Israpundit

October 1, 2006

Fighting Injustice & Jihad in Bangladesh, Again!

Filed under: Front Page

By Jerry Gordon with Dr. Richard Benkin

Comment by Jerry Gordon

 

The title of this article is a reprieve for Israpundit. Dr. Benkin whom I interviewed informed me that former Israpundit editor Joseph Norland had published one of the early articles about courageous Bengali journalist and human rights advocate Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury.

As Dr. Benkin and I were commiserating about the coinicidence of the imminent trial of Mr. Choudhury we mutually expressed concern about apprising Congressional representatives and Administration diplomatic and human rights NGOs about interceding on behalf of Mr. Chourdhury.

We also were concerned about the growing menace of a global Jihad that has vaulted the Sunni Shia heartlands of the Middle East that threaten nominal Muslim regimes in South Asia, the Buddhist country of Thailand and the major Muslim archipelago of Indonesia and adjacent areas in the Phillipines. The Jihad is global and the threat against western and Buddhist values palpable. Saving Mr. Chourhury and others like him in Bangladesh and elsewhere is an important step in the war against radical Islam on the march, again!

 

Israpundit: Thank you Dr. Benkin for taking the time to be interviewed by Israpundit about courageous Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury - a Muslim journalist in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh (Bengladesh) who goes on trial on disputed charges before an Islamist judge in a courtroom in Dhaka , the capitol on October 12th.

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Israpundit: Who is Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, how did he become so persecuted for his views and what is his current status in Bangladesh?

 

Benkin:Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury (Shoaib) is the editor and publisher of Weekly Blitz of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Like many of us, Shoaib went through his own spiritual journey and at one time even worked for a (Muslim) fundamentalist paper. But the lessons he learned from both his parents, as well as his own experiences, he recognized that there was far more than the uniform perspective and censored information offered by the Bangladesh media and government.

He started Weekly Blitz in 2003 and began writing about that. He wrote about the growing power of the radicals in Bangladesh and the threat they posed to the country. He urged Bangladesh to recognize Israel, and he advocated real interfaith dialogue based on mutual respect and religious equality. And despite opposition, he continued to do so. This angered not only radicals but also those in the media and government who found Shoaib an inconvenience. In 2003, they engineered his arrest and torture at first merely leaking that he was engaged in “espionage for Israel against the interests of Bangladesh.” They later alleged in court documents that I was his Mossad contact.

Although we won Shoaib’s release in 2005, the government never dropped the charges, which they have admitted on numerous occasions are false. Their refusal to do so, by the way, is in direct contradiction to several promises they gave not only to Shoaib and me, but to US Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL) and others.

On September 18, 2006, an openly Islamist judge ordered that Shoaib would have to stand trial for sedition, a capital offense, beginning October 12. It is also necessary for Shoaib to re-apply for bail on a regular basis, and this same judge can revoke it at any time without providing a reason and send Shoaib back to prison and continued mistreatment.

 

Mr. Choudhury was apprehended by Bangladeshi authorities in 2003 before he could board a plane that would ultimately take him to a meeting in Tel Aviv Israel? Could you explain what the circumstances were and what happened to him?

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 and then secreted him to a dark and isolated cell in the Dhaka Central Jail. 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 me and ask that I save him. We found out later, by the way, that Shoaib’s own brother-in-law had been spying on him for the radicals which enabled them to surprise Shoaib at the airport.

 

Israpundit: When, how and why did you a professing Jew and research consultant living in a Chicago suburb get involved in fighting to save Mr. Choudhury? What means of you used to accomplish this?

 

Benkin: Many people ask me how I came to know Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. It happened inauspiciously, as most things do, in 2003, on a morning like many others. I was at my computer, reading, writing, blogging for Israel when I noticed an email from an unknown source. Of course, my first impulse was to delete it as spam, but for some reason, I didn’t. I opened it to read a plea from a Bangladeshi journalist bemoaning the highly biased and tightly controlled news about Israel and the Jewish people in his country. “It was wrong,” he said, and he was trying to change that. So, he wrote to a few people whose articles had impressed him asking for their help.

Bangladesh?’ I thought. That seemed an odd place. Like most Americans, I knew very little about Bangladesh—but I did know about antisemitism and the rise of Muslim extremism in the non-Arab Muslim world, something I knew we would be hearing about more and more. And our Jewish tradition has a response to cries for help—something which I take very seriously. It is the same answer Abraham gave to God when he was called. The word is hineini. It means “here I am,” but more correctly, “here I am for you,” and I will do all I can to be there for you. That is, our Jewish tradition informs us that there is no other moral way to respond to Shoaib’s cry for help. And so I answered hineini.

 

But I can tell you that when you hear a plea like that, you cannot remain indifferent. Here was a man—a Muslim—putting his career, his home, his very life in real danger. And for what? Because he insisted on doing what’s right—right for his people, yes. But this man living in a place that’s relatively obscure to most of us—took a stand for us: for us as Jews, for Israel, and the US. He’s one of many Muslims worldwide fighting to take back the soul and the face of their religion; Muslims who offer real prospects for peace, who say “No!” to hate; “No!” to Holocaust-denial; “No! to jihad; “No!” to the demonization of Israel, the United States, and the Jews. How important is that? Later, when Shoaib was in prison, I would use this tagline in some of my articles. “If the Choudhurys were in Europe during the Holocaust, they would have refused to drive the trains!” When people stand up for what’s right, it is that important.

 

So, of course I answered the letter. We corresponded daily; sharing our hopes and dreams, our goals, and our concerns. To my delight, this man really was serious about fighting extremists and hate—not with a gun or bomb, but with a weapon much more powerful than that: with the truth; by giving his people information—the greatest fear of our enemies.

 

Israpundit: When did you first make contact with Mr. Choudhury and how often do you speak with him and what is his spirit and the conditions of his family like under these oppressive conditions?

 

Benkin: Throughout 2003, we corresponded several times daily (except for Friday and Saturday) by email. We wrote together; he asked me to write the speech he was to deliver in Israel; and we got to know one another personally through that correspondence. We did not speak directly until one day after we secured an order to provide the medical care he needed and which the prison authorities were denying. [And I am not sure if this is something we can print or risk his safety.] At one point, he lay in his hospital bed with his brother Sohail by his side, when the guards left the room. Quickly, Sohail called me then gave the phone to Shoaib. We spoke briefly but both were touched deeply by the chance to hear each other’s voices and know we are brothers. I did not speak to Shoaib again until the day he was released. My phone rang and I heard a voice on the other end say,

 

“Hello my brother, I am free!”

 

Shoaib is a remarkable individual. Despite continued pressure not to do so, he is writing and publishing in Dhaka. He refuses to abandon his attorney and spiritual brother, S N Goswami, Secretary General of the Bangladesh Minority Lawyers Association. The government is pressuring Shoaib to do so in order that they and their colleagues can extract legal fees and bribes from Shoaib during a process that is sure to last for years unless we can change that. His wife, Happy, stands by him and is as strong as he is. His two young children are afraid for their father, but incredibly proud of him and the courageous model he is! Shoaib has told me time and again that if he ever were to stop doing those things that anger the radicals, then it would be as if they took his life. He is determined to stand for justice.

 

Israpundit: Who among U.S. Congressional representatives and Administration officials have aided you in trying to save Mr. Choudhury and what have they done?

 

Benkin: Several members of Congress, as well as my two Senators from Illinois have been made aware of the situation. Some have not responded at all; most have acknowledged the importance of the case. Reps. Joseph Crowley (D-NY) and Peter King (R-NY) signed a letter along with Mark Kirk (R-IL) warning of “intense international scrutiny” if the Bangladeshis try Shoaib for sedition.

 

But no one in Congress (with all due respect) can even be mentioned in the same breath as Congressman Mark Kirk. Truly, he has made this his own struggle and never for a moment forgot Shoaib or put this effort on the back burner. I even recall seeing him in this year’s July Fourth parade. When he saw me he turned, waved, and called “Richard!” I returned the greeting, and he said in a clear reference to this case, “We still have lots of work to do!” He speaks about this case; he and his aid, Jeffrey Phillips, have made numerous protests to the Bangladesh embassy and government. And they made sure that there was language in the bill containing Bangladesh’s appropriation that referred to US concern about this matter. He always wants to know how he can help, and when Shoaib wanted to come to the United States in May to receive an award, Mark Kirk arranged for the embassy in Dhaka to approve a visa within a day.

 

On April 8, 2005, Congressman Kirk called Bangladeshi Ambassador Shamsher Chowdhury to his office for a meeting with my participation as well. In that meeting, he made it clear that Shoaib’s persecution and oppression were a concern to the United States and without threatening or impinging on Bangladeshi sovereignty made it clear that we would not remain silent or inactive. He even allowed me to call Chowdhury on several “misstatements” during the meeting. Three weeks later, Shoaib was free, and I know he would still be in jail—or worse—were it not for Congressman Mark Kirk. After I informed Congressman Kirk of this latest persecution, he with Jeffrey’s help, is in the process of taking very strong action.

 

Israpundit: Who among American Jewish organizations has been of assistance in alleviating the dire plight of Mr. Chourdhury?

 

Benkin: As is Mark Kirk to the US Congress, so is the American Jewish Committee to Jewish (or other) organizations. In particular, the AJC’s terrorism expert, Yehudit Barsky has acted and continues to act in the spirit of hineini and of “Never Again!” Her efforts are relentless, and she is a true hero. Additionally, the AJC’s Executive Director, David Harris, also has taken a personal interest in this case, has made his concerns public, and has authorized the AJC under Yehudit’s direction to do whatever it can to work for justice in this matter and to secure Shoaib’s safety. The AJC also gave Shoaib its “Moral Courage Award” (along with Ayaan Hisi Ali) in May, 2006.

 

Israpundit: Have you reached out to the expatriate Bangladeshi community in North America regarding the plight of Mr. Choudhury and what has been their reaction and assistance, if any?

 

Benkin: Yes, I have, and they have reached out to me. There was very little help in the struggle to free Shoaib, but since the latest episode of injustice, quite a few Bangladeshis in the US and Canada have offered their support. One expatriate Bangladeshi journalist in Canada (who fled sedition charges and death threats) published my press release about Shoaib in his online paper.

 

Israpundit: Bangladesh-formerly East Pakistan- is one of the poorest countries in the

world-, about the size of the State of Iowa with a population of over 147 million and per capita GDP of less than $2,100 - that lies on the Bay of Bengal, east of the Republic of India and to the west of the military dictatorship of Myanmar, formerly Burma. Could you explain for our Israpundit readers some of the tragic history concerning the birth of Bangladesh in 1970 and 1971 and why India, ironically came to the aid of this Muslim country that gained its freedom from its West Pakistan overlords who with the aid of local Islamists perpetrated the horrific slaughter that occasioned the birth of an

independent Bangladesh?

 

Benkin: Although Bangladesh is a small country in area and subject to periodic natural disasters, it is a country with some significant resources (i.e., natural gas), its poverty is due more to endemic corruption and the demonization of enemies both internal and external, real and imagined. Blaming India for whatever ills plague Bangladesh has become an almost knee-jerk reaction in that country—this despite the fact, as you mentioned, that Bangladesh likely would not have come into existence without Indian intervention; and the Bangladeshi people would have suffered even greater atrocities than Pakistan’s butchering of over a million Bangladeshi civilians, which prompted Indian intervention.

 

India-bashing is an extension of the Muslim-Hindu animosity that elements inside Bangladesh have chosen to intensify rather than ameliorate. India, too, is an easy target like the United States, because of its success. To take one example, Bangladesh was offered millions of dollars in annual revenue by India if it would allow a pipeline to be built on its territory that would carry oil from Southeast Asia to India. Yet, despite the good that could be done with the income, the Bangladeshis have refused the offer repeatedly preferring to continue demonizing India.

 

Israpundit: Alex Perry in Time Asia – now banned in the country, Chris Blackburn in FrontPage Magazine and the blog, the Fourth Rail have written of the dangers of large scale al Qaeda-linked infiltration from terrorist groups like Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh and the Jamaat-is-Islami– advocate of Sharia Muslim law now part of the ruling coalition in the current government of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh turning this nominal Muslim ostensibly secular country into a Taliban-like regime dominated by radical Islamists. Could you explain how this came about, what foreign groups are backing it and the recent spate of suicide bombing attacks and riots and what the clear and present danger is to Bangladesh, India and ultimately U.S. interests in combating the war on terrorism in the south Asian region?

 

Benkin: The people of Bangladesh have prided themselves on practicing a very tolerant form of Islam; religious freedom is part of their values and tradition. Unfortunately, as you point out, that tradition is under attack. We can trace the threat to several root causes, but the most salient are two. The first is what several analysts have called the “zero sum” politics in Bangladesh. There are two major coalition parties: the center-right Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and the center-left Awami League (AL). The traditional and ongoing animosity between the two is so intense that compromise and cooperation is almost impossible. That also means that both have not hesitated to make pacts with radicals in order to gain support against the other: for the AL it has been extremists on the left; for the BNP, it has been extremists on the right including radical Islamist parties. As you point out, that has allowed al Qaeda linked parties to become part of the ruling coalition (and one such judge is the individual who has sole discretion to decide Shoaib’s fate unless the government acts).

 

That seemingly personal animosity means that appeasing the Islamists has been more acceptable than losing elections. On several occasions Bangladeshi Home Minister and other government and BNP officials have responded to my own and Congressman Kirk’s concerns about Shoaib that they realize there is nothing to the case and it should be dropped, but they are “afraid how the radicals will react.” They refuse to form a coalition without them and believe that they need radical support to govern—and they will not risk it. Appeasement is the root cause of radical strength in Bangladesh. Not only has it given the Islamists a piece of the Bangladesh government, police, and court system (all of which they openly want to replace with their own variants); but it also has allowed the radicals to build an Islamist infrastructure in the schools (madrassas) and mosques.

As I wrote previously, al Qaeda forces that fled their safe havens in Afghanistan and later Pakistan made their way across Islamist-controlled areas of Kashmir and the largely unpatrolled India-China frontier (although they did have help from several minor Pakistani officials according to Indian intelligence), and set up al Qaeda camps in Nepal. I found that extremely interesting as Nepal is 89 percent Hindu with most of the rest of the population Buddhist. Why Nepal?

 

One reason is that the Himalayan nation was experiencing major social unrest at the time and could hardly control its borders. Another, according to Indian intelligence is that they were aided by officials at the Pakistani embassy in Katmandu. But going beyond that, if one were to draw a line from the havens in Afghanistan to the camps in Nepal, then continue the line; it would bring those forces to the world’s third largest Muslim nation: Bangladesh. Nepal and Bangladesh are almost contiguous at that point (there is a tiny area of the China-India frontier). The borders are porous, and there are two ways in which the Islamists can influence who will govern Bangladesh. Sources from inside the country tell me that they expect Islamists to cross the border into Bangladesh to “stuff the ballot box,” so to speak and vote for their brethren—if that have not done so already. The other prospect is even more ominous.

 

In 2005, Islamists issued their declaration of war against Bangladesh by setting off bombs throughout the country. Through official statements, they said that the bombs were intended as a warning for the government to implement Sharia as the law of the land; they also threatened to kill any politicians who stood in their way. A recent Indian documentary also told of the same sort of war preparations in the provinces of Eastern India that surround Bangladesh. The Islamists have made no secret of their desire to see Bangladesh become a “Taliban state,” and they have demonstrated that they will resort to violence to obtain that goal. The groups have been amassing arms from somewhat shadowy sources, but it is clear that they have been receiving assistance from al Qaeda and various Pakistanis, including members of that nation’s security services. The Saudis and Kuwaitis have heavily invested in the Islamist infrastructure, in particular the madrassas and the mosques. Of late, as well, Bangladesh has seen the the emergence of a new group calling itself Hezbollah and claiming ties to the Arab terror group.

 

Israpundit: What in your opinion can we in the West and especially the Jewish communities in North America do to support efforts to forestall Mr. Choudhury’s upcoming trial before a noted Islamist Judge in Dhaka, the capitol on October 12

And if convicted, how can we free both he and his family?

 

Benkin: The best way to prevent our neighbors from being dragged away in the night is to throw the light of day on evil. One way to help is to let people know about this: visit our web site (http://www.InterfaithStrength.com) to learn more; letters to the editor; synagogue newsletters and speaking opportunities (I will go anywhere to speak about this); blogs and online journals—if you can need me to send something for publication, no problem, I will.

 

The other thing to know is that the Bangladeshis are scared to death of a harsh US action that will hurt their trade here. Write your Congressional Representatives and Senators, be outraged and demand action. If you have any contacts whatsoever, use them. They can contact their colleague, Mark Kirk, about coordinating efforts, signing protest letters, perhaps even holding up their appropriations. Expressed outrage by the US Congress or individual members is extremely effective, too.

 

Canadians can do the same. At one point, Shoaib received a letter of support from the Canadian High Commissioner. Please, notify your officials as similar efforts from Canada as well would carry a great deal of weight, especially given the large community of expatriate Bangladeshis in Canada.

 

Thank you, Dr. Benkin for this most informative interview. Kol hakavod ( all honors) to you and to Mr. Chourdhury in his valued stand against Islamist hate in Bangladesh and the global Jihad.