OTTAWA – The desire to seek vengeance was the initial, primal reaction to the public execution, three years ago in Pakistan, of his son, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
But instead of violence, Judea Pearl sought peace.
“In caveman times, you kill the enemy and you kill the threat,” Mr. Pearl said from his home in Los Angeles. “In today’s times, you kill one terrorist, you haven’t done a thing.
“You have to kill the ideology that brings about hatred — and that is what I am after.”
To achieve this, he has joined forces with Akbar Ahmed, a Muslim and an outspoken critic of Islamic terrorism. Together, the two have embarked on a speaking tour aimed at bridging the gap between their two faiths.
On Tuesday night in Ottawa, the two men will hold “The Daniel Pearl Dialogue for Muslim-Jewish Understanding,” hosted by the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies. MP Ed Broadbent will moderate the event, at the Hilton Lac Leamy in Gatineau. The dialogue moves to Toronto on Wednesday.
Daniel Pearl, 38, was kidnapped in Karachi on Jan. 23, 2002, while on his way to interview a Muslim fundamentalist leader. A month later, Mr. Pearl’s captors slit his throat then decapitated him. A videotape of the gruesome slaying was released; his last words before his execution were: “I am a Jew.” The killing shocked the world, and became a symbol of the post-9/11 schism between Islam and the West.
Out of tragedy, a movement was born.
His family created the Daniel Pearl Foundation, a non-profit organization aimed at reaching out to the Muslim world and to promoting tolerance and understanding.
The foundation’s honorary board attracted such people as Bill Clinton, Queen Noor of Jordan, Itzhak Perlman and Elie Wiesel. It developed programs and inspired memorials, lectures and fellowships in Mr. Pearl’s honour. The public dialogues between Judea Pearl and Mr. Akbar, though, emerged as the most visible project of the foundation.
At first glance, the two distinguished professors seem to have little in common other than their PhD degrees.
Mr. Pearl was born in Tel Aviv. He experienced the birth of the state of Israel, served in the army and then earned his electrical engineering degree from the Technion in Haifa. In 1960, he moved to the United States, where he embarked on an illustrious career in the sciences. Currently a professor at UCLA, he has published groundbreaking research in the fields of artificial intelligence, probability and causality. He gives the impression of a man more comfortable in a laboratory than on a stage.
“I never planned to do this,” he said. “History has thrust me this task. I am not the best qualified man to undertake this challenge, but it so happens it fell in my lap. I have to do it.”
Mr. Ahmed grew up in Karachi. He became a renowned anthropologist and later high commissioner of Pakistan in Britain. He is currently the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies and professor of international relations at American University in Washington.
The men would likely never have crossed paths were it not for the tragedy of Daniel Pearl. His death was not only a life-
altering experience for his father, but also for Mr. Ahmed, who says it represented “a total collapse of Muslim society.”
“It wasn’t just the killing — that was bad enough — it was also this kind of savagery, the slitting of the throat, putting it on television, making him say ‘I am Jewish,’ ” Mr. Ahmed said. “This to me implies a certain moral collapse.
“You cannot justify it and still maintain to be part of the Abrahamic tradition. You cannot say I am a good Muslim and then do these acts of savagery.”
Following his son’s death, Mr. Pearl received an outpouring of condolences from around the world, including many from Muslims. But this did not translate into concrete action or change.
“On a political level, the issue of speaking out against terror is still a murky one in the Muslim world,” he said.
Enter Mr. Ahmed. He has for years been speaking out against the radicalization of Islam. When Mr. Pearl came calling, he knew he had found a partner.
“I was on this journey on my own, in any case. What Judea allowed me to do was to team up, to create a new space, create a new dynamic.”
Their first public meeting was in Pittsburgh on Oct. 23, 2003. It was an emotional affair. Mr. Ahmed, realizing the Pearls had never received any official recognition from Pakistan following their son’s murder, invited a member of the Pakistani National Assembly to participate in the event and asked him to apologize to the family.
“He said that we as Muslims in our culture do not apologize,” Mr. Ahmed recalled. “And I told him, ‘Well, you will be the first.’ ”
The Pakistani politician agreed. He stood up, looked Mr. Pearl straight in the eye, and apologized on behalf of the people of Pakistan.
“There wasn’t a single dry eye in the audience,” Mr. Ahmed said.
Similar events followed in Philadelphia and Williamsburg, Pennsylvania, before their dialogues went overseas, including London, where the two spoke before the House of Lords. Their conversations have ranged from foreign policy, to truth, lies and their own deepest fears.
The men have developed a friendship. Mr. Ahmed calls Mr. Pearl “a hero.”
“He’s converted this great tragedy into something very positive. To me this is heroic. To me, this reaching out and this building of bridges is morally the most heroic thing that I can think of.”
Mr. Ahmed has shown considerable courage as well. By challenging Muslim society from within, and denouncing violence, he has made enemies. He has received threatening letters for his mere willingness to sit down and talk to Jews.
“I am simply following the words of the prophet who preached dialogue, dialogue, dialogue,” he said. “I am prepared to argue on the basis of chapter and verse within the Abrahamic tradition, within Islam.”
His faith has made his conversations with Mr. Pearl all the more significant.
“The power that this particular dialogue has for me, in a sense, is we are on God’s mission,” Mr. Ahmed said. “We are creating harmony. We are creating dialogue. We are creating understanding.”
It’s a sense of responsibility he shares with Mr. Pearl, who wants his loss to serve as a lesson for the rest of the world.
“There aren’t many such icons around, and therefore it is my responsibility to draw the maximum good from that icon and to inspire people to fight the hatred that took Danny’s life,” Mr. Pearl said.
“It saddens me that that opportunity came through such tragic circumstances. I wish people would be motivated by celebration rather than tragedies.”