Former Bangladeshi political prisoner Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is a
man with a mission - to spread the message that four out of five
Muslims do not live in the Middle East and that the United States must
pay close attention to the rising tide of Islamist extremism in
moderate Muslim countries if it is to prevent the radicalization of
their populations. Choudhury, recipient of PEN USA’s 2005 “Freedom to
Write Award”, spoke to JINSA soon after delivering a speech this summer
in Washington, DC to the Human Rights Congress for Bangladeshi
Minorities, a worldwide organization dedicated to preventing
discrimination against minority groups and protecting political
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury.
Bangladesh is home to the world’s third largest Muslim population
and was described by Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central
Asian Affairs Richard Boucher as recently as last year as a
“traditionally moderate and tolerant country”
But Choudhury and others critical of the rising tide of Islamic
fundamentalist extremism in Bangladesh have been the target of an
ongoing campaign by Bangladeshi Islamists, both in and out of the
government. Choudhury has spoken out against the Islamists from the
beginning. Last year he told The Wall Street Journal, “When I began my newspaper, [The Weekly Blitz],
in 2003 I decided to make an end to the well-orchestrated propaganda
campaign against Jews and Christians and especially against Israel … In
Bangladesh and especially during Friday prayers, the clerics propagate
jihad and encourage the killing of Jews and Christians. When I was a
child my father told me not to believe those words but to look at the
“There is hardly a secular aspect of Bangladeshi society that hasn’t been infiltrated by Islamists,” Choudhury said.
In the political arena, radical Muslim parties have attained power
gradually, gaining more and more seats in parliament until they become
an essential part of any political coalition. Maneeza Hossain, manager
of democracy programs at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies,
explained in a March 2006 National Review
article that the attractiveness of radical ideologies to many in
Bangladesh reflects the failure of the two main political parties, the
Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and the Awami League, to offer genuine
democratic reforms and economic growth. “The rise of Islamism is not a
reflection of ignorance, but a result of disenchantment with the hollow
discourse of democracy adopted by the political class against a
background of corruption and economic disparity,” Hossain wrote.
Corruption Opens Door to Political Parties Affiliated with Extremist Religious Movements
Islamist actions, on the other hand, are seen as untainted by
corruption, a mainstay of political life in Bangladesh, regularly
ranked as the world’s most corrupt country by Transparency
International. Orphans are enrolled in the more than 64,000 madrassas
in the country, and constituencies are provided with funds from the
Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, to build mosques and hospitals,
helping Islamism in its many forms to gain further roots.
The efforts of the two main political parties in combating this growing
radicalism have been inadequate at best. Instead of continuing the
established Bangladeshi practice of a separation between mosque and
state, both parties have courted the Islamists. The many concessions
made by both parties to gain the support of Islamists and their
sympathizers has, among its many effects, increased the use of
religious rhetoric in mainstream political discourse. Disturbingly,
those who stand against the Islamists are branded as anti-Muslim, with
even the country’s constitution labeled as “Christian” by some.
Both mainstream parties are guilty of this complacency and
accommodation, but, according to Hossain, it is the BNP that has formed
an alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islam, the dominant public Islamist
The interim government, formed according to a constitutional directive
in October 2006 several months before national elections, retained
power in January 2007 after scheduled polls were cancelled and
emergency rule imposed amid violent street protests between the feuding
political parties. But it, too, has not yet focused on combating the
influence of radical Islam and their “poison of religious hatred”,
choosing instead to crack down only on widespread governmental
When all public political party activity was banned in March 2007 as
part of the emergency rule, mosque sermons and religious street
demonstrations continued unabated. In a February 2007 article in the Providence Journal,
Hossain described this as a “further consolidation of Islamism”, since
“denying political activists the ability to practice secular politics
is inviting them to join the brand of ‘social’ action that the
Islamists espouse,” adding that “Islamism unchecked and unbalanced by
genuine democratic alternatives paves the way to jihadism.”
Choudhury’s own experience attests to this growing influence of Islamists in Bangladeshi politics.
In the spirit of religious tolerance, he began publishing articles sympathetic to Israel soon after he began The Weekly Blitz
in 2003, leading to contacts with Jewish and Israeli writers over the
Internet. Government agents arrested him in November 2003 as he was
about to depart the country en route to Tel Aviv, where he was to make
a speech to the Hebrew Writers’ Association on how the media can foster
world peace. His crime? In attempting to travel to Israel, Choudhury
had violated Bangladesh’s Passport Act, which forbids citizens from
visiting countries (such as Israel and Taiwan) with which Bangladesh
does not maintain diplomatic relations.
“All of the major newspapers are affiliated with the political parties.”
Though violations of the Passport Act typically result in a nominal
fine, Choudhury was taken into police custody and, as he tells it,
blindfolded, beaten, and interrogated continually for ten days in an
attempt to extract a confession that he was an Israeli spy. Choudhury
spent the next 16 months, without trial in solitary confinement in a
Dhaka jail, where he was denied medical treatment for his glaucoma.
Choudhury was released in 2005 after strong pressure from U.S.
Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Chicago-area human rights activist
Richard L. Benkin, a close friend of Choudhury, who had taken up his
cause worldwide. In March 2007, the U.S. Congress passed, 409-1, House
Resolution 64, urging the Bangladeshi government to drop all pending
charges against Choudhury. The government has thus far reneged on its
promise, made multiple times, to drop the admittedly false charges,
which Bangladeshi officials, such as Home Secretary Lutfuzamman Babar
and former ambassador to the U.S. Shamshur Chowdhury [no relation],
have acknowledged are maintained only to appease local Islamists.
The Weekly Blitz world wide web masthead.
Choudhury also confirmed the collusion between the BNP and the
Islamists, saying that several BNP officials were behind the fabricated
charges against him, including former Home Secretary Omar Farouk, a
member of Jamaat-e-Islam’s advisory group.
In addition, Choudhury pointed out that the Bangladeshi police and the
judiciary are particularly susceptible to influence. In September 2006,
a judge with Islamist ties ordered his case continued, despite the
government’s original reluctance, on the grounds that Choudhury had
hurt the sentiments of Muslims by praising Christians and Jews and
spoiling the image of Bangladesh worldwide. In October 2006, the police
detail that had been posted to The Weekly Blitz’s
offices since a July bombing mysteriously disappeared, and the next day
the offices were ransacked and Choudhury was badly beaten by a mob.
When he lodged a formal complaint with the police, they responded by
issuing an arrest warrant for him.
The media, while more interested in criticizing Islamic extremism than
they used to be, are still problematic. They are “all biased against
America and Israel,” Choudhury said, noting with disappointment that
with few exceptions, Bangladeshi journalists hopped on the bandwagon
against him, reporting “total fabrications as fact” against the alleged
“Zionist spy”. Another issue is that all of the major newspapers are
affiliated with the political parties, which Choudhury describes as
being “open appeasers” in regards to Islamic extremism. There is even a
new TV station, Diganta – meaning “horizon” – run by the Islamist
political party, Jamaat-e-Islam.
A Call to the U.S. Government to Confront Bangladeshi Government
Choudhury suggested that to counter the rising menace of fundamentalism
in Bangladesh, the U.S. must hold the government accountable for its
actions. If it is indeed as moderate and anti-Islamist as it claims, it
will answer for the trumped-up charges against him. Though he conceded
that there is nothing America can do to directly affect human rights
violations and restrictions on press freedoms in Bangladesh, Choudhury
emphasized that it could use its economic weight as leverage and “think
twice” before giving development aid to Bangladesh or buying its
textile products, instead making these economic benefits contingent on
effectively fighting Islamist influences.
The U.S. government, he said, should also press the Bangladeshi
government to make a specific justification for their non-recognition
of Israel. Opposing Israel as a way of declaring solidarity with Muslim
nations is not enough, Choudhury said, since many Muslim nations have
diplomatic or economic relations with Israel. In short, the problem is
not Islam - it is Islamism.
But Choudhury maintains optimistic that his message will eventually
prevail in Bangladesh, despite his grim appraisals. “My target audience
is both the extremists and the moderates,” he said.
Due to his ordeal in Bangladesh, Choudhury has been asked many times
whether he would like to relocate. His answer is a defiant no. “It is
the Islamists who should get out of Bangladesh,” he said. “Let them
relocate to Iran or Saudi Arabia.”
By JINSA Editorial Assistant Raeefa Shams.