Sunday, November 09, 2003
Muslim and Jew: Can we talk?
Judea Pearl, a Jewish computer scientist born in Israel,
and Akbar Ahmed, a Muslim Islamic scholar born in Pakistan,
were brought together in Pittsburgh by hope born of
The tragedy was the brutal murder of Judea Pearl's
son, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, at
the hands of Islamic extremists in Pakistan last year.
The hope was they might lead a public dialogue addressing
the deepest unspoken fears that divide Jews from Muslims,
and Muslims from the West, and make possible a little
more peace, a little less war.
Pearl and Ahmed also harbored a mutual fear -- that
such a public dialogue might disintegrate in mutual
recriminations. More than 400 people attended their
first forum on Oct. 23 in Oakland, which was hosted
by David Shtulman, area director for the American Jewish
Committee. It did not fall apart. It went so well,
the speakers believe, that they have asked Shtulman
to help them replicate the event in cities across the
United States, in Europe, in Israel and in Arab countries.
We asked Pearl and Ahmed to reflect on what happened
in Pittsburgh last month, and how they see the way
forward for what is now their joint project.
Forum: Judea Pearl -- 'We are not your enemy. But we need your help in pointing to the true and peaceful nature of Islam. Truth is in the practice.'
Sunday, November 09, 2003
When I was invited to take part in a one-to-one public
dialogue with Professor Akbar Ahmed, I immediately
said, "Of course." After all, I represent
my son, Daniel Pearl, who practiced dialogues with
Muslims on a daily basis, and who has come to symbolize,
through the tragic circumstances of his death, the
very idea of East/West dialogue. Additionally, the
Daniel Pearl Foundation (of which I am the president)
has it on its charter to promote cross-cultural understanding,
so it is only natural that we explore public dialogues
as a forum for achieving our mission.
I later had some doubts, though, whether a dialogue
dwelling on religious beliefs in our respective communities
would be effective in dealing with the complex issues
at hand. To those who live in a pluralistic society,
and especially Jews, who rely on pluralism for survival,
religious differences are merely curious variants of
one universal principle: "Love thy neighbor;" hence
they are deemed irrelevant in discussions of substantive
One of the lessons I have learned from the dialogue
session in Pittsburgh (and from reading Professor Ahmed's
insightful book "Islam Under Siege") is that
this view is oversimplistic. Although religious differences
may not mean much to secular Westerners, they are the
dominant factors in shaping most Muslims' perception
of world affairs. Moreover, Muslims' perception of
being "under siege," as unexpected as it
may look to a naive Westerner considering their number
and resources, is both genuine and pervasive, and takes
on religious, not political dimension in the Muslim
Although some analysts submit that part of this perception
is generated by agenda-driven media and conspiracy-minded
intellectuals, we must nevertheless acknowledge its
existence, analyze its sources and deal with its ramifications.
We must also come to terms with the hard fact that
much of the Muslim world perceives the war on terrorism
as a war against Islam, and not enough is being done
to make the distinction clear and crisp. Unfortunately,
when terrorism is inflamed by religious zeal against
the Judeo-Christian tradition, actions to prevent terrorism
are easily misinterpreted as actions against Islam.
Muslim clerics can help sharpen this distinction by
denouncing Bin-Ladenism with the same fervor that perceived
anti-Islamic heresy usually evokes among Islamic leaders
(e.g., Salman Rushdie). I hope future sessions of this
dialogue will explore how Muslim clerics, starting
in the West, can help make it known to all that Bin-Ladenism
is a form of heresy according to Islam .
By far the most urgent message that Jewish readers
would like to convey to their Muslim counterparts is
"We are not your enemy. Look at our record: We
have fought hard for civil rights and religious tolerance,
our own hateful extremists have been shunned and marginalized,
we are veterans and experts in fighting siege and we
can be your allies in your legitimate fight for dignity
"You are trying hard to assure us that Islam,
as defined in the Quran, is a peaceful religion, but
this is not our main concern. We are not terribly bothered
by passages in the Quran that may be interpreted as
contemptuous of Jews, because our Torah too has embarrassing
passages (e.g., 'eye for an eye'), and we have managed
to interpret them honorably; we trust you do likewise.
Our concern stems from watching an 8-year-old girl
stating on TV that Jews are 'apes and pigs' and that
'the Quran says so.' This does not support the peaceful
nature of her teachers' religion, and we need your
help in pointing her teachers to the true nature of
Islam. Truth is in the practice."
Where I may differ with my distinguished colleague
is on ways of defusing Muslims' perception of being
under siege. Whereas Professor Ahmed will probably
emphasize policy changes toward Muslim countries, I
would emphasize perception change, namely, examining
the information that has contributed to this perception
and help and try to correct for distortions or inaccuracies,
Take for instance the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Both Professor Ahmed and I understand that this conflict
is basically a local land dispute between two nations
of refugees, each tired and bleeding and each yearning
for a long-denied day of normalcy. Yet in the Muslim
world, the conflict is invariably portrayed as an imperialist
war against Islam the religion. The human face of 5
million Jewish refugees in Israel is hardly seen on
Al-Jazeera or Malaysian TV. Thus, one issue I hope
to discuss with Professor Ahmed in the future is whether
calling for a change in U.S. policy in the region can
be effective without a simultaneous call for an honest
and open portrayal of all people in the region, Palestinians
as well as Israelis.
Questions of intellectual honesty also underscore
the famous "Jewish" speech of Mahathir Mohamad,
the (now retired) prime minister of Malaysia, which
he delivered last month at an Islamic summit. Regardless
of his theories about who controls the world, Mahathir
cannot possibly believe that Jews are the major impediment
to progress in the Muslim world. Malaysia itself is
a living proof that a Muslim country can make significant
progress without a "final victory" over the
What Jewish readers would like to convey to their
Muslim colleagues is that such fantasies, when stated
and applauded by heads of states and by the sweeping
majorities of their respective constituencies, tend
to discredit legitimate claims of Muslims in general.
We rely on our Muslim colleagues to help dispel those
fantasies in their respective communities and to help
spread our first message: We are not your enemies.
We can be your allies.
These examples illustrate the nature and style of
the dialogues we hope to pursue. The unique feature
of this forum is that we share the same utopian vision
-- peace and mutual respect among nations and religions
-- and we likewise agree on the principles that should
govern the means for achieving that vision, based on
the Abrahamic tradition of universal empathy and compassion.
We may differ in our assessments of the effectiveness
of various policy options, but this kind of difference
is more likely to be bridged by discussion and exchange
of factual information. Our aims are modest, but their
ripple effects may be enormous if people from both
communities join the discussion in the same style.
When asked why I joined this dialogue forum, I answered
that it is my duty to continue my son's life-work --
dialogue was his mission and avocation. For us, Daniel's
family and thousands of people worldwide who support
our foundation, the legacy of Daniel Pearl is not a
story of martyrdom, nor a claim on victimhood, nor
an indictment of the Islamic religion, but a proud
reminder of what Abrahamic humanity stands for and
a vivid inspiration for the long road ahead.
(Judea Pearl is the president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation
( www.danielpearl.org ) and a professor of computer
science at the University of California, Los Angeles.)
Forum: Akbar S. Ahmed -- 'Several world civilizations
feel besieged, with hatred and anger readily turning
into violence. Even more dangerous is the lack of knowledge
about the other.'
Sunday, November 09, 2003
President Bush and other policy-makers concerned about
dismal relations with the Muslim world have something
to learn from the example of Judea Pearl, father of
the brutally slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel
Pearl. With great moral courage and compassion, the
Pearl family converted a personal tragedy of biblical
proportions into a platform for understanding. American
leaders should heed the Pearl family's example if they
truly want to positively impact the world in which
The hatred, anger and violence that sealed Danny's
fate, and which poison relations between the United
States and the Muslim world, need to be seen in the
context of our times.
In my new book, I write of Muslims the world over
who suffer from daily injustices and dishonor in regions
such as Palestine, Kashmir, the Balkans and Chechnya.
The sufferings lead to feelings of besiegement that
make rational dialogue close to impossible.
I also point to the sense of besiegement felt in other
societies, citing as an example America following Sept.
11, 2001. Israelis have also felt under siege since
the creation of their state, surrounded as they are
by an overwhelming number of hostile neighbors.
A historical conjunction of factors has created a
global situation where several world civilizations
feel simultaneously besieged and where hatred and anger
readily turn into violence. Perhaps what makes all
this even more dangerous is the lack of knowledge about
Muslims need to understand how deeply hurtful and
inflammatory phrases like "final solution," "final
victory," "extermination" and references
to the Jews as "modern Nazis" can be to Jews.
Many Jews are highly critical and vocal about actions
contributing to the deaths of innocent Muslims. They
are therefore doubly hurt at what they see as Muslim
Muslims would do well to understand the phenomenon
of anti-Semitism. This blind acceptance is exemplified
by a recent documentary broadcast in the Middle East,
which portrayed "The Protocols of the Learned
Elders of Zion" as historical fact.
It would help the broadcasters to know that the Protocols,
which are supposed to be a blueprint for Jewish world
domination, were written to defame the Jews in the
late 19th century by the Russian czar's secret service.
Use and dispersement of such damaging propaganda poses
great threat to the understanding needed to bridge
divides in the world today.
Even just last month at the Organization of Islamic
Conferences meeting in Malaysia, outgoing Malaysian
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said "today the
Jews rule the world by proxy," by which he meant
the United States of America.
Mahathir's remarks did not surprise me, as many Muslims
express similar sentiments. What did surprise me, however,
was the standing ovation given to Mahathir by the 57
heads of state of the Muslim world, many of whom claim
close relationships with the United States.
If Muslims would seriously read American writers,
perceptions about America might shift from hostility
to tolerance, and maybe even to appreciation. Take
Benjamin Franklin, one of the extraordinary Founding
Fathers of America, for example. Writing in his autobiography
two centuries ago, Franklin opened his arms to Muslims
from abroad and even promised that were the leading
cleric of Istanbul to arrive, "he would find a
pulpit at his service." This knowledge will help
dispel the stereotypes in many a Muslim mind, that
most Americans are racist and Islamophobic.
Muslim leadership also needs to help Muslims who emphasize
only the combative aspects of Islam to rediscover the
strong central features of compassion and tolerance
in their faith. They need to be reminded that two of
the greatest attributes of God are compassion and mercy.
Muslim leadership needs to understand the challenge
to their faith from within and speak out loud and clear.
It also needs to be much more active in interfaith
dialogue and interactions with the media in explaining
The picture on the other side is equally discouraging.
All polls confirm that the majority of Americans have
virtually no idea of Islam. They don't know that Islam
is part of the Abrahamic tradition in its religion,
culture and ideology and sees itself as such. Abraham,
Moses and Jesus are highly revered figures who are
deeply loved in Islam.
Such ignorances contribute to why Muslims are infuriated
when they hear of hostile comments from someone like
U.S. Lt. Gen. William Boykin, whose professional duty
it is to deal with Muslims. To Boykin, Muslims are
idol-worshippers and Islam is equivalent to the worship
of Satan. This to a Muslim, for whom idolatry is perhaps
the worst of all sins, is astonishing ignorance. Muslims
simply cannot believe that ignorance on this level
is possible, and they are inclined to see conspiracies
For those Americans who believe that Islam simply
means violence -- particularly with the powerful images
of 9/11, the death of Danny Pearl, etc. -- an understanding
of Islam found in its great spiritual figures becomes
imperative. The great poet Maulana Rumi is one such
example. Rumi has become a popular poet in America
because he conveys the sense of unity in faith. His
moving verses of synagogue, church and mosque containing
the same spirit are relevant to our times.
America's values of liberty, democracy and human rights
resonate in the Muslim world. Yet today Americans are
seen as supporting brutal dictators or engaged in several
brutal wars with Muslim peoples.
The situation in Iraq and Afghanistan needs to be
understood in this context, whatever the so-called
media experts tell us. And whatever the experts are
telling us the situation in both countries is spinning
out of control.
In the Muslim world, America is perceived to unfairly
support the state of Israel, which is then given free
rein in Palestine. In order to bring peace to the region,
both Israelis and Palestinians need to change not so
much their negotiating skills but their hearts. In
order for this to happen, both need to and can develop
an understanding of what is common between them --
starting with their common prophet and patriarch Abraham.
Finally and most important of all, the central Abrahamic
message of compassion -- exemplified so perfectly by
Jesus -- needs to be rediscovered. While dialogue is
too often couched in terms of scoring points and tit-for-tat
exchanges, we see too few attempts at reaching out
That is why the Pittsburgh dialogue with Dr. Pearl
was so important. It was a tiny but essential step.
This kind of dialogue needs to be repeated in the United
States and the Muslim world. As we get to know each
other, we become friends and begin to challenge the
stereotypes about ourselves.
Dr. Pearl's grandson and Danny's son is called Adam.
My grandson is Ibrahim (or Abraham). These names could
have been interchanged, as both Adam and Abraham are
figures common to both traditions. If we can bring
such bonds to the attention of our communities and
our national leaders, we can generate further dialogue,
and the meeting at Pittsburgh will have served its
Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies
at American University, is the author of "Islam
Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World" (Polity