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Recognize the true Bangabandhu among them
Why President Obama's 'major Islamic forum' should be Bangladesh

Seth Mandel
THE JEWISH STATE
January 30, 2009

On Aug. 1, 2007, President Barack Obama (then a candidate and senator) told a Washington, D.C. audience that in his first 100 days as president, he would take a bold step toward reforming our communication with the Muslim world. He would, he said, "travel to a major Islamic forum and deliver an address to redefine our struggle."

Since then, various news outlets, columnists, talking heads, and bloggers speculated on which Muslim country that would be, and offered their own suggestions. (Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Iraq, and Afghanistan have been common suggestions.)

So, now that Obama is our president, let me offer my counsel: the address should be given in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Bangladesh's recent political turmoil is headspinning. In late 2006/early 2007, the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by Khaleda Zia, was busy rigging the elections scheduled for January 2007. The Bangladeshi army responded by staging an unannounced coup, running a caretaker government, and expelling both Zia and the opposition Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina Wajed. But as Americans began to celebrate the New Year of 2009, Bangladeshis were counting the votes in an election so much cleaner than usual that the Economist opened its post-election article thus: "It went better than anyone dared hope."

The election was a landslide in favor of Awami League. And if the symbolism of any election could compete with Obama's, it was this one. Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh's independence leader, founding father, and first president.

In addition, BNP has Islamist political allies, and the army's order-and-command tunnel vision prevented it from crossing the country's Islamists during its own caretaker administration. Though Awami has run corrupt governments itself in the past, its massive victory was an almost shocking step away from Islamist control. Being that 70 percent of Bangladesh's registered voters participated in the election, that step may have been a public referendum on radical Islam as well -- though it's too soon to know for sure.

In all, the Bangladeshi election was a vivid demonstration of exactly what the West hopes Muslim countries will do: hold free and fair elections, and move toward a moderate expression of Islam's tenets.

That is one reason Obama should speak in Bangladesh. There is much work to be done still in Bangladesh, and Obama can simultaneously commend its progress while recognizing its challenges.

But there is another reason. In his Inaugural address, Obama said that, "our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed." Later, he said: "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." And he spoke of ushering in a "new era of responsibility".

In that, Obama should lead as a president should: by example. Shortly before the 2006 midterm congressional elections, a significant number of U.S. representatives and senators, from both parties, were approached by Dr. Richard Benkin, an Illinois native and rights activist who played an essential role in the survival of Bangladesh's jewel: Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. Choudhury was accused of and charged with several treasonous crimes for advocating Muslim partnership with Israel, and for boldly stating Zionism's inherent truth and value. He was jailed, tortured, and put on trial for his life.

Luckily for Choudhury, every single one of the senators and representatives Benkin beseeched responded positively to his appeal -- except for then-Sen. Barack Obama. The previous year, Benkin met with Obama's staff and that of Illinois Republican Rep. Mark Kirk. Kirk took a special interest in Choudhury's case, and met with Benkin and the Bangladeshi ambassador to secure Choudhury's release (they were successful, but the charges were never dropped and the harassment and beatings never stopped).

Obama never called Benkin back. Benkin later met with Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and Obama together. Durbin sent a formal letter of protest to Bangladesh. Obama stopped taking or returning Benkin's calls. Six months later, Benkin spoke with Obama again, and asked for his support in any of several ways. Obama hesitated, then said, "Well, we're sure happy for all the work you are doing."

Choudhury's case has been ongoing since his arrest in 2003. The Bangladeshi authorities have promised to drop the charges and set him free, but have never done so. The cards are stacked against him in his trial, and he is always in danger (he was kidnapped, beaten, and released, as we reported, just last year).

This would be a grand opportunity to demonstrate the redemptive power of "personal responsibility." Obama should speak in Dhaka, Bangladesh -- the site of Choudhury's brutal treatment -- and say: "Sheikh Hasina, your father established a free Bangladesh founded on the principles of secular social democracy. Shoaib Choudhury is a man your father would consider, as he was, a Bangabandhu: a friend of Bengal. He would be proud of Shoaib Choudhury, and he would demand his freedom -- as I should have, and as you must today."

Seth Mandel is the managing editor of The Jewish State.