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COMMENTARY: Dialogue with Danny

c. 2003 Religion News Service (Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., is author of “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” published by Polity Press.) (UNDATED) I have never seen _ nor do I intend to ever see _ the video of the […]

c. 2003 Religion News Service

(Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., is author of “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” published by Polity Press.)

(UNDATED) I have never seen _ nor do I intend to ever see _ the video of the last minutes of Daniel Pearl’s life made by his murderers in Karachi, Pakistan. 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 Danny Pearl’s 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 Danny 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 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 Danny 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 Danny’s murder was un-Islamic. Indeed, Danny’s death symbolized that far too many innocent people _ Muslims and non-Muslims _ in 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 Danny’s murder by attacking the hatred that took his son’s life and by challenging the ideology that permitted the hatred to bloom. There was another reason why Dr. Pearl agreed to the dialogue.

During our public exchange, he said I was the first Muslim that he had read who showed any “empathy” for the sense of siege Jews feel in the contemporary world.

Dr. Pearl’s 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. Pearl’s grace exceeded the challenge before him.

On the surface, little more than one terrible tragedy _ the death of Danny _ 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 Danny’s 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.

I had invited my friend Umar Ghuman, a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan, to be with us that evening. Umar spoke with eloquent passion. He asked “forgiveness” from the Pearl family _ the first time I could recall a public figure asking 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 United States, Israel and Pakistan. These were bold and courageous statements considering the confrontational political climate dividing the Abrahamic faiths in many parts of the world.

I had also invited another friend, Professor Faizan Haq, the secretary general of the Pakistan American Congress. Echoing Umar’s eloquence and sentiment, he emphasized the need for compassion and dialogue among Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Dr. Pearl was moved by these “brave officials” and their “sincere commitment” to “tolerance and acceptance.” He wished, however, that the Islamic clerics would also follow their examples and instruct people in the true teachings of Islam.

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.

Many issues were raised but required a later, more detailed discussion. Dr. Pearl’s comment on stage, that Islam needs a “reformation,” is one such example. A “renaissance,” I counter-suggested. Reformation has theological implications and will lead us into a cul-de-sac. A renaissance is possible and offers hope for the future.

The dialogue, followed by a meeting the next day with leading Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders, gave me hope that these tiny steps toward mutual understanding could pick up momentum. Long journeys invariably start in this manner. Indeed, the question repeatedly asked over the two days in Pittsburgh was “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.

I even learned a Yiddish word in the process. David Shtulman, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Pittsburgh chapter, called me a mensch. I later discreetly asked a local Jewish leader what it meant. He said it meant a good man or a kind-hearted person.

Although the creators of this dialogue deserved the title mensch more than I did, the family of Danny Pearl deserved it more than anyone else for creating the opportunity for us to understand each other through our shared pain and sense of compassion.