One moderate Muslim voice, a brave Bangladeshi journalist, has withstood years of unfair persecution in Dhaka for supporting Israel. He’s been jailed and beaten, and as he now prepares to stand trial for his life, it’s time for the world community to act.
Three years ago, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury began publishing a Bangladeshi newspaper called the Weekly Blitz to counter his government’s anti-Jewish, anti-Christian and anti-Israel propaganda. In an attempt to spread inter-religious understanding in his country, Choudhury wrote affectionately about Israel and even attempted to travel to the country for a writers’ conference.
“Israel has been able to create an educated, cultured and civilized society,” Choudhury wrote in an August 2003 column published in the Jerusalem Post.Many Middle East regimes “talk about Islam and Muslim brotherhood, but fail to fulfill these values.”
Choudhury’s words and actions may not be rare in New York City, but in Dhaka it takes bravery to stand with Israel. Bangladesh’s governing coalition includes fundamentalist Islamic parties that persecute Jews, Christians and other non-Muslim religious minorities.
Today, Choudhury’s life hangs in the balance as he faces a possible death sentence for his tolerance and outspokenness.
In November 2003, after he began corresponding with Israeli and Jewish writers over the Internet, the Hebrew Writers’ Association invited Choudhury to attend its conference in Tel Aviv. The conference was to address how the media can foster peaceful Muslim-Jewish relations, a cause for which Choudhury had staked his career and – as he would soon learn – risked his life.
While Choudhury’s visit to Israel would have been a first for a Bangladeshi journalist, he never made it past Dhaka’s International Airport. He was arrested by Bangladeshi officials before he could even board a plane.
Because Bangladesh does not maintain diplomatic relations with Israel, travel to the country is considered a crime, albeit a minor one. Typically, a violation of the Passport Act – the only law Choudhury broke – is punishable by an $8 fine.
Instead, Choudhury was imprisoned for 17 months, beaten by Bangladeshi authorities, accused of spying for Israel, refused medical treatment for glaucoma, and charged with sedition – a crime punishable by death. Although the prosecution has put forth no credible evidence to support the extreme charges, a judge ordered Choudhury’s case continued at an October hearing. The trial is set to begin on November 13.
Last year, Congressional pressure led to Choudhury’s release, but since then the offices of his newspaper have been firebombed and just last month he was assaulted and beaten by a mob. According to reports of the incident, Choudhury’s attackers, senior Bangladeshi officials among them, broke his ankle and stole cash from his office. Police made no arrests and they refused to allow Choudhury to press charges.
While the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka is monitoring the matter, the United States has not intervened on Choudhury’s behalf in the three years this case has festered. Khaleda Zia, Bangladeshi’s moderate prime minister, has been silent on the Choudhury case, failing to stand up to radical Islamists in her government.
The Jewish community, on the other hand, especially Chicago-based human rights activist Dr. Richard Benkin and the American Jewish Committee, has adopted Choudhury as a brother in spirit.
Two weeks ago, I sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging her to tell the Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry that the continued prosecution of these outrageous charges is not in keeping with American interests in the region and to push for Choudhury to be cleared of all charges before his trial commences later this month.
With $76 million in U.S. aid headed to Bangladesh this year, and with almost a quarter of all Bangladeshi exports sold in America, Bangladesh should have plenty of reason to listen, and the administration should have no qualms about exerting its influence.
If the United States, Bangladesh and other countries continue to sit on the sidelines, we may, sadly, lose a great friend to Israel. But the implications of inaction are even more far reaching. Moderate Muslims around the world who agree with Choudhury – who advocate tolerance instead of violence – may fear speaking out against the radical elements of Islam, not wanting to suffer his unfortunate fate.