“I Am Jewish.” Everything Has Changed. And Nothing Has Changed.

Daniel Pearl would have turned 60 today. But Muslim extremists stole his life 21 years ago, and in 11 words he uttered, Danny gives us a pathway today to transcend fear with affirmation.
October 10, 2023
Daniel Pearl at a party with friends in Washington, D.C., in 1994.

Today, October 10, would have been Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s 60th birthday.

Instead, on Jan. 23, 2002, with parrots squawking overhead, Danny left a home I had rented on Zamzama Boulevard in Karachi, Pakistan, for an interview from which he never returned.

Pakistani militants kidnapped him and, five weeks later, on the eve of Eid-al-Adha, a Muslim holiday symbolizing sacrifice, FBI agents received a DVD from a shadowy character at the Karachi Sheraton. They watched a grisly video in which a man with a knife brutally murdered Danny, executing him and beheading him, like the lambs bleating around the city that week for the Muslim holiday. The next day, a gaggle of crows swooped for hours over my house.

The men who killed Danny wiped the floor of his blood, laid down their prayer rugs and prayed toward Mecca, as if they had just completed a divinely ordained act of religious duty, proclaiming to the heavens: “Allahu akbar.” Allah is great.

Among Danny’s last words, captured in the video, were these 11 words: “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.”

Some 21 years later, everything has changed, and nothing has changed.

On the anniversary of Danny’s birthday, Palestinian militants from Hamas have laid siege to Israel by sea, by land and by air to slaughter innocents.

Their alleged crime? “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.”

Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.

In a bunkered office, the leaders of Hamas watched with glee the siege on TV. They broke from their meeting, a Hamas propaganda video reveals, to pray toward Mecca one sajdah shukran, or one “prostration thanks,” declaring to the heavens, “Allahu akbar.” Allah is great.

Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.

A Muslim, born in India, I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, witnessing the hate for Jews and the state of Israel exported to the world from the puritanical teachings of the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran. I never spoke out about the legitimacy of the state of Israel. After Danny’s murder, in January 2003, I went to Israel for the first time on the third leg of my family’s pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. We crossed from Amman, Jordan, through the Allenby Bridge to pray at the Dome of the Rock. I had embarked on a journey that was my name, asra, a verb that captures the mystical, apocryphal journey that the prophet Muhammad is said to have made in the seventh century from Mecca to Jerusalem on a winged horse called buraq. I call it our Pegasus story in Islam.

I went on that visit to Jerusalem with my newborn son, a souvenir from Pakistan, as my niece called him, the creation of a love story that went awry when my boyfriend in Karachi did not want to get involved in the dragnet to find Danny. There, in the land of his ancestors, I remembered my friend Danny.

When I met Danny in the spring of 1993 in the newsroom of the Wall Street Journal’s Washington, D.C., bureau on Connecticut Avenue, we bonded over our love of beach volleyball, played on lazy Saturdays on sand courts behind the Lincoln Memorial. I told Danny that I wasn’t allowed to go to my high school prom, as a good Muslim girl. He said, “We’ll fix that.” Sure enough, we threw a “Midsummer Night’s Prom,” and at the age of 28, I had my prom. The women wore their old bridesmaids dresses and Danny wore a tux.

When I told Danny another day that I had never bought a CD – you know that thing on which we used to listen to music – he said, “We’ll fix that.” He gave me an assignment to buy a CD. I promptly returned with a purchase, wanting to understand the lyrics to a new song, “I’ll do anything for love but that.” Danny took one look at my CD and said, “That’s not music!” It was  Meat Loaf.

Another evening, all five-foot tall of me thought that I was the girl boss captain of our volleyball team, benching Danny from play in the front row for a taller player. We squabbled on the ride home, Danny telling me, “Sports is a democracy!” I protested. The next morning, Danny left a Post-it note on my chair that said, “Still friends?” And he took up soccer.

From America, I took balloons to his château wedding outside Paris with his wife, Marianne, and helped throw a good, old-fashioned American picnic the day after their fancy wedding with three-legged races.

Danny had a place in his heart for everyone.

That’s what the world saw when they witnessed his smile from his wedding photo blasted across the world when he went missing after his kidnapping on Jan. 23, 2002.

Daniel Pearl with his Wall Street Journal baseball team in 1993.

It’s the same connection that people have felt as they have gazed into the eyes of the Jewish youth, kidnapped, slain and slaughtered in recent days, like Noa Argamani, abducted on a motorbike by militants, her arms outstretched, pleading for help: “Don’t kill me!”

Danny asked his captors to free him. He tried to escape once. They used him as propaganda for their extremism, as Hamas now threatens to do with Noa and others.

Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.

The three men who walked into the compound where Danny was being held had two weapons: a butcher knife and a video camera. The Hamas militants who assaulted citizens took two weapons: machine guns and smartphones to capture their savagery and terrorize the world.

Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.

When the men in Karachi slaughtered Danny, they stripped him and cut him into pieces, desecrating his body. When the men in Gaza threw the body of a young Jewish woman, Shani Louk, 22, stripped to her underwear, onto the back of a pickup truck like an animal slaughtered, one of the militant’s legs strewn over her body, they spit on her.

Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.

When the men who killed Danny edited their video, they included fake images of Israel’s alleged abuse of Palestinians. They used Israel as the excuse to murder Danny. Today, Harvard students, TV hosts, pundits, politicians and street activists blame Israel’s “occupation” for the slaughter of innocents.

Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.

When Danny’s killers filmed the video documenting his murder, they assigned a propagandist to edit the video and distribute it everywhere online, posting it for years on YouTube to inspire other extremists. The murderer of Danish film director Theo van Gogh watched the murder video of Danny and was “inspired” to not only shoot and stab him to death but to also slit his throat. Today, there are reports that Hamas militants beheaded Israeli babies, and their propagandists are posting their terror reels of their assault and threats, using new social media platforms like X, formally known as Twitter, and new messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram.

Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.

The Pakistani judicial system has essentially freed Danny’s kidnappers, led by a man named Omar Sheikh. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, or KSM, the mastermind of 9/11, is the man who allegedly held the knife that killed Danny. He and his nephew Ammar Al-Balluci, who allegedly held the camera that documented Danny’s murder, are in U.S. military custody in Guantánamo Bay. But their U.S. government-appointed defense lawyers are negotiating a plea deal so they can avoid the death penalty. Today, the Hamas militants of the attack on Israelis are free on the streets of Gaza, protected.

Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.

When KSM beheaded Danny, he held his head by his hair, like a trophy. When the Hamas militants tossed a young woman, her pants bloody between her legs, from the back of a vehicle into the passenger seat, they dragged her by her hair.

Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.

The men who justified Danny’s murder used verses in the Quran from chapter one, chapter nine and chapter here and there, to justify their murder, as have the Hamas militants who ambushed innocents, armed too with copies of the Quran. Extremist Muslim clerics have preached a hadith, or supposed saying of the prophet Muhammad, that in the Islamic view of “end times,” or eschatology, Jews would “hide themselves behind a stone or a tree,” and only a tree called “gharqad” would protect the Jews. From the desert in southern Israel, young Israelis said that they hid behind trees to try to save their lives from the militants, and the militants have used that detail to fuel their conviction in their divine mandate.

Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.

Eleven words speak to us through the expanse of time that stole from an innocent man his life as a husband, father, son, brother, uncle and friend, but gave us the gift of a North Star by which to navigate these next days, months and years with moral courage, clarity and post-traumatic growth.

“My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.”

In those 11 words, Danny embraced his identity and ancestry with dignity, and, no matter our identity, Danny offers us a pathway to transcend today’s tragedy with positive affirmation, radical acceptance and surrender to truth. In our pursuit of goodness and humanity, inspired by Danny, everything has changed, and nothing has changed.

Asra Q. Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and the cofounder of the Pearl Project, dedicated to remembering the spirit of her friend, Daniel Pearl. She can be reached at asra@asranomani.com.


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