines of decency and understanding."
(I am Jewish, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004, page xxv).
But this inclusive/exclusive distinction (or compassionate
versus judgmental, as it is sometimes called) is flawed
with incurable contradictions -- it cannot serve as
the sole basis for moral preference. The contradictions
belong to a family of logical paradoxes investigated
by Bertrand Russell in 1903 (The Principles of Mathematics,
Cambridge, 1903), which is endemic of self-referential
Imagine a person who proclaims himself "inclusivist".
Naturally, that person would view himself as part of
the inclusive camp, to the exclusion of the opposite
camp, comprised of exclusivists. But this very view
is inherently exclusive, us versus them, which immediately
puts that person back into the exclusive category, in
blatant contradiction of our starting premise.
Russell's paradox cannot be brushed aside as an academic
exercise in sophistry. Its power caught my attention
in a pertinent discussion with a Pakistani friend who
stated that he cannot stand people like President Bush
who take an "us versus them" attitude. I pointed out
to my friend that by excluding himself from the "us-versus-them"
camp he is in fact positioning himself in the very same
"us-versus-them" camp that he loathes so intensely.
The lesson of Russell's paradox is that one simply cannot
be inclusive all the way; even the most accommodating
and compassionate person must reject certain ideologies
without losing the moral high-ground we normally associate
with tolerance, pluralism and inclusivity. Examples
of rejectable ideologies include those that advocate
intolerance to different cultures and faiths, those
that threaten the survival of mankind, and those that
trample on basic norms of civilized society.
This paradox also presents a compelling argument against
theories of relativistic morality, according to which
right and wrong, good and evil are in the eye of the
beholder; a "terrorist" to one eye is a "freedom fighter"
to another, "occupiers" to some are "liberators" to
others, and so on. Such blurring of distinctions, a
favorite occupation of post-modern media, has helped
legitimize the ideology of Bin Laden, and leads to moral
These symmetries should be broken by reference to objective
norms of right and wrong adopted by civilized society.
There is simply no moral equivalence between those who
labor to minimize the suffering of innocent and those
who pride themselves on maximizing such suffering.
It is this reliance on absolute basic norms, not on
the inclusive/exclusive distinction that makes the perpetrators
of the 9/11 attack, the killers of Daniel Pearl and
the sadists in Abu Ghraib prison morally repulsive,
even to a world embroiled in ideological conflicts and
We must now ask ourselves what divides those capable
of beheading people for the purpose transmitting messages
and those who are repulsed by such acts. Is the dividing
line cultural? Religious? Ideological? Political?
Samuel Huntington theorized that the dividing lines
represent a clash of two civilizations: Muslim versus
Western. It is not a fashionable theory today, especially
not in the West, partly because it implies a long and
irreconcilable struggle between East and West, and partly
because it associates terrorism with religious or cultural
backgrounds -- a distasteful association by Western
Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, on the other
hand, has promoted an alternative theory, one that is
often heard in the West from moderate Muslims:
"We need to understand that the root cause of extremism
and militancy lies in political injustice, denial and
deprivation. Political injustice to a nation or a people,
when combined with stark poverty and illiteracy, makes
for an explosive mix. It produces an acute sense of
hopelessness and powerlessness. A nation suffering from
these lethal ills is easily available for the propagation
of militancy and the perpetration of extremist, terrorist
acts." (Washington Post, June 1, 2004; Page A23).
Although not mentioned explicitly, religion-based incitement
was surely on Musharraf's mind when he talked about
"explosive mix". One could hardly be oblivious to the
fact that the "explosions", when they occurred, were
made in the name of religion, and received the tacit
approval of the religious leadership who held the moral
authority to safeguard against such explosions. Thus,
the difference between Huntington's theory and those
based on socio-economical or political factors is merely
a question of which factors we take as the fuel and
which as the spark. These analogies have significant
implications on the choice of effective strategies to
tame the current conflict.
Musharraf strategy, which he calls "renaissance" and
"Enlightened Moderation", goes as follows: "The first
part is for the Muslim world to shun militancy and extremism
and adopt the path of socioeconomic uplift. The second
is for the West, and the United States in particular,
to seek to resolve all political disputes with justice
and to aid in the socioeconomic betterment of the deprived
One can hardly disagree with the general outline of
this strategy, with the possible introduction of two
clarifications. First, as a member of the Jewish "Ummah"
(nation), I hope that the equation for "justice" in
the enlightened era would include the legitimate aspirations
of non-Muslim nations as well, including aspirations
for normalcy, self-determination, diplomatic recognition
and unchallenged acceptance. Second, and most importantly,
one must emphasize the essential role that spiritual
Muslim leaders must play in this transition toward Enlightened
Religions, civilizations and ancient scriptures do not
provide us with complete recipes for moral behavior.
Rather, they provide us with intellectual resources,
or building blocks with the help of which we construct
criteria for evaluating actions in specific situations.
One of the primary functions of spiritual and ideological
leadership is to help us decide which cultural building
blocks are applicable in any given situation, and to
filter away those that do not apply. An enlightened
ideological leadership is one that safeguards a religion
from being hijacked by its extreme elements, and it
is that kind of leadership that is absolutely needed
for restoring enlightenment when safeguards fail.
If we take ideological leadership as the guiding paradigm
for understanding the current conflict between the Muslim
and Western world, then the conflict, even considering
its cultural-religious roots does not seem as hopeless
as the one predicted by Huntington's theory. Ideological
differences, are a matter of emphasis, leaving scriptures
and beliefs intact, and can be smoothened by renaissance
In the Muslim world, the leaders who can make renaissance
a reality are those who can win the minds of the young
and faithful to the side of hope: intellectual leaders
who pride themselves on peace and modernity, and clerics,
imams, sheikhs and mullahs who have been voicing concern
over the hijacking of Islam by a minority of anti-Islamic
Moreover, the first step in winning the minds of the
young is to make the distinction between true Islam
and Jihadi Islam a religious, not political distinction.
A week after the brutal killing of Nicholas Berg I addressed
Muslim leaders in an open letter (Wall Street Journal,
May 20, 2004): "I beseech you to join the courageous
Muslims who have denounced, in unambiguous language,
not only the killing of Nicholas Berg, but the growing
practice of killing innocent human beings as a means
of communicating grievances, regardless of how valid
or urgent the grievance.
"I therefore urge Muslim clerics to cast their denunciation
in plain religious vocabulary, to proclaim these crimes
to be sins, or blasphemy, and to remind their followers
that the murderers of Nicholas Berg, Fabrizio Quattrocchi
and Daniel Pearl will be punished by Allah Himself,
as it is said: "We have prepared fire for the wrongdoers"
"Muslim clerics can further guard the image of Islam
by issuing Fatwas against the perpetrators of those
acts, thus mobilizing their communities to take a pro-active
role in the apprehension of those perpetrators, and
in bringing them to justice.
The use of Islamic instruments such as "Haram", "Takfir"
and "Fatwa" is essential in the transition to Musharraf's
Enlightened Moderation. As Shmuel Bar notes in his scholarly
article (Policy Review, June, 2004):
"The fatwas promulgated by sheikhs and 'ulama who stipulate
that jihad is a "personal duty" play, therefore, a pivotal
role in encouraging radicalism and in building the support
infrastructure for radicals within the traditional Islamic
community. While one may find many fatwas which advocate
various manifestations of terrorism, fatwas which rule
that those who perform these acts do not go to paradise
but inherit hell are few and far between."
I am hopeful that these instruments, which Islam provides
its spiritual leaders to protect its true teachings,
and which were abused by some to distort and defame
its roots, will be used create the conditions for Enlightened
Moderation to emerge.
One reason for optimism stems from the presence of a
sizable Muslim "diaspora" in the West. This diaspora
can serve as a cultural conduit of ideas and needs from
the West to the East and vice versa. Although many Western
Muslims feel alienated and express disenchantment with
Western motives and values, they nevertheless have experienced
the merits of Western freedoms and are fully aware of
the genuine goodwill of their non-Muslim friends and
neighbors; they could serve therefore as the West's
best Ambassadors to their countries of origin and vice
More importantly, Western Muslims are serious victims
of post-9/11 Islamophobia and of the distorted image
of Islam that silence and lethargy is projecting; they
have a vested interest in seeing that silence broken
and enlightenment ensue. Therefore, it is from the mosques
of the West that a grassroots pressure for a cultural
renaissance is likely to emerge and make its way eastward.
Accordingly, I envision a natural partnership developing
between Muslims, Jews and Christians in the West and
slowly making its way, through religious channels, toward
South Asia, the Middle East and other Muslim countries.
It is in building such partnership that dialogue between
the three great religions plays a crucial role. Western
Muslims must be assured that Jews and Christians are
reliable supporters of their legitimate struggle for
dignity and social acceptance. Jews and Christians on
the other hand, need be assured that Western Muslims
will become partners and emissaries in the fight against
terrorism, fanaticism and identity-based hatred.
It is only through dialogue that such assurances can
be mutually established.
My son Daniel was a dialogue maker who earned respect
on both sides of the East/West divides and who had an
unshaken belief in the power of communication to change
people's minds and hearts. In his spirit, and for the
sake of my grandson's generation, we must see this dialogue
Judea Pearl, a professor of computer science at the
University of California, Los Angeles, is president
of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (www.danielpearl.org)
and co-editor of "I am Jewish: Personal Reflections
Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl" (Jewish