Daniel Pearl, the promising Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and subsequently murdered, allegedly by Al Qaeda associate Omar Sheikh in 2002, would have been 43 years old today. To commemorate Pearl's death, and the inquiring spirit that characterized the journalist in life, HBO will air The Journalist and the Jihadi: the Murder of Daniel Pearl, narrated by Christiane Amanpour, at 8 pm (EST) tonight.
Pearl, already stationed in India on September 11, 2001, made his way to Pakistan with his wife Mariane, the next day. There, he began to investigate the financing of the 9/11 attacks. Pearl scrutinized official state institutions, such as the Pakistani government's intelligence arm, ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), and to learn of local ones, such as the madrasas, or schools, some of which had become incubators of militant Islam.
More broadly, he began to understand the institutional and cultural forces that permittedor simply could not resistthe expanding power of jihadist organizations.
Omar Sheikh and Daniel Pearl Meet in Pakistan
Omar Sheikh, ten years Pearl's junior, had also made his way to Pakistan. Born to Pakistani immigrants in England, he attended prestigious English day schools, finally landing in the London School of Economics.
The film tells the story of a displaced young man drawn along, by 1989, by enthusiasm for a newly triumphant activist Islam, which finds its way to England in the form of then Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa calling for the death of Muslim English novelist Salman Rushdie. Entranced by the cause, he makes his way to Bosnia, beomes amujahid, or holy warrior. He subsequently makes his way to the Indian/ Pakistani arena to cement his career as a holy warrior.
Pearl's investigation of "shoe bomber" Richard Reid led him to seek interviews among the jihadi community in Karachi. Along the way, he was put in touch with someone named Bashir: Omar Sheikh working under another name. In the film's reconstructed chain of events, not only was the journalist seeking a jihadi but, in a sense, the jihadi was also seeking a journalistan American figure whose capture embarrass President Musharraf, who had made Pakistan an ally in the U.S. war on terror.
Two men, two worlds, one intertwined history
The film strenuously attempts to draw the two men in parallel. Both were immigrant sons, (Pearl's parents are Israeli), both were raised in reasonably privileged Western settings, both were bright, talented, ambitious, tenacious. Their divergence too, seems to have a symmetry. Pearl is Jewish, Sheikh Muslim. Pearl's family lands him in the new world, America; Sheikh's is the displaced result of an empire that no longer exists. Both children of wide intelligence, Pearl plays team sports like soccer and becomes a skilled classical and jazz musician. Sheikh, more narrowly competitive, plays chess and becomes a champion arm wrestler. Pearl embraces the world of cultural differences, marrying a Dutch Cuban Baptist woman, Mariane; Sheikh spurns secular inclusiveness, and commits instead to its violent elimination. Pearl loves, Sheikhin the end--hates.
This starkly polar portrait, however, is left skeletal, in the end. The filmmakers suggest, but do not explore, why the two men develop as differently as they do, leaving us instead with suggestive oppositions that make it slightly too easy to indulge in exactly the prejudices the film seeks to dispelthat Judeo-Christian culture is superior to Islamic culture, that the West is only open and the East only closed, that Americans are better than other people. These are of course not the things the film wants to say at all but without a more complex or broader historical perspective, it is easy to draw these conclusions, at least subliminally, as we try to make sense of what did send the men in their very different directions.
This is unfortunate because it also seems clear that Pearl, had he lived, would have continued to seek out, and want to clarify, even the most complex and tangled histories. His family has established the Daniel Pearl Foundation in his memory, to promote cross-cultural understanding through journalism, music and communications projects.
There have been a number of theories about Sheikh's link to Al Qaeda, and whether he was Pearl's murderer. The Journalist and the Jihadi is worth watching for its careful remapping, through interviewers with the FBI investigators who broke the case, of the evidence, as well as for its celebration of the gifted Daniel Pearl.