I attended an unusual briefing in Congressman Mark Kirk's office this afternoon. My sister-in-law and I were seated around a U-shaped table with a passel of high school students. We were given a briefing about a human rights case (complete with a map so that'd we have some sense of the region in which the case originated), and the background to this man's case. We were told this man might be the only person in the world to describe himself as a "Muslim Zionist" -- a position that garnered him the unenviable attention of the Bangladeshi authorities, and that caused his case to come to the attention of Congressman Kirk, and the man's local champion, Dr. Richard Benkin.
Then we met the man himself: Shoaib Choudhury , Muslim Zionist, modest hero, strode into the room wearing an almond-colored suit and dark glasses, looking for all the world like a man energized by a mission. You can read more about him here, but suffice it to say that when he used his paper, the Weekly Blitz, to advocate the establishment of formal relations between Bangladesh and Israel, and followed that with an attempt to travel to Israel, he travelled down a perilous road whose end he has not yet reached.
Choudhury was sprung from his prison thanks to pressure that originated principally with Dr. Benkin and Rep. Kirk. He still faces a capital trial on charges of treason, sedition and blasphemy. He has been offered political asylum, but he doesn't want it. "These people who call for change from their comfortable homes in the West," he said, are not taken seriously. He has endured beatings and bomb threats to make his point: that Israel was one of the first countries to recognize Bangladesh upon its establishment in 1971, and is a country that has offered hospitality and expertise to Bangladeshi professionals trained in Israel. In short, what has Israel ever done to Bangladesh? And what promise has gone unrealized through this one-way snub?
(There is some murmuring on the Wikipedia entry's talk page about whether there is another side of Choudhury's story, with anonymous posts darkly insinuating Zionist infiltration of some kind.)
Choudhury spent an hour telling the dozen or so high school students about the threat that silence posed to their generation -- silence that would only embolden radical Islamists.
"Islam is not a bad religion," Choudhury said, "but it is now in the hands of criminals and terrorists." And silence, he said -- silence from the West -- is what they want. Silence about the 9,000 kindergarten Madrassas in Bangladesh that include paramilitary training in their curriculum. About the 64,000 Koranic madrassas, heavily funded by Saudi Arabia, that are not accountable to authorities, where hatred for Israel, Jews and Christians is built into the school day; about the way the most beautiful young women are selected, educated, trained, given every advantage -- then sent to the West, as terrorists, to await their orders to act.
Choudhury spoke quickly and with conviction about what we in the West can do: speak. Listen. Establish relationships. And pressure our government to press Muslim nations and foundations to cease funding the Koranic Madrassas that are turning out terrorists who, within five years, will make Ahmedinejad look positively quaint.
And he spoke about his ordeal: 17 months in prison, vicious beatings, two bombings of his newspaper's offices, and an uncertain future. He did so plainly, with conviction but no rancor, and with a smile that, like the rest of him, defies the odds.
When asked about Iraq, Choudhury was characteristically frank: "Whatever the reasons that your country is there," he said, "must be made plainly known. Even our information from the West is corrupted. Do more to let people in the Muslim world know why you are there. And do not retreat. Do not say, 'We must get out immediately,' or 'We must get out in six months.' Retreat to our enemies means surrender."
Dr. Benkin described his trip to Bangladesh to work for Choudhury's freedom and to work gently toward deconstructing the mythologized evil of Israel and Jews. He met with a representative from the Bangladesh Khalafat Andolan (BKA), a prominent Bangladeshi Islamist political party. After letting the BKA representative describe his reasons for hatred of Jews and Israel, Dr. Benkin said, "Now permit me to tell you why we Jews love Islam," and proceeded to display his ecumenical prowess in a monologue that resulted in incremental change: the BKA reversed its position endorsing the ban on travel to Israel.
Mark Kirk, for his part, encouraged the high school students in attendance -- all but one of whom had not known where Bangladesh is, or what a Madrassa is -- to find, adopt and pursue human rights causes of their own. Kirk said it was a way for the American championing of universal human rights and respect for all peoples to become known.
"You will learn so much about everything," Kirk said. "About how countries work, about what the prisons are, who the wardens are, how to communicate with them, how to work for the freedom of an individual. It's extremely hard work, but it's not rocket science: call Amnesty International, call Human Rights watch, get a list, and make a stink."
Kirk explained that he went to Bangladesh on Choudhury's behalf. Kirk was greeted and treated with great decorum, but he cut to the chase.
"They asked me if I would be the Republican co-chair of the Bangladeshi Caucus in Congress. I said, 'Release Choudhury, and we'll make things happen.'" Kirk is the Republican co-chair of the Bangladeshi Caucus; Bangladesh currently gets $64 million a year in aid from the U.S.
I asked Choudhury about his trial -- what his prospects were, and what we in the West could do both for him and for the cause of releasing the Muslim world from the grip of Islamist terror.
"It's very simple," he said, with a broad smile. "Tell one more person. Let one more person know. You know, it's harder for them now, thanks to Your Excellency" -- this is how Choudhoury referred to Rep. Kirk -- "because if not for him, I would be under the ground now in a Bangladeshi cemetery."
Read more by and about this remarkable man, and help make sure that men and women of conscience can speak their minds on behalf of peace.
How can help in this seemingly hopeless cause?
By telling one more person.