Commentary Magazine

Islamist Extremism and the Murder of Daniel Pearl

These are the remarks Sen. Joseph Lieberman delivered at the fourth annual Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at Stanford University on October 18:

It has been nearly eight years since Ruth and Judea Pearl were confronted by the most unspeakable horror that any parent can contemplate. But rather than retreat into grief and anger, they have instead ensured that the flame of their son’s memory, and everything he stood for, has continued to burn with undiminished urgency and relevance. Because of their work, and the work of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, Danny’s life continues to illuminate our world.
Daniel Pearl’s legacy is a powerful one, precisely because he embodied so many of the best values and convictions of our country and of the Jewish faith and people, with which he courageously identified himself in the final moment of his life. They are the values that were taught to him by his parents—the values that animate this great university in which he was educated—and the values that informed his decision to pursue a career in journalism.
I am speaking of the values of freedom of thought and expression, of curiosity and tolerance; and the conviction that people from different backgrounds, cultures, and faiths can not only live together and work together in peace and prosperity but that our world is made a richer, more meaningful place by virtue of doing so. It is the belief that the things that bind all of us together as human beings—history, humor, music, love, and friendship—are capable of transcending whatever differences divide us.
Our responsibility in gathering tonight, I believe, is not only to celebrate the values that defined Danny’s life—but also to confront the terrible reality of his death, and the forces that were responsible for it.
The reason that Danny Pearl died so young is not because of a tragic accident, a sudden illness, or a natural disaster. It is not because of a random act of violence, or common criminality. It is not because of a misunderstanding or a miscommunication.
What ended Danny’s life was a deliberate and calculated act of evil. He was murdered by men who knew what they believed, and who knew what they were doing. What animated and inspired them was not terrorism, which is merely a tactic, but a specific worldview and ideology.
It was the fanatical ideology of Islamist extremism that motivated Daniel Pearl’s killers—an ideology that not only justifies but glorifies and rejoices in shedding the blood of innocents, and that I believe represents the most direct and dangerous threat in the world today to the quintessentially liberal values that Danny Pearl stood for, and that America was founded to stand for.
At the heart of the ideology that motivated Danny Pearl’s killers is not religion but the same totalitarian impulse that we have seen appear and reappear, like a pestilence, across numerous countries and cultures and eras, intensely so during the past hundred years.
It is a belief that the most brutal imaginable violence can eradicate personal freedom, political freedom, and religious freedom and bring about a society in which women are treated as chattel, homosexuals are stoned to death, and Christians, Jews, Hindus, and other religious faiths are marked for oppression if not extinction, and in which everyone is terrorized into conformity as it is defined by a deranged minority.
This is the worldview that caused the murder of Daniel Pearl. It is the pathology that is also responsible for the deaths of countless other innocent men, women, and children, of every religion and race and on almost continent, over the past 30 years—from Bali, Indonesia, in 2002, to Mumbai, India, in November of last year, and from Madrid in 2004 to here in the United States on September 11, 2001.
As a country that is founded on truths that we hold to be self-evident, about the fundamental equality and dignity of all people, it is difficult for us to grasp how significant numbers of our fellow human beings could fall prey to an ideology whose tenets are so self-evidently insane. Yet we know from history that such pathologies are not only capable of taking root but of inspiring millions of people in even the most civilized and developed nations to commit the most horrific crimes of mass murder.
Part of the perversity of evil is that, the greater its depravity, the greater is our temptation to avert our eyes from it, to look away, to convince ourselves that we cannot possibly be seeing what we are in fact seeing. Indeed, that is one of the reasons such evil persists.
Of course all of us would like to live in a world governed by reason. But the fact is, there are hatreds and pathologies so strong that they cannot be negotiated, or reasoned, or bribed, or loved out of existence. They must be confronted, fought, and defeated—or else they will defeat us. And so it is with Islamist extremism.
I know that there are some who see evidence of a clash of civilizations in the violence and mayhem inflicted by Islamist extremism—an irrepressible and eternal conflict between Islam and the West.
But I think that interpretation is dangerously wrong. A clash of civilizations, in fact, is the narrative that the extremists themselves are trying to entrench in carrying off these attacks—precisely because they know that, by fostering hatred and suspicion and fear, they strengthen their own cause. They want to create the impression that the United States and the West are at war with Islam. Nothing could be further from the truth, and we cannot allow them to succeed in saying so.
The fact of the matter is, the most numerous victims of Islamist extremist violence have not been Americans or Westerners. They have not been Christians, Jews, Hindus, or Sikhs. They have been Muslims themselves. They have been innocent Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Indonesians, Jordanians, Saudis, Moroccans, and others.
More Muslims have been murdered by Islamist suicide bombers than have members of any other faith—precisely because the ultimate aim of the extremists has been to destabilize and seize control of the Muslim-majority countries of the greater Middle East and South Asia. It is the historic heartland of the Muslim world itself that is ground zero of their campaign of terror.
It was Muslims who were the primary victims of the totalitarian rule of the Taliban when they controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s, and it is overwhelmingly Muslims today who are the victims of the brutal insurgency that the Taliban has been waging in that country—throwing acid onto the faces of girls simply because they were going to school, chopping the fingers off people simply for daring to vote in their country’s election.  
Likewise, it was Muslims who were the victims of the series of horrific suicide bombings by Islamist extremists that we witnessed just this past week in Pakistan, in which ordinary people who were going about their daily lives were without warning annihilated.
And it is Muslims who have been the foremost victims of the repressive, Islamist extremist regime in Iran—a thuggish dictatorship that is at war not only with its neighbors but with its own people, whose human rights and fundamental freedoms it has systematically trampled.
In other words, what we are witnessing is not a war between civilizations, as the extremists want us to believe, but a civil war within Islam. It is a clash of values that pits what I believe to be a moderate Muslim majority that wants what we all want—a better, safer life—against an extremist Islamist minority that has a fanatical determination to do whatever necessary to prevail, and whose success would threaten the entire world.
I know that there are some who say that the terrorism we witness in the world today is an outgrowth of a particular set of socioeconomic or political conditions—of poverty, of injustice, of corruption, of disparities in power and resources.
There is an element of truth in this—but only an element. Poverty, injustice, and political corruption do not automatically cause extremism and terrorism, or else there would be much, much more of it in our world. But Islamist extremists do try to exploit and inflame grievances—both real and imagined—in order to recruit and radicalize followers.
And the truth is, their message is more likely to be attractive where governments are failing to answer the legitimate demands of their citizens, and where young people feel hopeless, powerless, desperate, and humiliated.
And so we absolutely must set out to address the underlying conditions that create a climate in which Islamist extremism can take hold. That is why we must press for more political freedom, better governance, and greater economic opportunity across the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. It is also why we must do whatever we can to address the legitimate grievances and help resolve the local conflicts in this vast region that feed the Islamist extremist narrative.
We should do these things not only because they are strategically smart but also because they are morally right, and true to our own convictions as Americans. Simply put, these are our values, they represent humanity’s progress, and they are worth fighting for.
The war we are now engaged in with Islamist extremism is unconventional—and victory in this war will also be unconventional.
Ending the war on terror does not require that we succeed in creating heaven on earth. Rather, this war will end when a critical mass of people recognize that the ideology of our enemy is capable of creating nothing but hell on earth. It will end not when every conflict and injustice is solved but when the worldview of Islamist extremism is discredited, discarded, and reviled—and when this set of ideas no longer inspires anything but frustration and disgust.
There is nothing inevitable about the survival or persistence of the Islamist ideology we are fighting against. Far from it. It is the product of a particular set of historical events over the past several decades. It is the work of human beings. And human beings therefore also have the power to consign it to the dustbin of history where it belongs. For it is with innumerable acts of individual conviction and courage that history is written.
There was a time not so long ago when countless people across the world were inspired or intrigued by the promise of Communism. For many, it was a profoundly powerful and deeply seductive vision of society that was worth fighting and dying for. It was an ideology that provoked popular uprisings, wars, and coups that quite literally divided humanity in half.
Today we do not spend much time worrying about Communist insurrection. In part, that’s because the Soviet Union is gone—but more importantly, it is because a global consensus eventually formed that the underlying promise of Communism was false and that it had repeatedly failed to live up to its own promises.
As a result, people simply stopped believing in the ideology—including the leaders of avowedly Communist countries today like the People’s Republic of China and Vietnam.
The notion of a future without Communism would have struck many people, even as late as the mid-1980s, as hopelessly naive. But it wasn’t.  
Neither is the notion that the ideology of Islamist extremism will someday collapse under the weight of its own evil. I cannot tell you exactly how long it will take, in part because it will be our own actions and decisions that affect the answer to that question. But I am confident that the world can extinguish Islamist extremism, and that must be our goal.
Already, over the past eight years, public opinion in many Muslim countries has turned against suicide bombing in the name of Islam. In Pakistan, for instance, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, only 5 percent of the public said suicide bombing can be justified—as opposed to five years ago, when 41 percent of Pakistanis said so. In fact, in eight of nine Muslim countries surveyed by Pew this year, majorities or pluralities now say they oppose suicide bombing.
Moreover, everywhere that Islamist extremists have ever managed to establish themselves in power, the local population that has actually had to live under them has turned against their barbarism and brutality.
Indeed, if you want to see a glimpse of what the beginning of the end of the war on terror might look like, consider what has happened in Anbar province in western Iraq over the past three years.
Anbar is the Sunni Arab heartland of Iraq, and after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, it became the epicenter of the Sunni Arab insurgency that sought to fight its way back into control of the country. Anbar also soon became the epicenter of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which exploited Sunni disaffection with the new political order to entrench itself. By the summer of 2006, an intelligence report warned that al-Qaeda had become “an integral part of the fabric of western Iraq.”
But then the local population turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq, because al-Qaeda had alienated local Sunnis with the Taliban-like totalitarian rule it imposed—bludgeoning women who wore lipstick, videotaping beheadings of anyone they suspected of being a “collaborator,” and chopping off the fingers of anyone caught smoking.
As a result, the same Sunni insurgents who had been fighting with al-Qaeda against the U.S. military began switching sides en masse—fighting with us, against al-Qaeda, choosing to stand with a largely non-Muslim American military against their fellow Sunni Arabs, because they rightly concluded our troops were more on their side than was al-Qaeda.
I will always remember traveling to Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province, in the spring of 2007, and meeting with one of the Sunni tribal leaders who had turned against al-Qaeda. His transformation was not driven by any newfound love of the United States, much less the Shia-led government in Baghdad. Rather, it was the realization that the toxic ideology of al-Qaeda was the greatest threat to his society and his family, and that it had to be uprooted and destroyed.
No one who visits Anbar province today would mistake it for Switzerland—or Dubai. The security situation is not yet settled. Political tensions among different Sunni factions persist, as do fears and suspicions of the government in Baghdad. The economy remains weak.
But despite these continuing challenges, the forces of Islamist extremism remain on the defensive because a critical mass of the people living in Anbar continue to believe that al-Qaeda and their ilk offer nothing but destruction and death. In other words, whatever problems and grievances smolder in Anbar, its inhabitants—Sunni Muslims in the heart of the Middle East—have resolved that al-Qaeda isn’t the path to solving them, and indeed can only make them worse.
To be clear, the outcome of this effort is by no means preordained. Our enemy is ruthless, and a fanatical few will fight to the very end. Even after public opinion had turned decisively against al-Qaeda in Anbar province, it took months and months of hard combat to fully dislodge them. And pockets of terrorists continue to persist there now.
The same, unfortunately, is likely to be true elsewhere. That is why we must be unrelenting and unwavering in our determination to fight and defeat them, though the struggle will continually test our will, break our hearts, and cloud our hopefulness. But history provides us with the encouragement that evil can be overcome, because it has been overcome before.
As in the past, defeating the ideology that is our enemy in this fight will require us to draw upon all of the sources of our strength as a nation and as a global community. It will also require patience on our part – because, while this war will end, we must remain vigilant, focused, and committed in its prosecution until it does. And it will require us to keep faith with our own best values.
The decision President Obama will soon make about Afghanistan will be critical in this war because it is in Afghanistan that we are most directly and consequentially in conflict with the forces of Islamist extremism right now.
As we ultimately did in Iraq, we have an opportunity to empower the Afghan people to reject the Taliban and al-Qaeda, whom they despise, and thereby once again ensure the triumph of the moderate Muslim majority over the extremist Islamist minority.
In the final moments of his life, Daniel Pearl showed true courage in the face of evil. His murderers knew what they believed – but so did Danny. “I am Jewish,” he said, and with those three simple, proud, and brave words, he made clear to his killers that his humanity, integrity, and decency were forever beyond the reach of their barbarism.
For this reason, Daniel Pearl is not simply a victim of Islamist extremism. He is also a reminder of why this twisted and warped ideology will not prevail. I pray with you that Danny’s memory and legacy will guide, strengthen, and inspire us until the era of Islamist terror comes to an end.

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