For Richard Benkin, that morning in 2003 began inauspiciously, as most things do. He was at his computer, reading, writing, blogging for Israel, and communicating with people of all faiths worldwide on the need to unite against the Islamist threat, when he noticed an email from an unknown source. His normal impulse was to delete it as spam, but for some reason, he did not. Little did he know that this momentary lapse would change his life and the lives of many others. For half a world away, in Bangladesh, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, a Muslim journalist, had determined to end the informational jihad being perpetrated against his people. Benkin opened the email to read a plea from Choudhury, bemoaning the highly biased and tightly controlled news about Israel, the Jewish people, and the United States in his country. “It was wrong,” Choudhury said, and he was trying to change that. He wrote to a few people asking for their help in bringing his people unbiased and uncensored news about the Middle East through his Bangladesh weekly. He asked for access to alternate news sources, networks with other people, and news and opinion pieces. Choudhury, who learned about Benkin through the latter’s articles that appeared on the internet, was convinced that free and open information would spark genuine interfaith dialogue based on mutual respect and ultimately lead Muslim nations including Bangladesh to recognize and normalize relations with Israel.
Like most Americans, Benkin knew very little about Bangladesh, but as he said later, “I did know about antisemitism and the rise of Muslim extremism in the non-Arab Muslim world, and I knew that the phrase ‘Never Again’ should lead us to do all we can for people like Shoaib and to support what he was risking his own life to do.” And so he answered the letter. The two corresponded daily; shared their hopes and dreams, goals, and concerns. They soon realized that each was as committed as the other to seeing this fight against hatred and terrorism through—-not with a gun or bomb, but with a weapon much more powerful than that: with the truth; by giving people information—the greatest fear of our enemies. Benkin helped get Choudhury the resources he needed and Choudhury helped Benkin publish pro-US, pro-Israel, and pro-religious equality articles in the Bangladesh press. For the first time, there appeared to be some open and public exchange of ideas on this subject. Even the Prime Minister was following it.
Not everyone tracking the progress with interest, however, was happy about it, and they too, planned some action. On November 29, 2003, Shoaib was to leave Bangladesh for an historic address to the Hebrew Writers Association in Tel Aviv; but as he was about to board the plane, police grabbed him. They ransacked his bags, took his passport and all his money, then secreted him to a dark and isolated cell. They kept him there with no light or contact for hours, finally bringing him a crust of bread and water from the toilet. And though it sickened him, he was so hungry and dehydrated that he ate. Expecting the worst from the radicals who engineered his arrest and knowing that there were few in Bangladesh with the power or will to oppose them, Choudhury managed to get a message to his brother Sohail just before being moved. He asked him to call Benkin and ask him to so something to save him.
Benkin knew he was no professional human rights advocate but knew that there was no way he could not abandon his friend. So he started writing about it, telling whoever would listen about the terrible injustice being done in Bangladesh. All the while he thought about his friend—now his brother—worried about him and his family, ached for him and at must be happening to him. For a while, Choudhury was hauled in and out of jail without charge, all the time remanded for “interrogation.” What the outside world did not know was that Choudhury was being tortured by his interrogators, blindfolded and interrogated, denied adequate food, medical care and sanitary conditions. Glaucoma was threatening his eyesight, which is still impaired because of his treatment and lack of medical care. Beyond the prison bars, Choudhury’s family was being attacked and pressured to denounce him. When his brother went to the police to complain, they refused to act and blamed it all on the Choudhurys’ “alliance with the Jews.” They would not even let him out for his mother’s funeral.
Benkin did what he could to assist the family and worked almost non-stop to get people to listen. Eventually, he was able to let the Bangladesh government know that people were watching the case and were beginning to get concerned. On the one-year anniversary of Choudhury’s imprisonment,he went to Bangladesh’s embassy in Washington to protest this human rights travesty and demand his brother’s release. They did not release him, but no coincidence, the harassment against Choudhury’s family stopped. Eventually, Benkin was able to enlist the aid of Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL) who demanded a meeting with Benkin and the Bangladeshi ambassador. Three weeks later, Benkin received a phone call. A voice on the other end said, “My brother, I am free.” It was Shoaib Choudhury; he was out of jail!
Since then, the two men have continued to work together for the goals they both share. During 2006, Benkin tried to see his brother in Bangladesh, but three times the government refused to let him into the country. At the same time, that same government was refusing to allow Choudhury to leave Bangladesh to visit the United States--or anywhere else for that matter. In May 2006, the Bangladeshis at the last minute refused to let Shoaib out of the country to receive the "Moral Courage Award" from the American Jewish Committee. When the government later lied to Congressman Mark Kirk and others that they did not keep Shoaib in the country; Benkin caught them in their falsehoods and brought them to Kirk's and others' attention. Finally, in January 2007, Benkin managed to get in to Bangladesh and see his brother for the first time. It was a remarkable visit that reinforced to their adversaries that Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury and Richard Benkin would never tire in their battle against extremism. Since then, Shoaib has visited the United States twice, as well.
But Shoaib Choudhury returned from that second trip to a new level of harassment and a fourth attempt to re-incarcerate. Fortunately, Benkin was able to stop that as he had three previous attempts. Depending on which signals the two receive from the Dhaka government, they are either optimistic about Shoaib's and Bangladesh's future, or they believe that their fight will continue without end. No matter what, however, the two are undeterred and are more convinced than ever that their cause is just and can never be abandoned.