Gabriel Oppenheim: Keeping a voice for freedom alive
A month ago, I wrote a column about Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, a Bangladeshi editor whose newspaper condemns that country's rising Islamic fundamentalism. While Choudhury has no connection to Penn, I wrote the column because I felt I had no choice.
Bangladesh was about to try Choudhury on charges of sedition for his anti-fundamentalist stance and attempt to engage the Jewish community in dialogue. If that sounds preposterous, keep this in mind: Two parties in Bangladesh's ruling coalition openly support al Qaeda, and sedition carries a penalty of death.
So I wrote the column in the hope of catching someone's attention. Because here was a man denouncing violence in the name of religion, and the Western world didn't even know his name. We were about to lose one of our best friends in a country on the brink of revolution.
Bangladesh is currently a democracy, with 83 percent of its citizens practicing Islam. But several radical groups would like Bangladesh to ditch democracy and secular law for Islamic law -- and they've started a bombing campaign to pressure citizens. On August 17, 2005, 430 bombs exploded across the country. And three months later, the country suffered its first suicide bombings.
Choudhury has written dozens of editorials protesting those attacks, as he sees his country and faith being co-opted by extremists. In April, Bangladesh was supposed to begin Choudhury's trial, using his editorials as evidence. But the Committee to Protect Journalists and Illinois Representative Mark Kirk pressured the government to drop the charges.
Of course, Bangladesh couldn't drop the charges because that would anger the radicals in its ruling coalition. So instead, the state postponed the trial to June, when I first learned of Choudhury's story from a terrorism expert in New York. This expert told me about Choudhury's stance and his imprisonment, when the government tortured him with field hockey sticks and denied him medicine for his glaucoma.
It was then that I decided to write an opinion piece.
Not because The Summer Pennsylvanian influences policymakers and not because I thought Bangladesh would consider what I wrote. But because Choudhury had already endangered his life writing for what he believed in. And the least I could do was write for him.
I also felt ashamed in a way. Here in America, we constantly search for a Muslim leader to take a public stand against terrorism. Finally, Choudhury was a man doing just that, and until June, I hadn't even heard of him.
As my column went to press in early June, the government postponed the trial again -- to today. By the time you read this, Bangladesh may have already postponed the trial once more. You never know with what Transparency International calls the world's most corrupt government.
Yet the government isn't Choudhury's only problem. Bangladesh is also the country with the greatest number of journalists who have been attacked, according to Reporters Sans Frontieres. And that proved to be the case last Wednesday, when four bombs were placed in and around Choudhury's newspaper office. Luckily, only two of the bombs exploded and no one was hurt.
But the episode illustrated exactly why Americans must support men like Choudhury: Because if we don't, no one else will.
Indeed, two weeks ago, Choudhury received a phone call from a radical mufti, who threatened to blow up the newspaper office and murder Choudhury within 36 hours. The mufti had been angered by an editorial against his persecution of a minority sect.
Choudhury called the police. But the authorities took no action and later claimed to have "misplaced" their report. Then the bombs exploded last Wednesday, underscoring the reason so few Asian leaders and writers take on terrorism.
It's not that everyone supports terror, though more and more do. It's that those who don't are terrorized into silence.
In fact, if Choudhury were ordinary, he'd stop protesting Islamic radicalism right now. He'd lay low for a while and stop agitating muftis who blow up journalists. Because realistically, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is a marked man.
But Choudhury has proven himself extraordinary. Targeted by terrorists, he continues to denounce persecution of minorities and violence in the name of his own religion. Even this past Sunday, after his office was bombed, Choudhury sent me an e-mail.
"With the precious support and blessings of decent people like you all," he wrote, "we shall surely spread our message of peace in the entire world and shall be finally able to let the majority in the world stand against those Islamist radicals."
To me, such peace seems distant, though I agree with Choudhury. If we are to defeat terrorism, we must rally around those willing to speak out -- for Elie Wiesel had it right: "The opposite of love is not hate. It's indifference."
Guest columnist Gabriel Oppenheim is a College sophomore from Scarsdale, N.Y. His e-mail address is email@example.com.