Tashbih Sayyed was a very special human being, a friend of the Jewish people, and my friend. I first met him seven years ago when my organization, the American Jewish Committee, was launching an interfaith effort to initiate dialogue with Muslims. In our conversations, Tashbih exuded a quiet intensity, and a determination to make the world a better place. Little by little, I began to learn more about his personal experiences in Pakistan and how those experiences had shaped him into a defender of human rights in the Muslim world.
Tashbih was not only dedicated to discussing his vision of how the Muslim world could change. He was a passionate believer in the power of the press to educate the public in order to make those changes happen. He lived and breathed journalism, and more than once described his newspapers as “my life.” For him, immigrating to the United States was the opening of a new door of opportunity to express himself through his journalism, and freedom of speech was a precious gift that should not be squandered.
As I gradually grew to know him, Tashbih recalled the growth of Islamic extremist teachings in Pakistan and the effects that it had on society. He talked about his career at Pakistan Television Corporation, the state run television service, where he rose in the ranks to become the controller and general manager of the station, and subsequently founded the station’s current affairs programming. While serving in that capacity, Tashbih felt it was important to examine the role of women in Pakistani society. He was particularly concerned about the way women’s rights were being eroded by the “Islamization” policy of the late Pakistani leader General Zia Ul-Haq. As a result of his liberal views, he came under attack by the regime and ultimately left his position at the station.
One day he shared with me his experience at the BBC library in London, where he had gone to learn about television broadcasting in his early career. As an intellectually inquisitive man, Tashbih was always well-informed and always seeking to broaden his horizons. I could just imagine him going into the library and feasting his eyes on the books, each one a new world to discover. As he described it to me, it was on one of his visits to the library that he learned about the Holocaust, a subject that in his experience was not taught or discussed in Pakistan. It was a moment of shock and a personal epiphany for him. He felt that he had been denied the truth, and he embarked on a program of personal re-education for himself. His quest for knowledge and the truth was ever present.
Tashbih’s inquisitive nature and his vision of a world of peace and tolerance led him to visit Israel to see the country for himself. He explained his reasoning for visiting Israel in an article entitled, “A Muslim in a Jewish Land.” He wrote, “I wanted to use my first visit to Israel to feel the strength of the Jewish spirit that refuses to give in to evil forces despite thousands of years of anti-Semitism.” His experiences in Israel let him to conclude, “The existence of Israel will one day convince the Muslims of the necessity of reformation in their theology as well as sociology.” Last year, I had the privilege of taking him on a trip to Israel. Despite his medical condition, he was absolutely determined to see and experience everything, and to write about what he saw.
As determined as he was to make things change, Tashbih did not express himself in a strident way. He used his talents as a political analyst to reflect on the current situation and chose his words in a way that would make an impact. He was very proud of being both a Muslim and a sayyed, a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad.
In one of his most powerful denunciations of terrorism, he wrote: “I am a Muslim and a Sayyed. That means that I am a direct descendent of Prophet Muhammad. I know that a true follower of Prophet Muhammad cannot support, train, sponsor and direct homicide bombings. Those who honestly love [the] Prophet of Islam cannot behead human beings. They cannot be homicide bombers and murderers. That’s why I sincerely believe that Osama’s, Zarqawi’s, Zawahiri’s and Wahhabism’s prophet is not the same as mine. A prophet of peace cannot be a prophet of terrorists. [The] terrorist’s prophet has got to be a terrorist.”
Tashbih’s life epitomized a teaching of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, who taught, “There are three things that sustain the world: truth, judgment, and peace.” Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel explains the meaning of his statement by quoting the prophet Zechariah: “Speak every man truth to his neighbor. Truth and judgments of peace shall you render in your gates.” Tashbih felt compelled to speak the truth and fight for justice because he truly believed in the promise of a peaceful and tolerant world.
Through his newspapers, the Muslim World Today and Pakistan Today, Tashbih did his best to bring awareness to the situation of Muslims who were and are being persecuted for their belief in tolerance, human rights and the rights of women, and gave them courage to continue. He was a pioneer and a tireless fighter against the forces of extremism and determined to see his vision of tolerance win the day.
It was my honor and pleasure to know him and it is our obligation to continue the work that he has left for us.
May his memory be a blessing for his family and for the world.
Yehudit Barsky is director of AJC’s Division on Middle East and International Terrorism. This article originally appeared in the June 22, 2007 issue of Muslim World Today.