Earlier this year, the Pakistani supreme court overturned the conviction of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a Pakistani British national who was sentenced to death by hanging for the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl. The international community is in shock at the seeming injustice of letting such a murderer go free. As a result, Pakistan has faced sharp criticism, no less because the developing nation is currently on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey list in connection to terror financing. However, this criticism might be misplaced as Pakistan is currently working hard to improve the functioning of due process and rule of law from within. Instead, if the world has to be critical of something, it should be directed at the religious curriculum in Pakistan and other Muslim nations that promotes religion-based hate.

The Pearl Family Reaction

While the details of the court’s acquittal of Sheikh are still forthcoming, according to defense lawyers the original death sentence was based upon insufficient evidence. In other words, the police and the investigators were not able to build a solid case against Sheikh and his accomplices. Ruth and Judea Pearl, the parents of the victim, reacted to the court’s decision in a written statement: “It is beyond belief that Ahmed Omar Sheikh—who, after 18 years of lies, had finally admitted in a handwritten letter to the court his role in the kidnapping for ransom of Daniel Pearl—has been given a clean slate and let loose once again upon the world to continue his international terrorist activities.” 

For now, Sheikh has been exonerated over the murder of Pearl, but this is not the end of the Pearl case by any means. Outlining the first step toward complete freedom, Justice Omar Ata Bandyal, one of the three judges who reviewed Sheikh’s case, said, “He should be moved to a comfortable residential environment, something like a rest house where he can live a normal life.”

The Plot Against Pearl

A few months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Pearl, the Wall Street Journal’s bureau chief for South Asia, was investigating Islamist militants in Karachi, the capital of the Sindh province of Pakistan. On January 23, 2002, Pearl was following a promising lead that claimed to connect Pakistani-based militant groups to Richard Reid, also known as the “shoe bomber,” who tried to blow up a flight from Paris to Miami with explosives hidden in his shoes. Later, a friend of Pearl would discover the source had been communicating with Pearl from the email address “[email protected],” which an Urdu reader would have singled out as suspicious because badmashi translates roughly to the quality of being wicked, bad, or evil. Perhaps Pearl knew this but overlooked it. Or maybe he did not take precautions in his excitement to finish the interview so that he could take his five-month pregnant wife, Mariane, on vacation in Dubai.

Either way, unfortunately it was a trap, and nine days later al-Qaeda beheaded Pearl. In March 2007, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), one of al-Qaeda’s top three leaders at the time, confessed to killing Pearl. In his confession, KSM said, “I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan.” This confession was the basis for Sheikh’s appeal to overturn his death sentence.

Role of Anti-Israel Sentiment and Anti-Semitism

In February of 2002, when the news about Pearl’s gruesome murder broke, I was 19 and living in Lahore, Pakistan, where there was a mixed reaction to the news. The majority of Pakistani Muslims were saddened over the slaughter of a man in the name of their religion, but still many celebrated that a Jew had been slaughtered. The word used to describe Pearl’s murder was not “beheading” but “slaughter,” just like a butcher slaughters an animal. The video clips that circulated of the murder showed how it was not even a clean-cut beheading, but rather a painful, drawn-out slaughtering. According to John Bauman, the US consul general in Karachi at the time, “They slashed his throat. They pressed on his jugular vein so his blood would gush out.” One version that came to my screen months later had been edited to add additional anti-Israel propaganda. In the video, Pearl’s body can be seen lying on the floor, while a man hacks off his head with a knife and holds it up to the camera. An image of a pig covers Pearl’s face.

A common hateful teaching against Jews throughout the Islamic world is that Jews “looked like monkeys and pigs.” In Pakistan, students are regularly taught that Jews are the enemies of Islam, both in the public Pakistani education system as well as in Islamic madrasas, so Pearl’s Jewish identity stole little sympathy for him. The same curriculum currently teaches hate against Christians, thus giving some explanation to mass beheadings of Christians around the world.

Inhuman Islamist Religious Rhetoric

In February of 2015, ISIS released a high-quality, professionally made, and well-choreographed video where Islamic militants in black march 12 Christian captives dressed in orange jumpsuits to a beach where they were forced on their knees and beheaded. ISIS clearly was sending a message that it was coming for the West. Boko Haram, an Islamic militant group in Africa, has been beheading Christians for some time now. In December of 2019, an offshoot of Boko Haram, Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), beheaded 10 Christian men in Nigeria. The most recent beheading was reported by Al Jazeera in November of 2020, in which police said attackers beheaded and dismembered more than 50 people in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province over three days. The report indicated that the attackers were linked to ISIS. However, the news outlet failed to acknowledge that the victims were killed because they were Christians.

Criticism of Pakistan

The global criticism of Pakistan over the acquittal of Sheikh might not be going in the right direction. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government is already dealing with many issues, among which are the deplorable economic situation, political pressure from opposition parties in the face of corruption charges against their leaders, and COVID-19. The judicial decision to release Sheikh should not be seen as the Khan administration’s decision. His government is attempting to allow the judiciary to function freely without government interference. With that being said, the government has already filed an appeal to the supreme court, asking it to review its decision over Sheikh’s acquittal, though the defense remains optimistic that the outcome will not change simply because the review panel consists of the same judges who ordered Sheikh’s acquittal in the first place. However, the provincial Sindh government already issued the order to arrest and detain Sheikh and his accomplices before they were released from prison. Reuters reported, “The government of Sindh has sufficient reason that Ahmed Omar Sheikh and Fahad Nasim Ahmed, Syed Salman Saqib, Sheikh Muhammad Adil be arrested and detained for a period of three months from the date of arrest.”

This is not the time to criticize Pakistan’s judicial system. If anything, the blame should be placed upon the biased school curriculum that compounds hatred of other religions. However, the global community should stand with the Pakistani government as Khan’s administration works hard to make sure that the extremists and terrorists are held accountable while following the due process under the laws of the country.