The Los Angeles Times
By Rebecca Trounson
Times Staff Writer, June 23, 2007
Can a high-profile film about a horrific event, the 2002 kidnapping and killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl, serve as a vehicle to promote religious and cultural understanding?
For many who attended an interfaith discussion that followed a screening of "A Mighty Heart" at Paramount Studios this week, the answer appeared to be yes, with panelists and audience alike generally praising the film for its sensitive depiction of the events surrounding Pearl's death.
A reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Pearl was abducted and killed in Karachi, Pakistan, where he and his wife, Mariane, had traveled to cover the war in Afghanistan and investigate the activities of Al Qaeda. The film is based on a memoir written by Mariane Pearl, a French radio journalist, and traces the harrowing period from Daniel's disappearance Jan. 23, 2002, to the discovery of his dismembered body several weeks later.
Yet several panelists noted that the film, despite its tragic central story, also offers a measure of hope in its portrayal of the culturally and religiously diverse group of investigators, diplomats, journalists and friends that joined in the effort to rescue Daniel Pearl and support his wife, then nearly six months pregnant.
"The overall message of the movie is to be able to look beyond the labels and see each of these people as human beings, and it does that very well," said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Ayloush, whose organization cosponsored Thursday's panel discussion, said one of the most wrenching aspects of the film for him was the implicit question it raised about Islam and whether acts such as Pearl's killing could ever be justified under its tenets.
But he said he was certain of the answer. "This is a real story, about a real person who lost his life, and it's painful for me as a Muslim because it shows people who use the name 'Muslim' to justify killing," Ayloush said. "But these people were not Muslim. They were not Pakistani. They were criminal."
The audience of about 300, which included women in colorful scarves and a scattering of men with skullcaps, applauded.
For panelist Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, there were other questions raised by the film and the events it depicts.
"Was Daniel Pearl killed because he was an American? Because [his killers] thought he was a CIA agent?" asked Beliak, a board member of the Progressive Jewish Alliance of California and co-founder of JewsOnFirst, a 1st Amendment organization. "For me, the question that burns most deeply is whether he was killed because he was Jewish."
A videotape released by Pearl's captors, and recreated in the movie, shows the reporter stating that he — and his parents — were Jewish. But Beliak said that despite such evidence of the killers' apparent motivation, he drew heart from another, somewhat mysterious statement made by Pearl on the tape — and in the movie — about his grandfather's role in the founding of the Israeli community of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv.
"As I thought about it, I read that as an expression of hope, having to do with the building of that city," Beliak said. "I think it was a code, to Mariane, telling her to have hope and not to lose faith in humanity."
During the panel discussion, Beliak also turned to Ayloush and commended him for helping to arrange the event, despite possible concerns about the controversial issues the film covers. The panel was cosponsored by Progressive Christians Uniting, a Los Angeles-based, mostly Protestant network of congregations and individuals, and by Paramount Vantage, the film's distributor.
"I hope it's an opening to other kinds of conversations," the rabbi said, adding that representatives of all faiths shared a responsibility to "isolate the voices of our fanatics."
Another panelist, the Rev. Peter Laarman, executive director of the Christian group, touched on a similar theme. He said anti-Muslim statements made in the wake both of Pearl's death and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, illustrated the need for people of various faiths to react quickly to condemn such comments, which he called canards and untruths.
But the sensitivities raised by the film were also evident in the attendance at the screening of Pakistan's consul general in Los Angeles, Syed Ibne Abbas, who told the audience of his government's efforts to rescue Pearl.
"Unfortunately, they didn't succeed," said Abbas, who also urged audience members not to equate Islam with terrorism. "I am not a preacher, but it says in the Koran that the killing of one person amounts to the killing of all humanity."
Several audience members said they were impressed by "A Mighty Heart" and its messages of hope and tolerance in the face of terrorism.
"I found it very powerful that people were able to work together to fight one evil," said Atilla Kahveci, interfaith dialogue coordinator for Global Cultural Connections, a Southern California-based foundation that works to further cultural understanding.
But not all were so positive.
Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist who has written a book on terrorism, said she was disappointed by the discussion. "They didn't get to the heart of the matter, how Mariane and Daniel Pearl were betrayed by people close to them," Lieberman said. "It seemed like a whitewash to me."
Also this week, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has released its latest survey of reported incidents of anti-Muslim bias, which showed an increase of such cases in California and nationwide in 2006.
Reports of hate crimes or discrimination against Muslims in California in 2006 nearly doubled from the previous year, according to the new study.
The council reported 709 incidents in 2006 of anti-Muslim bias, harassment or violence statewide, which included the Christmas Day beating of a man praying in a Los Angeles park and several incidents of discrimination or verbal abuse directed at Muslim women wearing scarves. Nationally, the council reported 2,467 incidents, representing a 25% increase from 2005.
Much of the rise, both in California and nationwide, appeared to stem from delays reported by many Muslims in their efforts to become U.S. citizens, Ayloush and other council representatives said.
The officials attributed the increased cases to a range of factors, including continuing fallout from the Iraq war and increased reporting of incidents by Muslim individuals and communities to the council.