"The Media and a Culture of Peace"

(RB: To have been delivered by Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury to IFLAC’s writers’ symposium; Tel Aviv, Israel; December 2003]

Excellencies, distinguished delegates and guests,

My brothers and sisters:

Boker Tove

Shalom and Salam!

What a thrill it is for me be here in Israel! You know, it might be unexpected from a Bangladeshi, but I must tell you that coming here has been a lifelong dream of mine. The moment I stepped off the plane and onto Israeli soil, I realized that dream; and I cannot thank you enough for helping to make it a reality.

Thank you, too, and all the wonderful people of Israel, who have shown me nothing but kindness and hospitality since my arrival here.

Let me also express my sincerest gratitude to the Hebrew Writers Association in Israel, for inviting me to participate in this conference; to Professor Ada Aharoni, Head of the Association’s Foreign Relations Committee and President of IFLAC; and to all the members of IFLAC for graciously appointing me as its first Bangladeshi delegate. Thank you, too, to Mr. Ilan Fluss of the Foreign Ministry, without whose support and cooperation, I could not attend this conference in due time. You know, thanks to Mr. Fluss, I had only to circle the globe once to get here from Dhaka.

Today, I stand before you, the people of Bangladesh and in fact the entire Moslem world as a witness; a witness that Israelis want above all else peace and justice. And those who spread false rumors to the contrary around the world, and especially in Moslem countries, are, frankly, either deluded or dishonest. I also stand before you perhaps as a living contradiction: a Zionist, a defender of Israel, and a devout, practicing Muslim, living in a Moslem country.

Like you—and my many pro-Israeli brothers and sisters—I believe in the justice of the Zionist dream. I also acknowledge this historical reality: that the world has endeavored to crush that dream and, yes, even to destroy the viability of the Jewish people. At the same time, I live in an environment where people believe just as passionately in an opposing view—one that sees Israel as illegitimate; and the Jewish people as evil incarnate. Witness the recent statement of outgoing Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammed that "Jews rule the world." But even more significant than his public idiocy is the fact that every one of the 57 delegates who heard those words applauded him for it. To my own chagrin, this included the Bangladeshi representative, as well. I assure you, he was not speaking for me. And these people were not merely caught up in the heat of the moment. To a man, they defended him, and even continue to do so.

Certainly, we could engage in extensive discussions about the content of those opposing views and how people like Mohamad justify their positions. At the moment, however, I am far more concerned about their practical support structures, and in particular, how the media promote either a Culture of Peace or a Culture of Death.

And as we meet here today, our world so terribly needs a Culture of Peace, doesn’t it? We’ve almost become inured to the regular onslaught of killings, such that a terrorist attack claiming "only one" victim hardly registers a blip on the international media’s radar screen. What has happened to us as a planet when we come to expect the unending news of death and destruction, of children being deliberately gunned down in their beds, and of the public adulation that the murderers receive afterwards?

But let us also be clear about something else. A true Culture of Peace is not merely the cessation of hostilities. It is far more than that and includes Justice and Tolerance for all people. A true Culture of Peace is one that allows each person to have pride in one’s own faith, while respecting the pride that courses through the veins of those who follow other paths to G-d.

Unfortunately, too often, that goal seems far out of reach. Who can fail to be moved by the news of innocents—children—being cruelly murdered while riding a bus to school; or the thought of infants being blown to bits, along with their mothers in whose arms they lay? How recently was it that entire families were wiped out by a terrorist’s bomb in Haifa? The litany could go on and on.

To make matters worse, these atrocities were carried out by those who claim—falsely, I must add; dishonestly—who claim to be acting in the name of Islam, and in the name of G-d—of G-d!

I asked who could fail to be moved. I have an answer: most of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, that’s who; the delegates who applauded Mahathir Mohamad’s anti-Jewish rant; and too many others, that’s who. But why? Do these people have no heart, no soul? Are we Muslims incapable of feeling your pain? Of course, that is not so.

We are all—you and I included—prisoners of the world in which we live; and the Muslim world, unfortunately, still remains captive within that Culture of Death.

In Israel, you have any number of viewpoints being aired in any number of forums. You have Likud; you have Labor. You have Shas; you have Shin-nu-ee. You have Peace Now; you have the Temple Mount Faithful. You have The Jerusalem Post; you have Ha-aretz! It’s ironic. Most of the Moslem world takes that as a sign of weakness and disunity; a lack of resolve; while we know that your ability to accommodate different viewpoints is your great strength. It’s messy, to be sure. But the fact that you do not feel it necessary to control the flow of information and opinion to your people means that you respect them far more than we do ours—from whom we keep the news, and to whom we foreswear open dialogue—especially when it comes to Israel and the Jewish people.

In recent months, the Moslem press has presented slander as fact, lies as truth, hate as religion. We have told our people that myths and biases once thought a relic of bygone eras of ignorance, are not myths but reality. Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass cannot print copies of his slanderous Matzah of Zion fast enough, so convinced are we of the anti-Jewish blood libel. A recent variant that had Jews using Moslem blood to make hamantashen, was featured prominently throughout Moslem media. And I know you are all familiar with last year’s Ramadan series, Horseman without a Horse, an Egyptian resurrection of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And very few people in the Moslem world believe that the Shoah really took place. In fact, many believe that the extent to which it did happen, it was a plot hatched between Nazis and Zionists to transfer Judaism’s center from Europe to the Middle East.

I’ve read your holy books; and no religion is as consistent in its proscription on the consumption of blood as Judaism. Yet, we Muslims believe the lie. The Shoah is the most documented atrocity of all times; yet we Muslims believe the lie. And just about any other lie that we hear again and again and again so long as it vilifies you and supports our corrupted worldview.

Please, my brothers and sisters, please do not think us all ignorant or evil. For we are not. We are, however, prisoners; prisoners of contrived ignorance and of evil by fiat; and a way out of this Culture of Death, Tikvah—hope, runs through the media.

Perhaps for some, the Moslem world seems one large undifferentiated mass, yes? In some ways perhaps it is. But, of course, that image is a simplistic one. Allow me to tell you a little bit about my country, Bangladesh. For I believe it is uniquely suited to help us build a Culture of Peace in the Moslem world.

Many of you might remember when Bangladesh was called East Pakistan—part of the Moslem portion carved out of the former British colony. In fact, Bangladesh today is about 83 percent Moslem, and with a total population close to 140 million, that gives us one of the largest Moslem populations in the world. But Bangladeshi Muslims are known for being among the most tolerant Muslims on the globe. Perhaps that is because we are located away from the monolithic Moslem territory of the Middle East. Perhaps it is because we are the most religiously diverse among Moslem nations. Compare us with Pakistan, which is 97 percent Moslem, Egypt 94 percent, and Iran which is 99 percent Moslem. We Bangladeshi Muslims have learned to respect other faiths. And we are also—in contrast to those other countries—a democracy.

The greatest number of non-Muslims in Bangladesh are Hindu. Others adhere to other so-called "Eastern" and "tribal" religions. But we also have a small Christian population, and I want to share our experience in Bangladesh with my distinguished listeners, because I believe it is very instructive.

Christian missionaries, as we know, are active throughout the world, including several Muslim countries. They operate churches and schools with the goal of convincing people to embrace Christianity—of "spreading the Gospel." Moslem leaders have not always welcomed them. In Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, they have been attacked, arrested, and expelled. But among the tolerant Muslims of Bangladesh, some 400 such missionaries operate free of such harassment. And they have been successful in converting some 500,000 members of tribal groups and various minorities to their faith. Do we Bangladeshi Muslims consider this an offense against The Prophet? Do the converts face legal or other disabilities? No, because that is not our way.

Quite the contrary, we recognize the missionaries’ charitable work and positive efforts among the people—our people. Just outside Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, are the areas of ‘Bhaluka’ and ‘Pubail.’ Most of the residents are converts to Christianity, and I have personally visited the area several times. Beyond their proselytizing, the missionaries have established schools, colleges, hospitals, community centers, and other facilities for the local population. They have helped many poor farmers out of poverty and their previous lives on the constant edge of starvation, and helped modernize Bangladeshi agricultural. Lives in Bhaluka and Pubail are changing very fast and the paradigm is becoming a positive example for Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist neighborhoods. And of course, no one has accused them of using their activities as a cover for terror, or raised any objection to their activities.

You might be surprised to see the conservative Bangladeshi Muslims celebrating Christmas and other holidays with the Christian community in our country. School children from all faiths share these celebrations with Christian classmates. Their parents have not objected and in fact are rather happy to see their children participate in the religious festivals of others. In some English-language schools, students even read the Christian Bible and tales of Christian saints. All of this is surely creating a more open atmosphere for our next generation.

In December 2002, more than two million Christmas cards were sold in various outlets throughout Bangladesh. These statistics alone are evidence of Bangladeshi tolerance. But, what they do not reveal is the positive role that both electronic and print media played in our acceptance and even enthusiasm for various Christian festivals and rituals. During Christmas, for instance, Bangladesh’s state owned electronic media offer elaborate programs to mark the occasion, and newspapers print special articles and supplements. Christmas Day is a public holiday in Bangladesh, even though Islam is our state religion.

The significance of this history is apparent: contrary to the—accurate—image of most Moslem nations, Bangladesh is a society tolerant of other religions.

But even in Bangladesh—and certainly elsewhere in the Moslem world--many of us have a blind spot, don’t we? And I am ashamed to say that it is with regard to the Jewish people and Israel that too many conveniently ignore the nobler, and even essential, principles of Islam—and of basic human decency, for G-d’s sake!

In contrast to the Christian missionaries are the Islamic missionaries who have taken root in Bangladesh recently. Funded by shadowy sources in the Middle East and Africa, they operate under charitable-sounding names like Islamic Hospital, Free Ambulance Service, and Kindergarten Madrassa. But charitable they are not. Whispered allegations—for louder objections place you at considerable risk—whispered allegations that Islamic Kindergarten Madrassas train students for guerilla war found support when many of their graduates went on to real battlegrounds in Afghanistan and Iraq; and, yes, some even volunteered to fight alongside the PLO and other terrorist organizations right here. "Repatriated Soldiers from Palestine," an organization in Bangladesh, cares for "soldiers" wounded in the fighting here, then recruits a fresh batch of terrorists to take their place. You might think these revelations would harm their agenda—place them in a bad light among the people. If anything, it improves their standing in the eyes of, to my chagrin, many Bangladeshi citizens.

That popularity has taken them to more affluent and influential neighborhoods, away from the lower-middle class and poverty-stricken areas that were once their exclusive location. Children of prominent Bangladeshis now attend the Madrassas, where they learn Bangla (our vernacular), Arabic, Urdu, English, and in some places, French, as well as other advertised subjects. But they also learn the theory and practice of guerilla warfare. Old hates are taught as faith, and they learn to revere Bin Laden, Arafat, Saddam, and the shahids. Innocent Moslem children are lured towards ‘Jihad,’ are taught to hate Christians and Jews, and are encouraged to kill them and destroy their property as a religious duty.

Glimpse the future leaders and elites of Bangladesh!

It so distressed me to think of them taking positions of influence with the extremist attitudes, and hatred brainwashed into them by the Madrassas. These institutions surely are breeding thousands of Bin Ladens and Arafats for our children’s futures.

Naturally, such education takes hold only because it finds support in other social institutions. I am sorry to confess that most mosques in Bangladesh and elsewhere have turned Friday Prayer into carefully orchestrated hate-fests. People are exhorted to hate Christians, and Jews especially. Fearing neither contradiction nor censure, Mullahs openly quote Hadit (verses from The Prophet) that any Muslim who befriends or has any relations with Jews or Christians will be cursed by Almighty

G-d and sent to hell.

I have listened to this filth since childhood. When I grew, I turned my eyes to the Bible and many other books, had Christian and Jewish friends, and now am convinced that what the Mullahs taught was not merely false but also evil. That is clear not only to me, but to many others in my country, as well.

But, the forces of hate have a strong ally in the Moslem media and have developed their own outlets, as well. Islamic extremists own many newspaper and television channels and have established organizations to channel the funds that finance their hostile activities. In a small country like Bangladesh, we have three private television channels. Islamic extremists have acquired substantial programming chunks in two of them, in which they reinforce the Mullahs’ themes of terror and hate. Even as we sit here today, the Ministry of Information has a pending application for a new television channel: ‘Voice of Islam’. Fanatics—both local and international—are funding this multi-million dollar project, and already own four top Bangladesh dailies and a number of periodicals. Al-Jazera is their model. It promotes a specific agenda, yet touts itself as an independent news network. The international media seem to buy this nonsense, too.

After each tragic incident in Israel, I review the international press only to be surprised again and again at their pretensions of neutrality! First, how can anyone be neutral about genocide? And even were it possible, neutrality to them seems nothing more than uncritical acceptance of the biased view of the Arab media. Do they ever realize that every time they excuse murder, every time they parrot the terrorists’ line, every time they provide a forum for anti-Israeli invective, they do harm not only to Israel, but to the entire Moslem world, giving aid to those who would keep us in medieval ignorance.

And that really brings us back to my major point. People all over the world love to talk about peace. They never tire of saying that we all want peace, especially in the Middle East. People love it so much that they’re willing to make common cause with all sorts of scurrilous characters while mouthing those words. Did you ever notice them? Leftists and fascists; environmentalists and skinheads; anti-globalists and international communists; terrorists and peaceniks. Were it not tragic, it would be a great comedy.

Well, the media talks about peace, but they have done nothing to promote that Culture of Peace through their biased coverage of events in this part of the world. Despite the rampant allegations of Jewish influence in the media, media coverage gives aid and comfort to those who wish to see the Jewish state in ruins. The media help keep my people in a Culture of Death, teaching them through their coverage that they are right. And we all believe that right will triumph so long as we adhere to it zealously.

Israel might be the only democracy in the Middle East with a vibrant media. But the Israeli media does not reach beyond Israel and some communities in the West. Its information and opinion certainly does not have a Moslem audience, and even if Arutz Sheva or some other channel were beamed to Moslems, it would be dismissed as lies and propaganda. All we hear is what the major Moslem outlets want us to hear. I know you can follow the Arab press from Israel. Have you noticed much in the way of true debate? Have you read many defenses of Israel or even heartfelt condemnations of anti-Israeli terrorism? Imagine if the only voice you heard was Yossi Beilin’s—or Effi Eitam’s. Well, that is what life is like for most of the world’s Moslems.

For there to be any chance of lasting peace, THAT MUST CHANGE. How can we have peace when most Moslems still believe that Israel was behind the September 11

th attacks on the United States? How can we have peace when Moslems see that their own leaders refuse even to recognize Israel’s right to exist? How can we have peace when we neither hear nor read anything to the contrary?

We can’t.

Quite simply, there will be no meaningful Moslem presence in any peace dialogue without an effective media in the Moslem world to combat the false images that today pass as news among us and build that Culture of Peace.

Islam does not endorse terrorism, the killing of innocents, or even destruction of property in its name. Under normal conditions, Muslims would not do so either. And yet so few Muslims object to what is being done in the name of their religion. Opportunists use an Islamic mask to justify their misdeeds, and our media support them and thereby our own impoverishment, ignorance, and oppression.

Only a strong countervailing media presence will make for positive change, as our initial efforts in Bangladesh suggest. Our weekly tabloid, Weekly blitz, is about the only place in the Moslem world where people can read positive things about Israel. Certainly, our initial steps are tentative ones, but they are yielding the early fruits of success. In Bangladesh, amidst the monolithic anti-Israeli rant, a few voices are coming forward questioning the wisdom of that position. Ever so quietly, a few brave souls are questioning what was previously unquestioned doctrine.

But our efforts are feeble and tentative compared to the great noise heard day after day, hour after hour from the other media giants. Moslems need to hear more voices of dissent, of reason, of decency. And a democracy like Bangladesh just might offer us a beachhead to join this epic battle.

Bangladeshis need to hear more voices at Weekly Blitz. And while Blitz enjoys some success among our English-speaking elites, it leaves the mass of Bangladeshis untouched. Other media in the vernacular, Bangla, will help bring the truth to millions. New television networks would also counter the disinformation fed our people. The media could play an effective and dynamic role in spreading the cultural heritage of the Jewish community, their religious festivals and rituals in Muslim countries, much as it did with Christianity in Bangladesh.

While I am no expert on cost, it seems to me that a newspaper would be a better investment than a missile, and a television network more effective than a few fighter jets.

Dear Brothers and sisters, there is an old saying in English. "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The mosques, Madrassas, and Moslem media have had absolute power over our hearts and minds for too long. Rather than ascribe evil intent—which there is among some; or ignorance—which also exists; let us pierce the new, yet also old, iron curtain of ignorance and hate with the greatest power on earth: KNOWLEDGE, INFORMATION, AND THE FULL AND OPEN EXCHANGE OF IDEAS.

May G-d bless the people of Israel, the Jewish people throughout the world, and the whole of mankind. May we through our efforts, be worthy of those blessings, and may there be an ever-lasting peace in this part of the world, and elsewhere. May

G-d give us the strength to be victorious over hate and ignorance.