Friday, June 24, 2005

Book Report: Who Murdered Daniel Pearl?

One of those rare studies that deserves the epithet "tour de force" (usually, a book that everybody thinks should be widely read, as long as that doesn't have to start with them), Bernard-Henri Lévy's Who Killed Daniel Pearl? is a startling murder mystery in which we begin with knowledge of the killer's "identity" and then watch as hidden aspects of that identity unravel and flourish outwards like swarms of insects from an underground hive. With deep humanism Lévy, or BHL as he is known in France, argues that the death of one seemingly insignificant man has far greater magnitude in the political and ethical realms as well as providing a sort of test as to how we will live in these wretched times. Moreover, BHL makes us feel as if the planet has been robbed of something inestimable in this death.

Daniel Pearl's murder was shocking and brutal; an execution on videotape re-shot and lovingly edited by hack directors who wanted to boost their own star power. The world rightfully mourned and Pakistani intelligence eventually captured the man who was responsible- Omar Sheikh. BHL has no doubt that Sheikh was guilty, and that the man is a terrifyingly cruel religious fanatic. But, he asks: why this reporter? Why kill someone whose death would bring so little reward and such sure retribution? The question is not one of justification; ultimately, BHL wants to know Who else helped to Kill Daniel Pearl?

To answer this question, BHL does what few of us would have to courage to do- he simply walks into some of the most dangerous places in the middle east... as a "Westerner" and a Jew, and starts asking questions. He begins with the killer, Omar Sheikh: born in London, studied at private schools, including the London School of Economics, fond of Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations (although, one suspects, rooting for the other side), participated in pub arm wrestling competitions; seemed to hate the opponents; radicalized by a documentary entitled Destruction of a Nation about Bosnia, travelled to Sarajevo and probably fought for Islam, arrested for kidnapping in India, served a year in jail before being released as part of a bargain with hijackers. Ulitmately, Omar seems the textbook fanatical rich kid who lives in the decadent West and finds that it doesn't live up to his entitled expectations and so decides to hit the "Delete" button. Omar finally became a fundamentalist, and so, lost faith. The fundamentalist resorts to imposing his will on others because, ultimately, he is the least spiritual of religious believers. He has no faith in religion as such and resorts, instead, to whatever gets his job done. This is egotism, not spirituality; faith in one's own will and none in God's.

But, why did this textbook fanatic seem to get a free pass for so many years from the Pakistani secret service, the ISI? Why did they ignore him when a hijacking secured his release from jail? Was it really a coincidence that Danny Pearl was murdered in a house that was rented from an al-Quaida front organization? How in the world did he hide out in Rawalpindi, which Christopher Hitchens rightfully describes as like discovering "the Unabomber had been found hiding out in the environs of West Point or Fort Bragg." The thrill of the book is in watching BHL untie these knots, so I won't give away much. But, let's say that he soundly proves his major thesis that Pakistan is "the most rogue of the rogue states". He draws out the connection between corruption and fanaticism and shows radical Islamist movements as, if nothing else, big business. Moreover, he easily eviscerates anti-Americanism and what he aptly calls "neo-anti-Judaism". Here the excuse for Jew-hatred is pseudo-compassionate, but it boils down to the same shitty stew. Finally, there's a sardonic joy in watching this classical liberal smash the shibboleths of Western liberalism. Almost as much joy as in watching this anti-Iraq war "French philosopher" make more headway in the war on Islamist terrorism than the current administration.


fix buffalo said...

great job. I heard BHL on a bbc interview recently talking about Daniel Pearl murder. After reading your review, I've placed the book on my summer reading list...thanks!

Rufus said...

Hey, thanks. It was actually a bit of an experiment to see if my writing would improve if I composed something on paper in ink before revising it and posting it here. It really is a great book too; a bit unnerving in its conclusions. But, one of BHL's driving convictions is the idea that the intellectual is required to tell the whole truth.