The United Nations is a ridiculous organization. It might not have started out as one, but it is now
Dr. Richard Benkin is a human rights activist based in America. He is the co-founder of ‘Interfaith strength’ and is a journalist and author. He has authored various books and is associated with organizations like the ‘Islam Israel’ fellowship. He has raised the issues of Hindus in Pakistan in Bangladesh around the world. MyIndMakers talks to him about his work, books and human rights across the world.
Please tell us about your background and how you came to be associated with interfaith issues worldwide?
My involvement in human rights and interfaith issues is rooted in who I am, that is, an American and a Jew. American and Jewish values teach me not to stand by idly when others are being violated; and they set a basic optimism that refuses to believe that any people or faith is superior or inferior to another. So when a Muslim journalist asked me to help educate his people about Israel; when that journalist was arrested and charged with blasphemy; when a Hindu, whose family fled from Bangladesh, told me that "my people are dying there"; when an open Jew-hater was about to hold an anti-Israel conference in an official Australian building with the support of academics and so-called human rights groups; it was impossible for me to turn away and ignore the injustice. More formally, I hold a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, and have held several academic and business positions, and serve on the boards of multiple organizations.
Please tell us about your involvement with "Islam- Israel Fellowship”?
Islam-Israel Fellowship is a Jerusalem-based organization of religious Jews and Muslims, all of whom are committed to fostering positive relationships between the two faiths. I became involved with this organization in part through my Israel advocacy, however, primarily through my defense of the pro-Israel Muslim, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudury, who was imprisoned and tortured in Bangladesh for advocating relations with Israel and exposing the growth of radical Islam in that country through the madrassa. For some time, we shared ideas and information extensively, and even after Shoaib was expelled from the group, it continued to have me on its board. I believe the Jews and Muslims in this organization are genuine individuals committed to interfaith understanding.
You have been the biggest global voice for persecuted Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh. How did you get involved with this project?
In 2007, I was in Bangladesh during a military coup. Many individuals who felt that they were at risk of arrest contacted me for help and advice. I also had rather extensive communication with members of the military there. Additionally, through my human rights work on behalf of Shoaib Choudhury and others, I got the Bangladeshi government to do things it otherwise would not have done, such as freeing political prisoners or refraining from prosecution. Thus, when I arrived back home, there was a fax from a young man who had gotten my number from one of the attorneys with whom I had worked in Bangladesh. He told me he was "a Hindu living outside of Kolkata. My parents came here from Bangladesh when I was eleven. My people are dying there. Please save us." Again, you cannot turn your back on something like that. Besides, when I was in Bangladesh, I became aware of the anti-Hindu persecution. It was after getting the fax, however, that I really delved into it. And once I did, I knew this had to be my mission.
You once famously said that "Kashmir is South Asia's West Bank”!! Wasn't it always a fact but the world never paid attention to what India and Israel had to say?
In 1981, the Israelis bombed and destroyed Saddam Hussein's nuclear plant at Osirik in Iraq. The world condemned them for it--publicly. Privately, quite a few world leaders, including the Americans, thanked them for it. In the sight of others, people pretend to dismiss Israel as a nation that must be condemned. In reality, however, they know that they are dealing with a great country that works for good in the world. I believe we are starting to see the same thing happening with India now that Narendra Modi is Prime Minister. The same people who shunned him with false accusations, now welcome him as a dignitary and desperately seek his cooperation and India's business. Look at the hornet's nest he stirred up by speaking of Balochistan and of Pakistan's guilt. Good for him--he is taking the fight to our enemies.
By the way, my comment about Kashmir being South Asia's West Bank indicated how in both cases, people advance fallacious and evil arguments and say their focus is Kashmir or the West Bank (which is really called Judea and Samaria), but what they really want is to take over all of Israel and all of India. Their cries about Kashmir and Judea and Samaria are just ruses that the gullible accept uncritically.
You wrote 'Quiet Case of Ethnic Cleansing' (monograph on Bangladeshi Hindus) back in 2012. This was seminal research yet a truly heartbreaking book on the appalling conditions of Hindus in Bangladesh. What if anything has changed or not changed particularly in Bangladesh? Hasn't Sheikh Hasina been acting against Islamists?
Whatever else the Awami League government has done, it has NOT done anything to stop the ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Bangladesh or extend the full protection of the law to them. Members of the government at all levels are complicit, part of cover ups, or actively involved in the crimes; and Sheikh Hasina does nothing about it. The government does not prosecute the offenders or dismiss guilty government officials, even when it knows of the crimes and criminals. The Awami League has had opportunities to repeal the Vested Property Act, which is the economic engine driving this ethnic cleansing, as well as chances to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution that makes Islam the official state religion. But it has refused to do so. In many ways, the Awami League is a greater danger than its rivals because people believe it is moderate and that it would not countenance the ethnic cleansing of Hindus and other non-Muslims. The West in particular will accept its soothing words without demanding action.
Having said that, recent events offer some promise. In July 2016, at a meeting with US Congressman Bob Dold and me, the Bangladeshi government admitted that it did have a problem with the persecution of Hindus. Prior to that, its representatives always would deny that any problem existed. When we spoke further, the same official said that Bangladesh is a poor country that lacked resources to solve the problem; at which point Congressman Dold said, "We want to help you solve your problem." Making those admissions is never easy, especially in front of a member of the powerful US House Ways and Means Committee; and doing so took some courage. Rather than create more of a problem, however, it created a spirit of cooperation among the three of us; and we have been working positively with the Bangladeshi Embassy in Washington since then. Of course, if there is no actual change for the Bangladeshi Hindus, I have alternate actions at the ready. For the first time in almost a decade, however, I have a glimmer of hope.
Dr. Benkin, You are a widely travelled human rights activist who is donning the role of a modern day Peace Messenger (with such limited resources!). Isn't the UN supposed to be doing what you are doing?
The UN is a ridiculous organization. It might not have started out as one, but it is now. It harps on the political fantasies supported by some of the worst human rights violators and rarely supports true democratic rule. It seems obsessed with a phony "occupation" (that is, Israel), while it ignores a very real and brutal occupation of Baluchistan, Pashtunistan, and Sindhudesh by Pakistan, which has been going on since before Israel was even a nation. The UN's priorities and values are upside down. As a United States taxpayer, my dollars contribute significantly to the UN, and I am glad that there is a growing sentiment in Washington to do something about it.
Has the present day INDIAN government invited you to share your experience in their search for long term solutions in that region?
Your wonderful Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spent time with me, and has my book, A Quiet Case of Ethnic Cleansing: the Murder of Bangladesh's Hindus. He also shares some of my concerns and takes to heart what is happening to Hindus in Bangladesh. Recently, others in his party have reached out to me, and we are planning some actions in the near future. Beyond that, I have a great deal of information and insight, regarding both human rights and economic development, that I believe would help; and I am always at the ready to share it and work with the Indian government and people. Please understand, however, I humbly recognize that I am a foreigner, and therefore a friend and guest. Anything I say or do is done within that spirit.
(Photo from 2013: Richard Benkin meeting the then Gujarat CM (Now PM), Narendra Modi)
What keeps you motivated? Please tell us about your daily regimen and your current projects.
As a Jewish child, I learned how 6,000,000 of my people were slaughtered in Europe; among them were many members of my family. The more I learned, however, the less I focused on the Nazis. Of course, they were terrible and bear ultimate responsibility for the Holocaust (or more accurately the Shoah); but it does not take much to say that Adolf Hitler and his gang were terrible people. No, what I came to know is that their murders were made possible by all the "good people" who drew their shutters while their neighbors were being dragged away in the night; who sat by idly while laws made the Jews pariahs and subject to plunder; who ultimately knew about Auschwitz or at least that something akin to it existed and yet did nothing. Out of the ashes of the Holocaust came a saying: "Never again!" And yes, we were determined to make sure it never happened again to us Jews. At the same time, "never again" meant that we would never want it to happen to anyone. So when I came to know about the Bangladeshi Hindus, and later the Kashmiri Pandits, and more recently the Baloch, Pashtun, and Sindhi; I refused to sit by idly while they were subjected to atrocities. That is sufficient to motivate anyone.
My daily regimen? I need to work. Human rights does not pay the bills or take care of my family; so many of my days involve getting up and going to work. Before I do, however, I work on human rights matters, even though that means getting up every day between four and five AM. What that consists of depends on what I am working on at the time. Right now, my major human rights issues are justice for the Bangladeshi Hindus, freedom and justice for the Baloch, Pashtun, Sindhi, and Kashmiris, and justice for Israel. They all involve quite a few specific actions that are being planned together with others or with my own networks. With Narendra Modi's recent statement about Balochistan, that nation and the others fighting for freedom from Pakistan are finding new support, including among people I am working with in Washington; and I mentioned how we are moving forward on the Bangladeshi Hindu issue. Understand, however, that "promising" does not mean accomplishment, and as hopeful as I am, I will continue struggling and looking for new ways to further human rights.
I also have a new book coming out, I expect in February or March. It likely will be called What is Moderate Islam, and went to the publisher last month. When approached about it, I said that people like to dance at the extremes, saying either all Muslims are jihadis or Islam is not a part of radicals and to say so is Islamophobic. Both positions are idiotic and prevent a real understanding of how we stop the enemies of peace and civilization. My book brings together Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish voices in an attempt to help guide us away from the extreme fringes, without failing to address the real and significant issues we face. We who speak through the book are not afraid of the truth.