Personal dialogues bridge gaps between Jews and Muslims

American Weekly, USA
February 10, 2004

By Emily D. Johnson

Moments before Daniel Pearl was brutally murdered in February 2002 in Karachi, Pakistan, his captors recorded a video of him saying, “I am a Jew, my mother is a Jew.” His execution, done by men who acted in the name of Islam and played on television worldwide, broadened the gap between the world’s Jews and Muslims, making communication and peace between them even more difficult.

Daniel Pearl’s father, Judea Pearl, might be forgiven if he were to deplore Islam. Instead, he put himself on a Philadelphia stage for a one-on-one public dialogue on religion with AU professor Akbar Ahmed, a native of Karachi and according to the BBC, “probably the world’s best-known scholar on contemporary Islam.”

At the Jan. 20 event, titled “Choosing Hope—A Dialogue in Search of Common Ground,” the men spoke to each other and to an audience of 800 that included SIS dean Louis Goodman, three SIS students who drove to Philadel-phia to support the event, and a general public ranging from older Jewish women to young Pakistani men. Though Pakistan has not recognized Israel and you cannot travel to Israel on a Pakistani passport, the consulate general of Israel in Philadelphia attended the event, and Mohammed Sadiq, Pakistani deputy chief of mission, took the podium to speak out against Daniel’s killing. Their attendance added to the import of the evening, said Ahmed.

Ahmed and Pearl spoke mainly about what they have learned from each other, for example that Islam lacks the structured hierarchy of Judaism and that Jewish can be an ethnic secular identity.

It helps that the two have developed an easy rapport and deep respect for each other, achieved since Pearl contacted Ahmed a year ago in his quest to better understand Islam and to turn his son’s death into a battle against hatred and violence. At first Ahmed had reservations about meeting Pearl. “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?” he wrote on the Daniel Pearl Foundation Web site.

But he did respond to Pearl, originally to express deep sympathy, and now both men hope their dialogue will help others understand the similarities and differences between their two religions and serve to highlight their moderate, peaceful aspects. The media is full of images of Muslims blowing things up, said Ahmed, but “If you see on stage a Jewish figure and a Muslim figure talking cordially . . . it begins to change people’s minds.”

Dean Goodman also participated in the dialogue after an audience member claimed there were rumors of rancor between Jewish and Muslim scholars at AU. “We have many scholars on the Middle East; they give us many different perspectives,” he said, and invited the man to AU. “We’ll see if you have the same view of them. . . if you meet them directly. I’d encourage you to look past these characterizations. Do what Dr. Ahmed and Dr. Pearl have done and make friends who are different from yourself.”

The Philadelphia event was not the first Ahmed-Pearl dialogue—there was one in Pittsburgh in November—and it will not be the last. Already the two have plans to continue their discussion in San Francisco, Boston, and the United Kingdom. Their conversation is not a finished product, which is one of the most attractive things about it. No one, not even Ahmed and Pearl, knows what will result from it.

In fact the conversations have already produced results that startled both Ahmed and Pearl. “[My son] was killed for what he represented . . . open-mindedness, respect for others, and the dignity of difference,” said Pearl to the Philadelphia audience. “[I used to say] I could see no greater consolation than seeing [Pakistani] children looking up at his picture one day and saying ‘That is the kind of person I would like to be.’”

Ahmed’s face showed agreement and then surprise as Pearl continued. “I have changed my wish. I would like to see your children in Pakistan pointing out to Professor Ahmed and saying ‘That is the kind of person I would like to be.’”

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