Today's date:
Winter 2008

When Figuring Out London Bombers, Remember Danny Pearl's Killer

Fall 2005

The big question that was asked by shocked cosmopolitans in London after the subway and bus bombings was not "why do they hate us"? but "how could people who grew up playing cricket like the rest of us do such a thing"? Is the "other" in our midst also a stranger?

Coordinated suicide bombings by radical Islamists reared in the very birthplace of liberal ideas certainly marks a frightening new development, bringing the grand historical conflict of our time right into the intimate routine of the morning commute.

But in trying to figure out the possible mindset of the killers, we've been here before. The same questions were asked about Omar Sheikh, the British-Pakistani who was behind the brutal beheading of Daniel Pearl. The French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy explored this issue in his book, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, suggesting that the decapitation of an open mind in a dark, windowless room on the grimy outskirts of Karachi was emblematic of the confrontation—of which the London bombings are but the latest episode—between liberal civilization and violent obscurantism that now engulfs us.

Like most commentators, Levy hastens to add that he doesn't accept Samuel Huntington's thesis of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, but sees instead a conflict between "Muslim moderates" or "gentle Islam" and "radical Islamists." Yet in setting up the protagonists of his journalistic novel as Daniel Pearl and Omar Sheikh he is, in effect, positing an echo of Huntington's thesis that, indeed, this is a clash of civilizational outlooks, ways of life and historical experience.

Levy hints at, rather than recounts, the significance of Daniel Pearl's upbringing. He was a child of California suburbia with its shopping malls, swimming pools and San Fernando Valley synagogues. Like America as a whole, but more so, California is a geocultural therapy for history's wounded masses. When immigrants get off the boat, they leave their troubles behind. The soil—ancestral territory and all its baggage—is taken out of the soul and becomes real estate. The future, not the past, occupies their imagination.

Unwounded in this historical sense, Danny Pearl was secure in his Jewish identity. Unlike his grandparents in Europe, he and his family were first-class citizens with no opportunity denied them and protected by the rule of law. All this made Danny open to the world, not fearful but curious and cosmopolitan.

Omar Sheikh grew up on the edge of London, and like one of Salman Rushdie's divided personalities in Satanic Verses, he was insecure about his identity. His father was a prospering businessman and life was certainly better than it would have been in Pakistan. But as ex-colonial Paks they lived in a second-class statusphere, a latent resentment residing beneath their assimilation.

It surprises Levy—as it surprised many people when they discovered the 9/11 suicide attackers were educated Saudis and Egyptians—that Omar attended the London School of Economics (LSE). How could someone so enlightened become so cruel and hateful, Levy wonders. The Third-Worldist vogue often found among LSE students notwithstanding, anyone who has traveled in North Africa and studied the Islamist movement would not find this strange.

A look at the science and engineering faculties of all the major schools from Egypt to Tunisia to Morocco make it clear that first-class education conjoined with second-class status in the global scheme of things, or the perception of it, leads in a militant direction.

Though he had no personal experience of it, as Omar grew into adulthood the historical wounds of colonial humiliation lived on and seemed to grow within him into a kind of hatred that lay beneath the veneer of his adoption of all things British. Levy does not make it clear, and perhaps it is unknown to Omar himself, if any particular event caused this shift. As with so many South Asians I know in London, it seems Omar was like one of Isaiah Berlin's "bent twigs" poised to spring back after being stepped upon.

In an earlier era Omar might have become a fervent nationalist like Ho Chi Minh as he labored invisibly at the lowest jobs in Paris, or perhaps a Nazi-inspired Baathist. In spirit, Omar was surely a follower of Franz Fanon who justified violence by the Earth's wretched. But after the failure of post-colonial states and father-like strongmen from that earlier era, the defensive ideology of political Islam arose as the new alternative. That is what attracted Omar. He became one of those combustible Muslim militants who, in the words of V.S. Naipaul, "blamed their misfortune on the success of another civilization."

Feeling more and more contaminated but never fully accepted, it seems Omar began looking for a purity of identity in several Muslim causes, from Bosnia to Afghanistan to Kashmir.

As Paul Berman insightfully notes in his essay, "Terror and Liberalism," this yearning for purity is what lay at the root of all fundamentalism—whether based in race, class or religion. It is the impetus of obscurantism, of the impulse to close off instead of open up, to exclude instead of embrace. In short, it is the opposite of everything liberal civilization stands for.

In this sense, the murder of Danny Pearl was more than the murder of a Jew. It was a striking out at the impure cosmopolitanism of the American-led liberal civilization which shaped him. No doubt, the London bombers also imagined their barbarism as a similar act of purification.

In his essay, Ryszard Kapuscinski is right to say the encounter with the Other is the challenge of the 21st century precisely because, in a globalized society, the Other is not over there, but here.