Listening to the smiling, good-natured journalist from Bangladesh
declare himself to be a “proud Muslim Zionist” the other day, one would
never know that his views favoring Mideast peace could cost him his
life in a court of law.
The journalist, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, was imprisoned for 17
months, beaten and saw his newspaper offices bombed after he sought to
participate in a writers’ conference in Israel in 2003. His trial on
charges of sedition, treason and blasphemy is due to resume soon in
Bangladesh and, if convicted, he could be sentenced to death.
In the U.S. for a week, Choudhury told a group of American Jewish
Committee leaders at a luncheon here in his honor Aug. 2 that Islamic
fundamentalists, funded by Saudi organizations, are “capturing the
media, the economy and politics, silently” in Bangladesh.
He said that 70 percent of the 64,000 madrassas (Islamic schools) in
the country are fundamentalist, and that while most people in
Bangladesh are moderate, “the people who control us are extremely
radical” and “corruption is everywhere.”
It is such blunt criticism of radical Islam, and support for Israel
that spelled trouble for Choudhury, 42, editor of the Weekly Blitz, a
newspaper published in English and widely read in Bangladesh.
He was arrested in November 2003 for attempting to visit Israel, an
illegal act since Bangladesh forbids citizens from traveling to
countries with which it has no diplomatic relations. Though the fine
for such a violation usually is $8, Choudhury, who had written articles
critical of al Qaeda and of those who express anti-Israel and
anti-Jewish views, was arrested and, he says, placed in solitary
confinement for 17 months, where he was tortured, accused of being a
His plight came to the attention of some in the West, including Richard
Benkin, a member of the Islam-Israel Fellowship, as is Choudhury, who
now calls Benkin “my brother.” Benkin has become Choudhury’s biggest
advocate, making the case known to government leaders and the media in
In 2005, PEN USA, a writers group, gave its freedom award to Choudhury,
and in 2006, the American Jewish Committee gave him its Moral Courage
Award, though he was not allowed to come to the U.S. to receive it.
Why has Choudhury been granted permission to visit America now? He
believes the government wanted to avoid a negative image, and he said
that until he boarded the plane last week he did not believe he would
actually be allowed to leave Bangladesh. He said he had packed two
suitcases, one for the trip and one for a possible return to prison.
The question asked most of him, Choudhury said, is why he plans to
return to Bangladesh. His response: “If I don’t go back, radicals will
say I left for political asylum, that I was a Western agent. I want to
be a Bangladeshi. I am a proud Bangladeshi. Should we just retreat? No,
we have to fight back ... The people are fearful but we have to give
them confidence to speak up. We must say no to jihad, no to the culture
of hate, no to Holocaust denial.”
He thanked the AJC and his other supporters for calling attention to
his plight, noting in an interview following the luncheon that “the
more the media says, the better it is for me.”
Choudhury attributed his sense of fairness to his upbringing, saying his parents taught him to be moderate and tolerant.
“We get misinformation about Jews and Israel everywhere in Bangladesh,”
he said, adding that his newspaper publishes “all the good articles
about Israel and Judaism.”
David Harris, executive director of the AJC, told the audience that
Choudhury “has paid a very heavy price for his decency” and is
“prepared to go right back into the vortex” of legal and political
strife. “We can only bow our heads and wish him success,” Harris said,
presenting him with a shofar as a symbol of “truth and courage.”
Irwin Cotler, a former justice minister in the Canadian government and
Jewish activist who is Choudhury’s attorney, spoke briefly and said
that in seeking to “promote interfaith relations and warning against
radical Islam,” Choudhury should have been “given a medal” instead of
being put on trial. “We are in the presence of a real hero in an age of
too few heroes,” said Cotler.
Choudhury’s case is gaining attention in the U.S., where Congress
passed a resolution this year, without opposition, sponsored by Rep.
Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Westchester), calling on the
government of Bangladesh to drop all charges against Choudhury, return
his confiscated possessions, stop harassing him and “hold accountable
those responsible for attacks” against him.
In the meantime, Choudhury’s trial is scheduled to resume this month.