October 1, 2006
Fighting Injustice & Jihad in Bangladesh, Again!
Filed under: Front Page
By Jerry Gordon with Dr. Richard Benkin
Comment by Jerry Gordon
The title of this article is a reprieve for Israpundit. Dr. Benkin whom I interviewed informed me that
former Israpundit editor Joseph Norland
had published one of the early articles about courageous Bengali journalist and
human rights advocate Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury.
As Dr. Benkin and I were commiserating about the coinicidence of the imminent trial of Mr. Choudhury we
mutually expressed concern about apprising Congressional representatives and
Administration diplomatic and human rights NGOs about interceding on behalf of
We also were concerned about the growing menace of a global
Jihad that has vaulted the Sunni Shia heartlands of
the Middle East that threaten nominal Muslim regimes in South Asia, the
Buddhist country of Thailand and the major Muslim archipelago of Indonesia and
adjacent areas in the Phillipines. The Jihad is
global and the threat against western and Buddhist values palpable. Saving Mr. Chourhury and others like him in Bangladesh and elsewhere is an
important step in the war against radical Islam on the march, again!
Thank you Dr. Benkin for taking the time to be interviewed by Israpundit about courageous Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury -
a Muslim journalist in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh (Bengladesh)
who goes on trial on disputed charges before an Islamist judge in a courtroom
in Dhaka , the capitol on October 12th.
is Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, how did he become so persecuted for his views
and what is his current status in Bangladesh?
Benkin:Salah Uddin Shoaib
Choudhury (Shoaib) is the editor and publisher of Weekly Blitz of Dhaka,
Bangladesh. Like many of us, Shoaib went through his own spiritual journey and
at one time even worked for a (Muslim) fundamentalist paper. But the lessons he
learned from both his parents, as well as his own experiences, he recognized
that there was far more than the uniform perspective and censored information
offered by the Bangladesh
media and government.
He started Weekly Blitz in 2003 and began writing
about that. He wrote about the growing power of the radicals in Bangladesh and
the threat they posed to the country. He urged Bangladesh
to recognize Israel,
and he advocated real interfaith dialogue based on mutual respect and religious
equality. And despite opposition, he continued to do so. This angered not only
radicals but also those in the media and government who found Shoaib an
inconvenience. In 2003, they engineered his arrest and torture at first merely
leaking that he was engaged in “espionage for Israel
against the interests of Bangladesh.”
They later alleged in court documents that I was his Mossad contact.
Although we won Shoaib’s release
in 2005, the government never dropped the charges, which they have admitted on
numerous occasions are false. Their refusal to do so, by the way, is in direct
contradiction to several promises they gave not only to Shoaib and me, but to US Congressman
Mark Kirk (R-IL) and others.
On September 18, 2006, an openly Islamist judge ordered that
Shoaib would have to stand trial for sedition, a capital offense, beginning
October 12. It is also necessary for Shoaib to re-apply for bail on a regular
basis, and this same judge can revoke it at any time without providing a reason
and send Shoaib back to prison and continued mistreatment.
Mr. Choudhury was apprehended by Bangladeshi authorities in
2003 before he could board a plane that would ultimately take him to a meeting
in Tel Aviv Israel?
Could you explain what the circumstances were and what happened to him?
On November 29, 2003, Shoaib was to leave Bangladesh for
an historic address to the Hebrew Writers Association in Tel Aviv; but as he
was about to board the plane, police grabbed him. They ransacked his bags, took
his passport and all his money and then secreted him to a dark and isolated
cell in the Dhaka Central Jail. They kept him there with no light or contact
for hours, finally bringing him a crust of bread and water from the toilet. And
though it sickened him, he was so hungry and dehydrated that he ate. Expecting
the worst from the radicals who engineered his arrest and knowing that there
were few in Bangladesh
with the power or will to oppose them, Choudhury managed to get a message to
his brother Sohail just before being moved. He asked
him to call me and ask that I save him. We found out later, by the way, that Shoaib’s own brother-in-law had been spying on him for the
radicals which enabled them to surprise Shoaib at the airport.
how and why did you a professing Jew and research consultant living in a Chicago suburb get
involved in fighting to save Mr. Choudhury? What means of you used to
Benkin: Many people ask me how I came to
know Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. It happened inauspiciously, as most things
do, in 2003, on a morning like many others. I was at my computer, reading,
writing, blogging for Israel when I noticed an email from
an unknown source. Of course, my first impulse was to delete it as spam, but
for some reason, I didn’t. I opened it to read a plea from a Bangladeshi
journalist bemoaning the highly biased and tightly controlled news about Israel and the
Jewish people in his country. “It was wrong,” he said, and he was trying to
change that. So, he wrote to a few people whose articles had impressed him
asking for their help.
I thought. That seemed an odd place. Like most Americans, I knew very little
about Bangladesh—but I did know about antisemitism
and the rise of Muslim extremism in the non-Arab Muslim world, something I knew
we would be hearing about more and more. And our Jewish tradition has a
response to cries for help—something which I take very seriously. It is the
same answer Abraham gave to God when he was called. The word is hineini. It means “here I am,” but more
correctly, “here I am for you,” and I will do all I can to be there for you.
That is, our Jewish tradition informs us that there is no other moral way to
respond to Shoaib’s cry for help. And so I answered hineini.
But I can tell you that when you hear a plea like that, you
cannot remain indifferent. Here was a man—a Muslim—putting his career, his
home, his very life in real danger. And for what?
Because he insisted on doing what’s right—right for his people, yes. But this
man living in a place that’s relatively obscure to most of us—took a stand for
us: for us as Jews, for Israel,
and the US.
He’s one of many Muslims worldwide fighting to take back the soul and the face
of their religion; Muslims who offer real prospects for peace, who say “No!” to
hate; “No!” to Holocaust-denial; “No! to jihad; “No!”
to the demonization of Israel,
the United States,
and the Jews. How important is that? Later, when Shoaib was in prison, I would
use this tagline in some of my articles. “If the Choudhurys
were in Europe during the Holocaust, they
would have refused to drive the trains!” When people stand up for what’s right,
it is that important.
So, of course I answered the letter. We corresponded daily;
sharing our hopes and dreams, our goals, and our concerns. To my delight, this
man really was serious about fighting extremists and hate—not with a gun or
bomb, but with a weapon much more powerful than that: with the truth; by giving
his people information—the greatest fear of our enemies.
did you first make contact with Mr. Choudhury and how often do you speak with
him and what is his spirit and the conditions of his family like under these
Benkin: Throughout 2003, we corresponded
several times daily (except for Friday and Saturday) by email. We wrote
together; he asked me to write the speech he was to deliver in Israel; and we
got to know one another personally through that correspondence. We did not
speak directly until one day after we secured an order to provide the medical
care he needed and which the prison authorities were denying. [And I am not
sure if this is something we can print or risk his safety.] At one point, he
lay in his hospital bed with his brother Sohail by
his side, when the guards left the room. Quickly, Sohail
called me then gave the phone to Shoaib. We spoke briefly but both were touched
deeply by the chance to hear each other’s voices and know we are brothers. I
did not speak to Shoaib again until the day he was released. My phone rang and
I heard a voice on the other end say,
“Hello my brother, I am free!”
Shoaib is a remarkable individual. Despite continued
pressure not to do so, he is writing and publishing in Dhaka.
He refuses to abandon his attorney and spiritual brother, S N Goswami, Secretary General of the Bangladesh Minority
Lawyers Association. The government is pressuring Shoaib to do so in order that
they and their colleagues can extract legal fees and bribes from Shoaib during
a process that is sure to last for years unless we can change that. His wife,
Happy, stands by him and is as strong as he is. His two young children are
afraid for their father, but incredibly proud of him and the courageous model
he is! Shoaib has told me time and again that if he ever were to stop doing
those things that anger the radicals, then it would be as if they took his
life. He is determined to stand for justice.
Congressional representatives and Administration officials have aided you in
trying to save Mr. Choudhury and what have they done?
Benkin: Several members of Congress, as
well as my two Senators from Illinois
have been made aware of the situation. Some have not responded at all; most
have acknowledged the importance of the case. Reps. Joseph Crowley (D-NY) and
Peter King (R-NY) signed a letter along with Mark Kirk (R-IL) warning of
“intense international scrutiny” if the Bangladeshis try Shoaib for sedition.
But no one in Congress (with all due respect) can even be
mentioned in the same breath as Congressman Mark Kirk. Truly, he has made this
his own struggle and never for a moment forgot Shoaib or put this effort on the
back burner. I even recall seeing him in this year’s July Fourth parade. When
he saw me he turned, waved, and called “Richard!” I returned the greeting, and
he said in a clear reference to this case, “We still have lots of work to do!”
He speaks about this case; he and his aid, Jeffrey Phillips, have made numerous
protests to the Bangladesh
embassy and government. And they made sure that there was language in the bill
appropriation that referred to US
concern about this matter. He always wants to know how he can help, and when
Shoaib wanted to come to the United States
in May to receive an award, Mark Kirk arranged for the embassy in Dhaka to approve a visa within a day.
On April 8, 2005, Congressman Kirk called Bangladeshi
Ambassador Shamsher Chowdhury
to his office for a meeting with my participation as well. In that meeting, he
made it clear that Shoaib’s persecution and
oppression were a concern to the United States and without
threatening or impinging on Bangladeshi sovereignty made it clear that we would
not remain silent or inactive. He even allowed me to call Chowdhury
on several “misstatements” during the meeting. Three weeks later, Shoaib was
free, and I know he would still be in jail—or worse—were it not for Congressman
Mark Kirk. After I informed Congressman Kirk of this latest persecution, he
with Jeffrey’s help, is in the process of taking very strong action.
among American Jewish organizations has been of assistance in alleviating the
dire plight of Mr. Chourdhury?
Benkin: As is Mark Kirk to the US Congress,
so is the American Jewish Committee to Jewish (or other) organizations. In
particular, the AJC’s terrorism expert, Yehudit Barsky has acted and
continues to act in the spirit of hineini and of
“Never Again!” Her efforts are relentless, and she is a true hero. Additionally,
the AJC’s Executive Director, David Harris, also has
taken a personal interest in this case, has made his concerns public, and has
authorized the AJC under Yehudit’s direction to do
whatever it can to work for justice in this matter and to secure Shoaib’s safety. The AJC also gave Shoaib its “Moral
Courage Award” (along with Ayaan Hisi
Ali) in May, 2006.
you reached out to the expatriate Bangladeshi community in North
America regarding the plight of Mr. Choudhury and what has been their
reaction and assistance, if any?
Benkin: Yes, I have, and they have reached
out to me. There was very little help in the struggle to free Shoaib, but since
the latest episode of injustice, quite a few Bangladeshis in the US and Canada have
offered their support. One expatriate Bangladeshi journalist in Canada (who
fled sedition charges and death threats) published my press release about
Shoaib in his online paper.
Bangladesh-formerly East Pakistan- is one of
the poorest countries in the
world-, about the size of the State of Iowa with a
population of over 147 million and per capita GDP of less than $2,100 - that
lies on the Bay of Bengal, east of the Republic of India and to the
west of the military dictatorship of Myanmar,
Could you explain for our Israpundit readers some of
the tragic history concerning the birth of Bangladesh in 1970 and 1971 and why
India, ironically came to the aid of this Muslim country that gained its
freedom from its West Pakistan overlords who with the aid of local Islamists
perpetrated the horrific slaughter that occasioned the birth of an
Benkin: Although Bangladesh is a small
country in area and subject to periodic natural disasters, it is a country with
some significant resources (i.e., natural gas), its
poverty is due more to endemic corruption and the demonization of enemies both
internal and external, real and imagined. Blaming India
for whatever ills plague Bangladesh
has become an almost knee-jerk reaction in that country—this despite the fact,
as you mentioned, that Bangladesh
likely would not have come into existence without Indian intervention; and the
Bangladeshi people would have suffered even greater atrocities than Pakistan’s
butchering of over a million Bangladeshi civilians, which prompted Indian
India-bashing is an extension of the Muslim-Hindu animosity
that elements inside Bangladesh
have chosen to intensify rather than ameliorate. India,
too, is an easy target like the United
States, because of its success. To take one
example, Bangladesh was
offered millions of dollars in annual revenue by India
if it would allow a pipeline to be built on its territory that would carry oil
from Southeast Asia to India.
Yet, despite the good that could be done with the income, the Bangladeshis have
refused the offer repeatedly preferring to continue demonizing India.
Alex Perry in Time Asia – now banned in
the country, Chris Blackburn in
FrontPage Magazine and the blog, the Fourth Rail have written
of the dangers of large scale al Qaeda-linked infiltration from terrorist
groups like Jama’atul Mujahideen
Bangladesh and the Jamaat-is-Islami– advocate of Sharia Muslim law now part of the ruling coalition in the
current government of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh turning this
nominal Muslim ostensibly secular country into a Taliban-like regime dominated
by radical Islamists. Could you explain how this came about, what foreign
groups are backing it and the recent spate of suicide bombing attacks and riots
and what the clear and present danger is to Bangladesh,
India and ultimately U.S. interests
in combating the war on terrorism in the south Asian region?
Benkin: The people of Bangladesh have
prided themselves on practicing a very tolerant form of Islam; religious
freedom is part of their values and tradition. Unfortunately, as you point out,
that tradition is under attack. We can trace the threat to several root causes,
but the most salient are two. The first is what several analysts have called
the “zero sum” politics in Bangladesh. There are two major
coalition parties: the center-right Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and the
center-left Awami League (AL). The traditional and
ongoing animosity between the two is so intense that compromise and cooperation
is almost impossible. That also means that both have not hesitated to make
pacts with radicals in order to gain support against the other: for the AL it has been
extremists on the left; for the BNP, it has been extremists on the right
including radical Islamist parties. As you point out, that has allowed al Qaeda
linked parties to become part of the ruling coalition (and one such judge is
the individual who has sole discretion to decide Shoaib’s
fate unless the government acts).
That seemingly personal animosity means that appeasing the
Islamists has been more acceptable than losing elections. On several occasions
Bangladeshi Home Minister and other government and BNP officials have responded
to my own and Congressman Kirk’s concerns about Shoaib that they realize there
is nothing to the case and it should be dropped, but they are “afraid how the
radicals will react.” They refuse to form a coalition without them and believe
that they need radical support to govern—and they will not risk it. Appeasement
is the root cause of radical strength in Bangladesh. Not only has it given
the Islamists a piece of the Bangladesh
government, police, and court system (all of which they openly want to replace
with their own variants); but it also has allowed the radicals to build an
Islamist infrastructure in the schools (madrassas) and mosques.
As I wrote previously, al Qaeda forces that fled their safe
havens in Afghanistan and later Pakistan made their way across
Islamist-controlled areas of Kashmir and the largely unpatrolled
India-China frontier (although they did have help from several minor Pakistani
officials according to Indian intelligence), and set up al Qaeda camps in
Nepal. I found that extremely interesting as Nepal is 89 percent Hindu with most
of the rest of the population Buddhist. Why Nepal?
One reason is that the Himalayan nation was experiencing
major social unrest at the time and could hardly control its borders. Another,
according to Indian intelligence is that they were aided by officials at the
Pakistani embassy in Katmandu.
But going beyond that, if one were to draw a line from the havens in Afghanistan to the camps in Nepal, then continue the line; it would bring
those forces to the world’s third largest Muslim nation: Bangladesh. Nepal and Bangladesh are almost contiguous at
that point (there is a tiny area of the China-India frontier). The borders are
porous, and there are two ways in which the Islamists can influence who will
Sources from inside the country tell me that they expect Islamists to cross the
border into Bangladesh
to “stuff the ballot box,” so to speak and vote for their brethren—if that have
not done so already. The other prospect is even more ominous.
In 2005, Islamists issued their declaration of war against Bangladesh by
setting off bombs throughout the country. Through official statements, they
said that the bombs were intended as a warning for the government to implement Sharia as the law of the land; they also threatened to kill
any politicians who stood in their way. A recent Indian documentary also told
of the same sort of war preparations in the provinces of Eastern India that
The Islamists have made no secret of their desire to see Bangladesh
become a “Taliban state,” and they have demonstrated that they will resort to
violence to obtain that goal. The groups have been amassing arms from somewhat
shadowy sources, but it is clear that they have been receiving assistance from
al Qaeda and various Pakistanis, including members of that nation’s security
services. The Saudis and Kuwaitis have heavily invested in the Islamist
infrastructure, in particular the madrassas and the mosques. Of late, as well, Bangladesh has
seen the the emergence of a new group calling itself
Hezbollah and claiming ties to the Arab terror group.
in your opinion can we in the West and especially the
Jewish communities in North America do to support efforts to forestall Mr. Choudhury’s upcoming trial before a noted Islamist Judge in
Dhaka, the capitol on October 12
And if convicted, how can we free both he and his family?
Benkin: The best way to prevent our
neighbors from being dragged away in the night is to throw the light of day on
evil. One way to help is to let people know about this: visit our web site (http://www.InterfaithStrength.com) to learn
more; letters to the editor; synagogue newsletters and speaking opportunities
(I will go anywhere to speak about this); blogs and online journals—if you can
need me to send something for publication, no problem, I will.
The other thing to know is that the Bangladeshis are scared
to death of a harsh US
action that will hurt their trade here. Write your Congressional
Representatives and Senators, be outraged and demand action. If you have any
contacts whatsoever, use them. They can contact their colleague, Mark Kirk,
about coordinating efforts, signing protest letters, perhaps even holding up
their appropriations. Expressed outrage by the US Congress or individual
members is extremely effective, too.
Canadians can do the same. At one point, Shoaib received a
letter of support from the Canadian High Commissioner. Please, notify your
officials as similar efforts from Canada
as well would carry a great deal of weight, especially given the large
community of expatriate Bangladeshis in Canada.
Thank you, Dr. Benkin for this most informative interview. Kol hakavod (
all honors) to you and to Mr. Chourdhury in his
valued stand against Islamist hate in Bangladesh and the global Jihad.