Jewish Journal


May 24, 2007

Moderate Muslim leader dead *


Tashbih Sayyed, the moderate Muslim who founded and edited the paper Pakistan Today, died yesterday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

I can’t find the news online, but here is what Roz Rothstein, national director of StandWithUs, had to say in a e-mail to friends:

  We are deeply saddened over the passing of our treasured friend and true hero Tashbih Sayyed. Tashbih’s insights, firm moral principles and courage to speak out, unaffected by hostility and threats, inspired all of us fortunate enough to know him. His humility, warmth, playful humor, and unwavering commitment touched our lives in countless ways. He will be deeply missed.

  Tashbih was a brilliant scholar, journalist, political analyst and author, but most importantly he was a beloved husband, father of three children, brother and cherished friend to many.

Born in 1941, Sayyed was a Shiite Muslim who fell out of favor with other Muslims—and into it with some Jews—because of his plainspoken politics. His fall from grace began in 1994, according to this article by Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman, after he criticized “‘anti-Zionist governments’ for having a hand in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina that killed 87 people.”

  Sayyed also went on CBS’s “48 Hours” and told correspondent Bob Simon that Arab threats against terrorism expert Steven Emerson were real and credible. The mainstream Arab community reviles Emerson, author of “American Jihad” (Free Press, 2002). The backlash was immediate. “Brother,” Sayyed said one Arab leader told him, “now you are HIV positive.”

  Within a month, Pakistan Today’s advertising revenue fell from $4,000 per week to $350 (the sole remaining advertisers are two Hindu store owners). Muslim-owned stores stopped carrying his paper. Sayyed said he received “veiled physical threats.” His contributors threatened to stop payments unless he ran a full-page apology — on the front page. When he refused, the money dried up.

  Faced with $3,200 in weekly bills he could no longer pay, Sayyed had to decide whether to close the paper, or sell his (Laguna Hills) house. “My wife understood,” he said. He dabbed at tears in his eyes. “I apologize. It broke me.”

  The Sayyeds now produce Pakistan Today out of a small, rented house in Fontana. He still struggles to pay the printer and wire service bills, and his circulation has dropped to 4,000. (U.S. Census Bureau figures put California’s Pakistani population at 20,093, though Pakistanis I spoke to believe there are tens of thousands more). Pakistan Link, the largest national Pakistan weekly, publishes 25,000 copies per week.

  Sayyed acknowledges that in pushing unpopular opinions he has created — surprise — an unpopular paper. Others in the Muslim community say he is simply too far outside the pale to make a difference. “Our goal is to build bridges of understanding,” Akhtar Faruqui, editor of the Irvine-based Pakistan Link told me. Faruqui’s editorials have spoken approvingly of Seeds of Peace, a program that promotes Palestinian and Israeli coexistence. Faruqui, whose paper does reflect many moderate and liberal ideas, said he received no negative response for supporting Seeds of Peace, but he said he wouldn’t publish some of the opinions found in Pakistan Today, such as Op-Ed pieces critical of the Saudi royal family. “We try to promote understanding,” Faruqui said. “We don’t go to extremes. That would be too extreme.”

  Publishing such pieces has pushed Sayyed to the fringes of the local Muslim community, said Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “Every religion has its extremist fringe,” Marayati said. “We believe mainstream moderates represent the mainstream of the faith. The extremist fringe has been given way too much public attention by people whose political purpose it serves.”

  Marayati said that several years ago, Aslam al-Abdullah, editor of the local Muslim magazine, The Minaret, shaved his beard to protest the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. For that he received threats and negative letters. “Everybody goes through this,” Marayati said, “for some it’s more of a story.” Sayyed accused Marayati of being a Muslim extremist in Western clothes.

On Tuesday, the Pew Research Center reported most Muslim Americans were more like Sayyed—middle-class, mainstream and moderate. But the study found that younger American Muslims, those between 18 and 29, were more sympathetic of Islamic extremism, with 26 percent saying suicide-bombing attacks on civilians could be justified when defending Islam.

Here is Sayyed’s final column, about Arab Israelis.

* Updated: Sayyed will be buried Sunday, May 27th, at 1:00 p.m. at Harbor Lawn Mount Olive Memorial Park and Mortuary in Costa Mesa, 1625 Gisler Ave. There will be traditional Muslim prayers from 1:00 to 1:20, followed by a brief grave-side service.

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