The Interpreter

The Rise of Fareed Zakaria: Muslim, Heartthrob, Super-Pundit

Fareed Zakaria's career reads like some crazy America fantasy: Neoconservative policy wonk becomes darling of the ultra-liberal Daily Show. Political columnist and editor of Newsweek International is dubbed an "intellectual heartthrob" by Jon Stewart. Upper-class Indian academic raised in mostly secular household becomes America's favorite explainer of the Muslim world, regularly appearing on Charlie Rose, This Week With George Stephanopoulos, and now on his own weekly PBS news series, Foreign Exchange With Fareed Zakaria(airing Saturdays at 10 a.m. on WNET).

Zakaria stands out from the crowd of lily-white talking heads that populate American news shows thanks to his tan skin, clipped Bombay lilt, and his insistence that we pay attention to the rest of the globe. Although he was a rising star in the serious foreign-policy world of the '90s (The Nation once described him as a "junior Kissinger"), it was his post–9-11 Newsweek cover story "Why They Hate Us" that put him on the mainstream map as someone who could make sense of the now threatening outside world. And he has continued to win himself a substantial following with his thoughtful critiques of the Bush administration's activities in Iraq. He is America's go-to man for global chaos, providing some urgently needed outside perspective on our never ending war on terror.

Sitting in his airy corner office at Newsweek, Zakaria is the definition of dapper, clad in a pale yellow checked shirt and crisp khakis. He ignores the constant ambient ping of incoming e-mails and phone calls as he talks about his PBS show. Zakaria may be the pundit world's answer to the Backstreet Boys, but there's nothing sexy about Foreign Exchange. It has the standard muted tones of a serious news program, complete with generic set and antiquated electronic theme music. "People ask how we'll distinguish ourselves from the competition," Zakaria says animatedly. "What competition? There's literally not another show on American television that deals only with foreign affairs—you know, the other 95 percent of humanity."

In a daring move, Zakaria has chosen to have mostly non-Americans as guests, a technique that often yields surprising insights. He's discussed the Iraq situation with the country's deputy prime minister, talked to a Yemeni editor about the connections between Yemen and Al Qaeda, and gabbed about Islam's treatment of women with Muslim feminists. Perhaps in another era this wouldn't have seemed like such a bold move, but as one nation under Bush, we've grown increasingly proud of our insularity. Zakaria sees the media's reaction to the London bombings as an example of American self-centeredness: "Ten minutes after the British have gone through this terrible tragedy, we were already saying, 'How safe are our subways? Sure, London has just suffered this terrible catastrophic loss—but enough about you, what about us!' " he says, smiling. "I think this attitude does translate into the way we interact with the world as a government and as a people." He envisions Foreign Exchange as a half-hour corrective: "If you want to understand what's going on in the rest of the world, listen to what foreigners are saying about it."

Although he exudes ambition—simultaneously editing a magazine, writing a weekly column, hosting a TV show, and writing a book—Zakaria refuses to infect his show with glitziness. Movie star Natalie Portman recently appeared on Foreign Exchange to riff on her pet cause, microfinancing in the third world. Most hosts would've been thrilled to nab an actor with crossover potential, but Zakaria agreed only on the condition that if she gave a vacuous interview, he could kill it. "It turned out she really knew her stuff, and it's an important issue that's not at all sexy. But I was still ambivalent, because I feel there's a reason to be a PBS show, and I don't want to lose that." Chances are mainstream news outlets will continue to court him, but Zakaria claims he doesn't want to be the new Peter Jennings. "I love the opportunity to amplify my voice through television, and I love the idea of making more Americans aware of what goes on in the world. But being a TV star, you're chained to the camera; you can never really travel. And I don't know how you can understand the world that way." He's been to Iraq, China, and Germany in the last few months alone—he'd travel even more, he says, if he didn't have two small children and a wife in New York.

In the last few years, Zakaria has become a kind of bridge to the Arab world—an Asian-born Muslim with a Yale and Harvard education who seems willing to act as a cultural interpreter. In some ways he was born for this role: His mother was the editor of an Indian newspaper, his father an important politician and scholar who wrote several books about religion, including one titled The Struggle Within Islam. Growing up in a country like India, riven by sectarian violence, Zakaria says, "you're absolutely aware of the power religion has, in a positive and negative sense—in its ability to inspire people and its ability to inspire people to kill." On the other hand, his own upbringing was open-minded and secular; he sang Christian hymns at school and celebrated Hindu as well as his own Muslim holidays. "I do know a lot about the world of Islam in an instinctive way that you can't get through book learning," he says thoughtfully, but admits he finds the role of token Muslim explainer in the American media slightly uncomfortable. "I occasionally find myself reluctant to be pulled into a world that's not mine, in the sense that I'm not a religious guy."

Zakaria is good at straddling worlds. Asked how a neocon who edited the journal Foreign Affairs ended up as a favorite of the Daily Show crowd, he protests that he is no longer a diehard Reaganite but a firm centrist. "And anyway, in America the entire spectrum has shifted to the right. I still like the same kinds of people I always did—conservative Democrats, moderate Republicans, call them what you will. But we're an increasingly embattled phenomenon in a country with a president talking about intelligent design." Jon Stewart's viewers probably don't have an inkling of Zakaria's political background, since they rarely chat about economic or domestic affairs. Mostly Zakaria is applauded for his willingness to call out our government's missteps in Iraq. (He initially supported the invasion but within a few weeks began lambasting the Bush administration in Newsweek pieces with titles like "The Arrogant Empire.") "I feel that's part of my job," he says, slightly defensively, "which is not to pick sides but to explain what I think is happening on the ground. I can't say, 'This is my team and I'm going to root for them no matter what they do.' "

He hopes Foreign Exchange can remain nonpartisan, unruffled by PBS's recent obsession with ideological balance. "Conservatives are now all of a sudden asking for affirmative action!" he quips, before bemoaning the way the media treat American politics as a partisan spectator sport. "The reality is that the American public isn't that polarized. I bet you a lot of conservatives watch Jon Stewart, and a lot of liberals watch O'Reilly, because they make news fun."

Bizarrely, Zakaria cites The Daily Show as an inspiration for his own earnest series, because "it gets to the core of news items in a funny, quick way. Obviously I have to do it differently since I'm not doing a comedy show—and, as Jon Stewart likes to say, I'm not preceded by talking puppets. But who knows, in some PBS markets Sesame Street might be on before me."

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