Listening to the smiling, good-natured journalist from Bangladesh declare himself to be a “proud Muslim Zionist” the other day, one would never know that his views favoring Mideast peace could cost him his life in a court of law.
The journalist, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, was imprisoned for 17 months, beaten and saw his newspaper offices bombed after he sought to participate in a writers’ conference in Israel in 2003. His trial on charges of sedition, treason and blasphemy is due to resume soon in Bangladesh and, if convicted, he could be sentenced to death.
In the U.S. for a week, Choudhury told a group of American Jewish Committee leaders at a luncheon here in his honor Aug. 2 that Islamic fundamentalists, funded by Saudi organizations, are “capturing the media, the economy and politics, silently” in Bangladesh.
He said that 70 percent of the 64,000 madrassas (Islamic schools) in the country are fundamentalist, and that while most people in Bangladesh are moderate, “the people who control us are extremely radical” and “corruption is everywhere.”
It is such blunt criticism of radical Islam, and support for Israel that spelled trouble for Choudhury, 42, editor of the Weekly Blitz, a newspaper published in English and widely read in Bangladesh.
He was arrested in November 2003 for attempting to visit Israel, an illegal act since Bangladesh forbids citizens from traveling to countries with which it has no diplomatic relations. Though the fine for such a violation usually is $8, Choudhury, who had written articles critical of al Qaeda and of those who express anti-Israel and anti-Jewish views, was arrested and, he says, placed in solitary confinement for 17 months, where he was tortured, accused of being a Zionist spy.
His plight came to the attention of some in the West, including Richard Benkin, a member of the Islam-Israel Fellowship, as is Choudhury, who now calls Benkin “my brother.” Benkin has become Choudhury’s biggest advocate, making the case known to government leaders and the media in the U.S.
In 2005, PEN USA, a writers group, gave its freedom award to Choudhury, and in 2006, the American Jewish Committee gave him its Moral Courage Award, though he was not allowed to come to the U.S. to receive it.
Why has Choudhury been granted permission to visit America now? He believes the government wanted to avoid a negative image, and he said that until he boarded the plane last week he did not believe he would actually be allowed to leave Bangladesh. He said he had packed two suitcases, one for the trip and one for a possible return to prison.
The question asked most of him, Choudhury said, is why he plans to return to Bangladesh. His response: “If I don’t go back, radicals will say I left for political asylum, that I was a Western agent. I want to be a Bangladeshi. I am a proud Bangladeshi. Should we just retreat? No, we have to fight back … The people are fearful but we have to give them confidence to speak up. We must say no to jihad, no to the culture of hate, no to Holocaust denial.”
He thanked the AJC and his other supporters for calling attention to his plight, noting in an interview following the luncheon that “the more the media says, the better it is for me.”
Choudhury attributed his sense of fairness to his upbringing, saying his parents taught him to be moderate and tolerant.
“We get misinformation about Jews and Israel everywhere in Bangladesh,” he said, adding that his newspaper publishes “all the good articles about Israel and Judaism.”
David Harris, executive director of the AJC, told the audience that Choudhury “has paid a very heavy price for his decency” and is “prepared to go right back into the vortex” of legal and political strife. “We can only bow our heads and wish him success,” Harris said, presenting him with a shofar as a symbol of “truth and courage.”
Irwin Cotler, a former justice minister in the Canadian government and Jewish activist who is Choudhury’s attorney, spoke briefly and said that in seeking to “promote interfaith relations and warning against radical Islam,” Choudhury should have been “given a medal” instead of being put on trial. “We are in the presence of a real hero in an age of too few heroes,” said Cotler.
Choudhury’s case is gaining attention in the U.S., where Congress passed a resolution this year, without opposition, sponsored by Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Westchester), calling on the government of Bangladesh to drop all charges against Choudhury, return his confiscated possessions, stop harassing him and “hold accountable those responsible for attacks” against him.
In the meantime, Choudhury’s trial is scheduled to resume this month.