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August 28, 2007
A Moslem Hero

Rael Jean Isaac

At a dinner sponsored by the Hudson Institute on August 2, I was privileged to hear Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, editor of the Dacca (Bangladesh) English language paper The Weekly Blitz (also available on-line) which he describes as “the only Zionist newspaper in the Moslem world.”

Forty-two years old, Choudhury is that rarest of breed, a faithful Moslem who, in the belly of the beast, publicly dissents from the stifling orthodoxy of hatred and extremism that characterizes the Islamic world. There are a handful of other outspoken Moslem-born men and women (mainly the latter), but while their heroism is unquestionable, most live in the West where, although their lives remain in danger, their right to speak is at least upheld by the government. Choudhury lives in Bangladesh where he is currently on trial on spurious charges of sedition, treason and blasphemy before an Islamist judge and faces the death penalty.

A few days after the Hudson Institute dinner Choudhury returned to Bangladesh for his next court date, set for August 17 (on his appearance in court postponed to September 23).

Most of the best known dissidents, moreover, alienated by the prevailing extremism, are no longer practicing Moslems. Choudhury finds grounds for his support of Jews and Israel in Islam. “In the Koran, God has assured the dignity of the Jewish people and tells us that the land of Israel is only for the Jews,” he notes.

Why did Choudhury choose to return rather than ask for a sure-to-be-granted asylum? The question, doubtless uppermost in the minds of his listeners, was raised in the question and answer period. Choudhury responded that this was just what the Islamic extremists wanted. “I will fight in my own country. If someone is willing to say no to jihad he must say it on the ground.” On practical grounds, too, Choudhury observed that if he were to take political asylum, others in Bangladesh would lose heart and he wants to show them you can stand up against the extremists at home. “I have to give them confidence by being there. If I abandon them, why should they join me?” Choudhury says that while he was alone at the time of his arrest, gradually he has been winning support, especially from Hindus and Bahais (around 17% of the population is not Moslem) but also increasingly among Moslems.

Choudhury’s crime? He had accepted an invitation to speak at a Hebrew Writers Association Conference in Israel in 2003. Arrested at the airport in Dacca before he could start on the trip, he was imprisoned and tortured for ten days as the authorities vainly tried to make him confess he was an Israeli spy. He spent the next 17 months in solitary confinement, his cell the size of a table, the diet miserably inadequate, denied medical treatment. To him, most painful of all, he was not allowed to go to his mother’s funeral.

Susan Rosenbluth, editor of The Jewish Voice and Opinion, who has been a staunch supporter since she learned of the case, offers an in-depth summary in her newspaper on which what follows draws heavily. Choudhury had aroused the wrath of the Islamists months before his arrest, by what he wrote in his newly established paper The Weekly Blitz. Choudhury condemned terrorism and the propagation of hatred by clerics, supported the free exchange of ideas and, most unforgivable of all, argued that the Bangladesh government should recognize Israel and establish diplomatic and trade relations with her. What’s more he included in his paper contributions by Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi, head of the Muslim Association in Rome, who like Choudhury calls himself a “Muslim Zionist” and finds the Jewish right to Israel anchored in the Koran, Yehudit Barsky of the American Jewish Committee; and Dr. Yehuda Stolov of the Jerusalem-based Interfaith Encounter Association.

On being arrested, Choudhury used his cell phone to call the man he had “met” on the internet several months earlier, Dr. Richard Benkin of Chicago, the man he now calls his brother. As Rosenbluth points out, Benkin turned out to be the friend everyone in trouble should have. He wrote articles, sought out politicians, the media, Jewish organizations, human rights organizations. The first big payoff came when Benkin’s Congressman Mark Kirk (R, Illinois) met with Bangladeshi ambassador Shamsher Chowdhury (no relation—the name is common in Bangladesh) who agreed to help secure Choudhury’s release and indeed he was set free early in 2005. (Dr. Benkin reached out repeatedly to his senator, Barack Obama, with no success whatever.)

However, despite the assurances of the ambassador, the case was not dropped. In September 2006 an Islamist judge, Mohammad Momin Ullah, ordered the case to proceed on the grounds that Mr. Choudhury had hurt the sentiments of Muslims by praising Christians and Jews and damaging the image of Bangladesh.

Benkin’s next major achievement came in the same month that Judge Ullah ordered the case to go on. Benkin mobilized a fellow former student at the University of Pennsylvania Glenn Oppenheim, who contacted The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens. Stephens (who introduced Choudhury at the Hudson Institute dinner) published an account of Choudhury’s plight in October 2006 and contacted the U.S. embassy in Dacca. The embassy made it clear it had no interest in the case, considering Choudhury, as Stephens puts it, “a nuisance.” Undaunted Stephens, along with Rep. Kirk and Dr. Benkin, turned to Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky who put the screws on the U.S. embassy in Dacca which finally agreed to have monitors at each step of the trial. “That way, at least, we knew he was still alive,” Stephens noted.

Other members of Congress, notably Nita Lowey (D-NY), Steven Rothman (D-NJ), Anthony Weiner (D-NY) and Tom Lantos (D-CA) became active. In Nov. 2006 Kirk and Lowey introduced House Resolution 2006 calling on the Bangladeshi government to drop all charges against Choudhury. In March 2007 it passed overwhelmingly, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) was the only one to vote against it. (It is fortunate that Paul’s chances to win the Republican Presidential nomination are nonexistent.)

Similar resolutions have been passed in the Australian Parliament and, more surprisingly, the appeasement-minded European Union.

Unsurprisingly, when it came to the so-called human rights organizations, Benkin struck a stone wall. Not a word could be elicited from Amnesty International (which Benkin and Choudhury term “Amnesia International”). The UN Human Rights Commission was similarly silent. Benkin says the UN might issue a statement “if, God forbid, the Bangladeshi government were to murder Shoaib.”

In the 17 months Choudhury was imprisoned, the Blitz closed. But on his release, he reopened the paper, which was as forthright and courageous as ever in warning of the threat of fundamentalist Islam. In July 2006 the Blitz’s offices were firebombed by Islamist extremists and he and his managing editor were attacked by a mob in his office in October of that same year. Knowing the identities of their attackers they sought to lodge a complaint with the police, but the officers refused to accept it. Instead they issued a warrant for Choudhury’s arrest! “They wanted to arrest me, assault me in custody, and kill me” says Choudhury who went into hiding until his next court appearance. Again, the connections Benkin had established proved invaluable, as under pressure from the Americans, the government provided police protection to his home and business.

An optimist, Choudhury puts the odds at his trial at 50-50. At the Hudson Institute he said that he was prepared for whatever happened, even a death sentence or life imprisonment. Yet clearly he was hopeful that whatever the trial verdict, Western pressure, spurred by friends in good places like The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, would eventually make the government back off. (Choudhury even went home with keys to the city for Teaneck and Englewood, New Jersey, also something to give pause to Bangladesh authorities.)

What can we learn from the heroism and tribulations of this extraordinary human being, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury? On one hand, his fate is a reminder of the depth of hatred toward Israel in the Moslem world, which Israel’s peace-processors ignore to their great peril. Bangladesh is not Arab, has no borders or conflict with Israel. Yet this country, with the third largest Moslem population in the world, makes it a crime for a citizen to go to Israel and is so hostile that it is prepared to give the death penalty to anyone who seeks to defy the ban and speaks up for friendship with the Jewish state.

There is a more encouraging lesson if the West would but take it. Choudhury is precisely the kind of Moslem reformer the administration says it is looking for. Arguing the administration should be doing much more on his behalf, Bret Stephens observes: “Mr. Choudhury has identified himself, at huge personal risk, as one such Moslem [reformer]” making “unimaginable sacrifices for the values of the U.S., Israel, and all who wish them well.” Stephens pleads for American policy to “keep faith with the people who have kept faith with us.” There can be no actions more discouraging to those who would read the Koran differently, who need support to stand up against the jihadists sweeping the Moslem world, than to see the American administration courting the Hamas-supporters of CAIR and the other extremist organizations it currently coddles.

Posted by Ruth at 02:12 AM | OUTPOST