Outlook: Not the Daniel Pearl I Knew

Asra Nomani
Former Wall Street Journal Correspondent
Monday, June 25, 2007; 1:00 PM

Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent who was one of the last people to see Daniel Pearl alive, was online Monday, June 25 at 2 p.m. ET to explain how a newly released movie about his death is a disservice to Pearl, both because it turns him into a caricature and because it elevates him to a hero.

A Mighty Shame (Post, June 24)

The transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors


Alexandria, Va.: Ms. Nomani, thank you for your comments in yesterday's Post. I am halfway through Mariane Pearl's book and after reading your piece I have no intention of seeing the movie. There is no way you can read Ms. Pearl's account without having respect for all the people involved -- including you, Mariane, Captain, Dost, and most of all Danny Pearl. The efforts made by all of you to find Danny, under incredibly difficult circumstances, should not have been trivialized. Danny Pearl was, in my opinion, extremely prudent in the manner in which he was seeking Gilani to get to the heart of the story of Richard Reid. While I am obviously aware of Danny Pearl's fate, Mariane's story of the brave effort to find him is still worthwhile. I would recommend to everyone to read the story and forget about the movie.

Asra Nomani: Thank you for joining this conversation, and thank you to all of you who have written to me or are participating in this e-chat. I chose to write the article for The Washington Post because I feel we need to have a public conversation about how we deal with tragedy as a society. I too think that the book by Mariane captures the spirit of Danny and our struggle to find Danny better than the movie.


Minneapolis: Re; Daniel Pearl -- there is taking a "risk" as a journalist and taking an "unnecessary risk." Do you believe Mr. Pearl took an unnecessary risk?

Asra Nomani: I do not at all believe that Danny took an unnecessary risk. By definition, journalists ignore State Department travel warnings. Danny did what journalists do: get into a car to interview someone. That's a calculated risk we take everyday. One of the most poignant things that I recall from Danny's voice to this point is something he wrote after bombs started falling in Afghanistan, and journalists started going into Afghanistan to cover the war. "I'm dying to go to Afghanistan, but not really anxious to die."


Arlington, Va. : Asra -- Loved your piece in the Outlook section. Beautifully written. The Pearl Project sounds great. How can I get more information?

Asra Nomani: Thank you. I wrote this piece from the heart. Here is a link to the Pearl Project.

I invite anyone who is interested in working on this project to write to Thirty some years ago, journalists descended on Phoenix to investigate the murder of reporter Don Bolles. The Investigative Reporters and Editors was spawned from that project. The Pearl Project was born in the spirit of the Arizona Project: journalists and individuals coming together to find out truths that others want to keep covered up.


Boston: Every interview I have seen or read with Marianne, she says that she is very pleased with the film, that she chose Angelina Jolie to play her, and that she had a massive amount of script control and control over the movie, with approvals. Don't you think your article is disrespectful to her? After all, she was Danny's wife and mother of his child. You are not.

Asra Nomani: I appreciate your question, and it is something I had to reflect deeply upon as I contemplated writing this piece. Indeed, as director Michael Winterbottom said in a chat about the movie, the film is meant to be "Mariane's story." My intention is not to disrespect anyone.

But at the end of the day, I chose to testify to my truth. That is all that I think anyone of us can do. As a society, I think it is important for us to not be silent as consumers of the mass media and the way it tries to spin our understanding of tragedy and history.

If, as an activist in the Muslim community, I argue that moderate Muslims should break the silence about the selling of puritanical ideology in our mosques, I think as Americans we have to speak up about the selling of myths in our consumer society.


Washington: Thank you for doing this chat and writing the Opinion piece yesterday. The latest "news" seems to be that the movie did badly at the box office this weekend. This doesn't surprise me. Who wants to pay to sit in a theater for a couple of hours knowing that the story ends very badly? Further, if any movie accurately portrayed the real Danny Pearl, along the lines you wrote about him, then the ending would be even worse. I really don't see why this movie was made.

Asra Nomani: I think we need to ponder this question deeply. Why are any of the myths being manufactured in our post-9/11 world: Rudy Giuliani, Pat Tillman, Jessica Lynch. As one reader, a social worker, wrote to me: Is it a defense against fear, a fear of the randomness and meaninglessness in our violent times?


Boston: Asra, thank you for this straightforward and truthful essay. It's so interesting to have a rare insider's view to cut through all the hype. Have you talked to many of your Wall Street Journal colleagues who also were friends with Danny? Do you know what they think of the film? Or are they staying away from it because it's too depressing?

Asra Nomani: While my name is on this piece, I wrote this piece expressing the voices of so many of Danny's friends who have been tortured in the past month or so, during the release of this movie. In these weeks, we have been talking, exchanging e-mails, sharing details of the painful dreams and nightmares we have been having. It's not that the movie stirs up our pain in losing our friend -- it's that so many of us feel that Danny was sacrificed at the altar of commercial enterprise. As one friend said: "It felt as if he had been killed again." We didn't respond this way to the release of the HBO documentary, "The Journalist and the Jihadi," because we felt that it honored Danny.


New York: I respect Danny Pearl's commitment as a journalist. Did he ever express any fear about exposing himself to potential danger? What kind of precautions did he take?

Asra Nomani: Danny took the greatest precaution against danger by making the decision not to go to Afghanistan. As a reporter who had traveled in hot spots before, he had written a detailed memo to his boss, outlining precautions that should be taken to keep Wall Street Journal reporters safe -- from bulletproof vests to defensive driving training. Sadly, one of the scenarios for which he made suggestions: a kidnapping. Most of his recommendations have been put in place not only at the Wall Street Journal but throughout our industry -- alas, of course, too late to save Danny.


Arlington, Va.: Mainstream and moderate Pakistan (Lahore, Karachi, etc) is much different than the tribal areas of the northwest and southwest. How would you comment on Daniel Pearl's realization of this fact and the nonrealization of this fact in the media?

Asra Nomani: Danny very much knew that neither Pakistan nor the Muslim world is a monolith. This is a message that I think we need to keep getting out in the wider media.


New York: Asra, I thought your essay was very honest. I can imagine that it's depressing to see someone you love mischaracterized onscreen for the world to see. What was the deciding factor for you in writing about it? It couldn't have been an easy decision.

Asra Nomani: It was a very difficult decision. I pondered staying silent. I pondered having a safe sound bite. That lasted one interview. At the end of the day, this is why I chose to write the piece: I don't know what the "afterlife" brings, but I wanted to be able to look Danny in the eye, should that moment come.


Bethesda, Md.: I read your article in yesterday's post and while I do agree the the movie equivocally left Daniel Pearl out, I do not see this as the point of the movie. This is a very dangerous group of people he was dealing with and I find it baffling that journalists want to risk their lives to get the truth from fanatical people. In turn, Mr. Pearl did, and it cost his family a father, a husband, a friend, a son, and a colleague. I think centrally the movie wants to capture the illogical behavior of its antagonists and the high cost of reporting the news. Ultimately, it did and I came out finding it wrong that journalists put their lives in danger in what clearly is a military matter.

Asra Nomani: That's a very interesting conclusion that you reached from watching the movie, and, with all due respect, that was precisely one of my concerns about the message of the movie. I believe firmly in journalism.

To many, I know it is perplexing that journalists risk their lives, but as a citizen of the world I am most grateful to them for taking the risks greater good. Most of the time, too, I would say that we take calculated risks. None of us want to die; we don't do our work with a death wish. Increasingly, we are walking with targets on our backs. Danny's public execution marked a turning point in the modern day experience of journalists.

At the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference earlier this month, I met some of the bravest people I know -- journalists from Sweden to Columbia and Charlotte, N.C., daring to challenge conventional wisdom, corruption and wrongdoing. Hardly anyone knows their names, as most of the world wouldn't have known Danny's but for his death, but they are making our world a better place for their work, I firmly believe.

What we hope to do in the Pearl Project is understand precisely why Danny was killed, so that we can help to get the targets off the backs of journalists.


Alexandria, Va.: You alluded to this in your piece, but do you think being wooed at the home of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston impaired your better judgment?

Asra Nomani: I think there is a reason why we call actors and actresses "stars." They have a dazzling allure that can be blinding.


New York: Pardon me, I have not seen the movie and do not intend to see the movie, however: You had your opportunity to influence the movie before it was made and you gave the screenplay your "thumbs up," if I read your piece correctly. And now you come along and criticize it. With all due respect but no sympathy at all, I do believe you are indeed out of line. First you gave in to the allure of Hollywood, now you give in to the allure of The Washington Post. What do you say to such a criticism?

Asra Nomani: Mea culpa to the point that I sold out to Hollywood. I thought I could be part of a meaningful project. I believed the spin that this would be a meaningful movie. When I saw the movie and its marketing, I realized I had been had. In writing my piece for The Washington Post, I simply wanted to come clean.


Washington: Why are Pakistani Muslims so radicalized as compared to their neighbors in India?

Asra Nomani: From what I have seen as a Muslim and as a journalist, the Saudi interpretation of Islam -- Wahhabism -- has had a serious influence in Pakistan, particularly since the oil boom of the 1970s had the Saudi empire pumping its brand of Islam into the world. There is most certainly a countermovement of Pakistanis who are quite progressive and tolerant in their expression of Islam. But the puritanical strain is fierce and powerful. It is less influential in India, where Muslims are a minority population, but I still am concerned about its influence there.


Berkeley, Calif.: After reading your article in the Outlook section, I was wary about seeing "A Mighty Heart," but I decided to go ahead and see the film anyhow. Could you further explain your criticism of Daniel Pearl's character ("flat -- nerdy, bland and boring")? It seemed to me that focusing on his imprisonment would have been less tasteful, and that his character was developed through flashbacks.

Asra Nomani: If you look at photos of Danny from his life, you will see that he had a sparkle in his eye. As a journalist, I think, he was a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, Bob Woodward and Tom Friedman. This is no bad to Danny Futterman, who played the real Danny, because I very much respect him, but I don't think he was allowed to become fully expressed as Danny on screen. We didn't see the sparkle in his eye.


Columbus, Ohio: Asra, your story gave me a sense of Danny's personality that the movie definitely didn't, so thank you. Could you share your fondest memory of Danny for those who didn't know him?

Asra Nomani: Sorry about the length of this answer. I don't know where to start. Should I mention the time Danny took a date to a party and left her there, forgetting he had come there with her? Indeed, he wasn't a perfect person. Should I mention his going away party when we invited the "lunch ladies" from What's Cooking?, the deli where we got sandwiches? It reveals how little he cared about status.

Or should I relate the year when we had to figure out what "celebrities" we were going to invite to the White House Correspondents' dinner in Washington. Reporters tried to show each other up with Dr. Ruth, Tom Selleck and Sharon Stone among their "dates." Danny's date: then-Transportation Secretary Federico Pena. My date: Mrs. Pena. So immune to status, Danny spent the evening scheming how we could dump Mr. Pena, who had to watch his words with a couple of journalists, and hang out with the more dynamic Mrs. Pena.

But, in thanking all of you for joining this conversation, I will end with Danny's own voice. It gives you a window into his humor, personality and wit.

In October 2001, he wrote a "ditty" about Osama bin Laden, lamenting how bad it was in an e-mail to me. "Well, okay, so sue me, I couldn't think of a happier ending, except Osama and Superman going around the world so fast that time spins backwards and the World Trade Center and inhabitants get saved, extremists turn in their arms and computers and flight manuals, U.S. troops pull out of Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestinians make peace, and my leder (his Wall Street Journal article) on microcredit gets printed on Page One."

We all could wish many of the events of world history had been different, including Danny's own death, but I close with the hope that we all can continue, in our own way, to do what Danny suggested we do: "save the world from catastrophe." No, he wasn't ambitious.


Asra Nomani: Thank you all so much. Please contact us if you have any information related to the kidnapping and murder of Danny at


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