One of the highlights of my year is moderating an annual discussion with visiting Muslim journalists.
For them, it’s a chance to talk about what they’ve learned about America and American journalism. For me, it’s a chance to fill in the yawning gaps in my understanding of places far away that I know not as towns, but as targets.
The journalists, sponsored by the Daniel Pearl Foundation and the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowships, spend six months at a mainstream American newspaper such as the Los Angeles Times or Wall Street Journal. At the end of their time here, the Los Angeles Press Club hosts a public discussion with them.
This year, my ninth, I sat beside Aida Ahmad, a reporter for The Star in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Adnan Rashid, a senior producer for an FM radio station in the Northwest tribal area of Pakistan and a contributor to the BBC Outlook.
Ahmad, 34, is the Malaysian Holly Hunter — compact, energetic and direct. Rashid, 30, has news-anchor looks — the dark mustache, the deep eyes — and speaks in eager bursts.
As usual, I began by asking them both how their fellow countrymen form their image of America. From the billions of dollars in humanitarian aid we’ve doled out? From the thousands of American lives we’ve sacrificed to defeat the Taliban or other terrorists?
No, Rashid said, from Hollywood and the Pentagon. They watch “The Big Bang Theory” to see how Americans live, then read their local news about or, worse, hear real-life big bangs to see how we kill.
The positive, if inaccurate, image Hollywood creates is undone in a flash by our increasingly unpopular military presence.
Those drone attacks, which President Obama has stepped up, have been effective both in killing Taliban around Rashid’s region and in killing innocents and alienating the population.
“I say every drone attack kills one terrorist and creates two,” Rashid said.
Meanwhile, it is Pakistanis like Rashid who pay the highest price for our drone aid to Pakistan. A native of the Swat Valley, he remembers when it was the “Switzerland of Asia.”
The United States’ invasion of Afghanistan forced the Taliban across the border into the Swat Valley. In 2006, the Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah started an FM radio station to broadcast fundamentalist messages. In response, Rashid founded another station, to counter the sermons on “Mullah Radio” with news and the messages of more open-minded Muslim clerics.
That prompted Taliban threats against him, and Rashid fled his home for a few weeks. He returned just as the Pakistani army launched an offensive to extirpate the Taliban — and when most residents fled, Rashid stayed alone in his family compound, intent on reporting the news. The fact that he spent months under siege with no water, electricity or phone lines made his job difficult.
In the end, the Taliban have returned. And as they gain strength, and the drone attacks send them new recruits, they have taken to blowing up schools, especially girls’ schools — some 500 since 2008.
Like many educated Pakistanis, Rashid is pinning his hopes on the former cricket champion and current presidential candidate Imran Khan to save his country from corruption and fundamentalism — if anyone can.
“This election will determine Pakistan’s future,” Rashid said.
So will media.
In both Pakistan and in Ahmad’s Malaysia, a new generation is increasingly getting its news from social media. Party- or state-controlled newspapers like The Star in Malaysia still have to walk the party line and pay mind to religious sensitivities in a land of Shariah law — Ahmad told the story of how an inadvertent publication of a photo of singer Erykah Badu with a tattoo of the name of Allah on her shoulders caused a riot of criticism against her paper.
Yet the same media that in the hands of the mullahs foment hate can, when used by skilled journalists, help citizens think more critically, get more information about their governments, learn more about their communities.
That’s one lesson both Pearl Fellows learned while practicing their craft at U.S. newspapers — the Los Angeles Times, where Ahmad worked, and The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass., where Rashid worked (and where Daniel Pearl got his first newspaper job).
“People are the same everywhere,” Rashid wrote in his parting essay in The Eagle. “They love their families; they want to enjoy their life. … Due to cultural diversity we approach these concerns in different ways, which is great. It’s called identity. However, we need to communicate on a community-to-community level to understand each other. I tried to understand the local community, and that changed my mind about the people of America.”
If the Pentagon had given Rashid one image of America, Hollywood movies, he said, led him to believe that all Americans do is fight, live lavishly and hook up.
The thing that surprised him most about America, he said, was that people actually care about their families, and that the country felt safe.
A devout Muslim, he found his colleagues at the Eagle always made time and space for him to pray at work.
“When I think about American society,” he said, “I won’t just think about the White House and Pentagon.”
Meanwhile, Ahmad, who dreamed of actually seeing Hollywood up close, finally got her chance. Visiting Malibu, she inadvertently parked her car in a space blocking a nearby driveway. When she returned, she found a note on her windshield: “Please Don’t Park Here.”
“It was signed, ‘Ed Norton,’ ” Ahmad told me, beaming, “so my dreams did come true.”