Daniel Pearl never wanted to be the story. Like all authentic journalists, he wanted to observe, to analyze and to tell the story to others. Nevertheless, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and beheaded by Islamist terrorists in Karachi, and who would have celebrated his 43rd birthday this week, has become the symbol of what can happen when journalism meets jihad. HBO tells the story in a new documentary film, "The Journalist and the Jihadi: The Murder of Daniel Pearl."
The film tries to draw parallels between the reporter and Omar Sheikh, the jihadi who conspired in his murder, abundantly detailing the humanity and character of Daniel Pearl. But only scanty information is available about Omar Sheikh, how he was transformed from a man into a hating machine. This is instructive, too, contrasting the open society of America against the closed-minded culture of hate, fostered by Islamic fascists wherever they are.
The film documents how the Islamists, miserable in their distorted faith, live off a culture of despair born of manufactured misery. Omar Sheikh was privileged. He was born and grew up with middle-class parents in London, attended the London School of Economics where he studied applied mathematics and economics, and played a good game of chess.
"He was not an illiterate jihadi whose mind had been captured by the mullahs; he was a very bright, Oxford-material boy, overturning the notion that education is the solution to terrorism," says Ahmed A. Jamal, one of the two directors of the documentary. "In his case, he was a formidable terrorist precisely because he was so well-educated." Indeed, he had the wealth to support his alienation, the reasoning power to rationalize his resentments and the mind to accentuate the negative with cunning, converting his abilities into a perverse nihilism.
He called himself Bashir, lured Danny Pearl into a fictional friendship, and disarmed the reporter with personal questions about his pregnant wife and her health. He duped him into thinking that he would introduce him to Sheikh Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, the Muslim religious leader who Mr. Pearl believed controlled the financing for al Qaeda. Instead, he led the reporter to his kidnappers.
Omar Sheikh the jihadi had been radicalized by the war in Bosnia, where he went to help Muslims (who were being helped by the Jews and Christians of the West). Later, Omar attended terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan and set his vicious energies to work kidnapping Westerners in India, sweet-talking his victims with practiced lies.
If Islamists like Omar Sheikh have a goal beyond nurturing hatred, it's to rationalize violence against the Western way of life, even to kill anyone who reflects that way of life. In Daniel Pearl they found a symbol reflecting the freedom and tolerance they could not tolerate. Daniel Pearl was Jewish, and that very fact animated and harnessed Omar's hatred. Daniel Pearl was an American imbued with curiosity, idealism and good will, and his good nature was no match for Islamist malevolence. He was a loving son, husband and soon-to-be father, celebrating life's possibilities. Like Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah, who decreed that "Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them," Omar sought a symbol to target for death.
The army of terrorists seeks redemption through annihilation. Before they cut off his head with a sword, Daniel Pearl defiantly affirmed his identity: "My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish." Omar and his cutthroats made a grisly video of the beheading and released it to inspire and embolden like-minded terrorists, but for everyone else it was an affirmation of the free man who holds family and tradition dear.
Danny's wife Mariane, of Dutch-Cuban descent, gave birth to their son Adam three months after he was murdered. "My resistance to bitterness is my resistance to terrorism," she says. In that spirit, the Daniel Pearl Foundation, established to honor his memory and the values that inspired his life, sponsors Daniel Pearl World Music Days this month with thousands of performances in over 60 countries. Danny played the violin, piano and fiddle and enjoyed classical music, jazz, country and bluegrass. Music soothed and celebrated who he was.
Omar Sheikh's life has been ruled by discord, fed by close connections to the Pakistani secret service (ISI). He was found guilty for Daniel Pearl's murder and sentenced to pay at the end of a rope, but legal appeals have delayed execution 33 times. He lives in a locked cell, and though it's more than he deserves, it's not much of a life. Once more the pen is proved mightier than the sword.