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The making of a freedom fighter
How Shoaib Choudhury became Bangladesh's pro-democracy Muslim Zionist

Seth Mandel
THE JEWISH STATE
December 5, 2008

For most of his allies and advocates, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury's story began on Nov. 29, 2003.

That was the day that Choudhury, preparing to board a plane from his native Bangladesh to Tel-Aviv to address a writer's conference, was arrested, beaten, starved, and tortured by the Bangladeshi authorities, who didn't take kindly to Choudhury's brand of peaceful Islam and support for Israel and the Zionist movement.

Choudhury is currently on trial for his life, though the intervention of his friend, Illinois native Dr. Richard Benkin, as well as Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), helped put a stop to the yearlong episode of imprisonment and torture, and in all likelihood kept Choudhury alive.

But Choudhury's life in Bangladesh, before he became a symbol for the struggle against Islamism from within the Muslim world, shaped his views on religion and politics, giving him a unique worldview that led to his status as a hero to the West and a nemesis to his neighbors.

Choudhury was born Jan. 12, 1965 in Sylhet District, in eastern Bangladesh near the Indian border. His father, Ghulam Ather Choudhury, worked for the American Life Insurance Company in Bangladesh (ALICO) until Bangladesh gained its independence in 1971, when he went into business. His mother, Sharifa Choudhury, was a housewife. Both his parents are deceased, his mother having died during Shoaib's imprisonment.

Choudhury has three siblings: brother Sohail Choudhury, and sisters Ahktari Choudhury and Seema Choudhury. The family had an upper middle class upbringing.

Choudhury attended St. Joseph's School in Dhaka until college, when he studied at the University of London. He later received his master's degree in journalism from London as well.

Choudhury's father was a voracious reader, and his curiosity set an example for his family.

"My father was always a person who taught us to be respectful to other religions," Choudhury told The Jewish State, "and not to believe in hate speeches in the mosques during Friday prayers, [which included] provocations saying 'Jews and Christians are your enemies, kill them and remain a good Muslim.' My father was a great reader and has built a moderate private library at our residence, which was always the initial source of information and inspiration for us."

Choudhury's mother was from a well-to-do family, which stressed art and music over politics. Choudhury combined the influence of his father and mother, and founded a film club in Dhaka.

In fact, religious tolerance was a pillar of the Choudhurys' household, despite the xenophobic tendencies of hard-line Islamist teachings.

"In our family, in particular, there was no anti-Semitic notion," Choudhury said. He added that his parents were vigilant in their rejection of the negative stereotypes on non-Muslims. "Friends of my father were Hindus, Buddists, Christians etc., [some were from India], who were quite frequently visiting our residence and they became almost part of our family."

As a student, Choudhury contributed articles and poems regularly to the local press, which paved the way for his entrance into the news industry. He began his professional journalism career in 1989 as a correspondent for TASS, the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union. That same year, Choudhury married his girlfriend of several months, Shahnaj, to whom he is still married, and with whom he has two children: daughter Priyanka, and son Hanzalah.

In 1996, TASS (which had by then been absorbed by the Information Telegraph Agency of Russia, Itar-Tass) closed its Bangladesh bureau. Choudhury then joined the newsroom at Dhaka's leading English language daily, The New Nation.

Choudhury's political opinions clashed with his next employers, the Daily Inquilab, an Islamist-run newspaper. Choudhury soon discovered that the Inquilab's owners were wrapped up in dishonest business practices, as well as provoking anti-West attitudes among its readers.

"My difference with them took final shape when, in 2002, they asked me to attend an anti-U.S. rally in Dhaka in favor of Saddam Hussein," Choudhury said. "I refused to attend the rally and, subsequently, the owners forced me to leave Daily Inquilab."

It was this last incident that convinced Choudhury to start his own newspaper to counter the "hate speech" that was flowing daily from the other Bangladeshi news outlets, who Choudhury called wolves in sheep's clothing. Choudhury was a partner in the Inquilab's television station, and began a protracted legal struggle to sell his share back to the other partners.

"I made [up] my mind to tell the truth to the people and present unmolested and untwisted information on Israel, Jews, and the Western world to the readers," Choudhury said.

Choudhury's work had an immediate effect, he noticed. Some of his friends began echoing Choudhury's perspective on issues of religion and politics. The Weekly Blitz, the paper Choudhury founded and runs to this day, has not changed its mission or its presentation since its founding, Choudhury is proud to point out.

And prior to Choudhury's arrest in 2003, he maintained good relationships with his colleagues.

"But, when they came to know about my arrest and subsequently my role against Islamist militancy and radical Islam, they try to maintain a kind of distance with me, although many keep personal-level relationships with me," he said.

But his arrest, and the common attempts on his life, have turned Choudhury into a pariah. His newspaper has struggled because local businesses are afraid to advertise in it, lest they be considered Zionist collaborators.

"Free expression in Bangladesh," Choudhury said, is therefore still very much a work in progress. His trial continues, and currently Choudhury's attorneys are in the process of cross-examining the plaintiff's witnesses. Canadian attorney Irwin Cotler is Choudhury's attorney abroad, and the Bangladesh Minority Lawyers Association is working with him in Dhaka.

Though day-to-day life has improved somewhat for Choudhury, he still retains scars from his earlier treatment -- such as the ill effects from an eye infection that went untreated while he was in solitary confinement -- and his life is never safe, considering the innumerable incidents of violence directed against him and his family since 2003. (In late March, as this paper reported, Choudhury was kidnapped by a particularly vicious Bangladeshi paramilitary group called the Rapid Action Battalion. While Choudhury was being abused and interrogated, Benkin contacted American officials, such as Kirk and N.J. Rep. Steve Rothman, who secured Choudhury's release.)

Choudhury's pro-democracy agenda was developed watching Bangladesh's struggle for independence and then democracy. Bangladesh began as a parliamentary democracy, but its founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in 1975. The struggle for the country's leadership played out with a series of military coups, and Bangladesh was then subject to military rule, its hopes of democracy dashed until 1990, when General Hossain Mohammad Ershad was ousted.

"From all these political ups and downs, I learned a lot about the risk of dictatorial rule, as well how politicians play with the people, taking the advantage of people's mandate in democracy," Choudhury said. He remains committed to the cause, and expects the same of the country's political leadership. For the nation to prosper, he said, instead of corrupt leaders, "we need dedicated and committed people."