Pro-Israel ally speaks out from Bangladesh
By Seth Mandel
The Jewish State
With the text of the Torah and a shofar from Jerusalem displayed prominently and proudly, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury's home would fit in nicely with many Jewish communities around the world.
But Choudhury doesn't live in any of those communities; he lives among his fellow Muslims in Bangladesh.
And those Jewish symbols aren't props or collector's items, they are the symbols of the way Choudhury lives his life -- pursuing justice and righteousness, persevering through weeks of torture, starvation, and solitary confinement, and years of persecution, with his life in the hands of those who wish him to be gone from this world.
Choudhury, the editor and publisher of the Bangladeshi newspaper he founded in 2003 called The Weekly Blitz, is a pro-Israel ally of the Jewish people in a place where that distinction has earned him charges of treason and sedition.
"Jews are excellent people, and I came to the conclusion that I had to do something for them," Choudhury told The Jewish State after a Hudson Institute-sponsored address at New York's Harvard Club Aug. 2. "And so I took up the initiative. You cannot be selfish, and be in the world only for your personal happiness. You have to give to your society."
Choudhury calls the Jewish community his brothers and sisters, but in Bangladesh that is unheard of. How Choudhury came to learn anything positive about the Jewish people or Israel is reminiscent of the wisdom of Solomon, in the first chapter of the Book of Proverbs: "Hear, my son, the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the teaching of thy mother; for they shall be a chaplet of grace unto thy head, and chains about thy neck."
Before his father died, Choudhury learned just that lesson, despite growing up hearing the sermons of the Bangladeshi Imams.
"My father told me: 'Don't believe them,'" he said. "'Look into the global reality -- the truth is something else.'"
Speaking truth to power
As the publisher of The Weekly Blitz, Choudhury has been writing pro-Israel stories for years -- bucking the stifling and xenophobic status quo of the radical Islamist establishment -- in an attempt to foster a free and open dialogue, and to build bridges between men and women of all different faiths throughout the world.
One of those bridges was nearly complete when it was torn down; on Nov. 29, 2003, as Choudhury was about to board an airplane bound for Tel Aviv, he was arrested by the Bangladeshi authorities. Choudhury was heading to Tel Aviv to attend a conference of the Hebrew Writers' Association, where he planned to speak about the media's role in building a culture of peace.
But since Bangladesh had no diplomatic ties with Israel, Choudhury was guilty of a passport violation. According to Bangladesh's Passport Act, Choudhury's crime was punishable by an $8 fine. But the charge was merely a cover, as Choudhury was imprisoned for espionage, sedition, treason, and blasphemy.
Former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's ruling party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, was governing coalition partners with two fundamentalist Islamic parties, both of which advocated replacing the law of the land with Shariah law.
Choudhury was blindfolded and tortured for 10 days while the Islamists tried to force a confession from him that he was a "Zionist spy" working for the Mossad. He was then imprisoned in solitary confinement for 17 months, during which time his glaucoma went untreated.
A timely warning
While he was permitted to visit the U.S., his trial date was set for Aug. 17 in Bangladesh, and he has already returned home. He laments what he sees as an adulterated, violent manipulation of the Koran by those in power in order to cement their hold on the minds of Muslim youth being formed at such a young age in the country's some 64,000 madrassas, 3,780 of which are kindergarten madrassas.
"Christians and Jews are your enemies; kill them, and remain good Muslims," Choudhury began his Aug. 2 speech. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is a kind of criminal interpretation of the Koran, circulating in every Muslim country in the world."
The promise of 70 virgins in return for a suicidal act in which the perpetrator also kills innocent human beings is, Choudhury said, religion in bad taste. It is also a false reading of the Koran, and therefore not true Islam, he said, yet it is the form of Islam being taught to Muslim youth around the world.
"Because of this criminal attitude of the Muslim clergy, we are hearing the news of the death of innocent people every day, in every part of the world," Choudhury said. "I thought, at least, I should say no to the jihad. I should say no to the killing of innocent people. I should say no to Holocaust denial. And I did so."
The kindergarten madrassas are more dangerous than the secondary school madrassas, because they are practically giving birth to radical Islamists. These children are taught English, French, and German, so they can enter Western schools and Western societies, and blend in until they are ready to strike. That, Choudhury said, is the world toward which we are heading, and fast.
The radical Islamist environment is a suicidal culture, but ignoring it makes this a suicidal world, Choudhury warned.
"Remain silent; don't say anything to them, my Western friends," Choudhury told the crowd. "You are giving chance to your enemies to grow. One day, they will attack you, they will destroy you, they will capture the world, and we all will become helpless. Can you accept the realities? Can we just remain silent, without seeing the ultimate fate of the world and our people? No. We will not. I know the people who are here, they will not. And so the world will know."
While they attempt to silence pro-Western media like Choudhury's Weekly Blitz, the Bangladeshi Islamists have sponsored a new television station called "Horizon." It's slogan, Choudhury said, is "Combating secular Western media."
Choudhury's mother died when he was in prison, and instead of letting him attend her funeral, his jailors called him a "son of a b-- Israeli agent."
"This is the mind of the Muslim," Choudhury said.
A blood brother and an American Jewish brother take up the cause
While he was in prison, Choudhury said, every Western embassy remained silent, as did the so-called human rights organizations, like "Amnesia International," as Choudhury calls Amnesty International.
But Dr. Richard Benkin, a Chicago-area analyst for a large third-party workers' compensation administrator, did not remain silent.
Benkin calls himself a "numbers guy," but has the unusual talent of also being a writer. As he was being taken away, Choudhury told his brother, Shohail, also involved in Choudhury's peace activism, to contact Benkin and tell him what was happening.
Benkin told The Jewish State about how his collegial relationship with Choudhury began, well before Choudhury's arrest.
It was the email that changed his life. Benkin, through organizations like Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, was an active essayist on Israeli matters of state and foreign affairs.
Choudhury, in an attempt to find allies, contacted via email several such writers. Being from an unknown source, the email was just the type Benkin would normally avoid opening. Though he can't quite explain why, Benkin said, he decided to open this particular one, "and [Choudhury] essentially said, 'The people in my country get only negative news and opinion about Israel and the Jewish people. And I know there's more than that and I want to change it. Can you help me?'"
Benkin jumped at the chance to help without hesitation.
"Shoaib gave me the opportunity to say 'Hineni'," Benkin said, of the one-word response given to God by Moses when he was called from the burning bush, and other similar calls throughout the Torah. "It was a call, and when you receive a call you can either say 'Hineni' and then follow up with that, or you can pretend you didn't hear it -- you can do what Jonah did the first time around. And since I didn't want to end up in the belly of a whale‚€¶."
Benkin never considered ignoring the call, but he did have to figure out just how to help. Choudhury helped Benkin publish pro-Israel, pro-Jewish columns in the Bangladeshi press, and Benkin helped Choudhury find sources of information on Judaism and Israel that he then used in The Weekly Blitz.
The two would correspond six days a week until Choudhury was arrested. That's when Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) got involved, and the issue became a major focus of Kirk's office after the 2004 elections, when Kirk said, according to Benkin, "We have to get this guy out of jail. We have to do something about this."
And he meant it. Kirk set up a meeting between Benkin, Bangladeshi Ambassador Chowdhury, and himself. The meeting was tense and prolonged, and Benkin wouldn't let the ambassador off the hook. The ambassador, Benkin said, was taking his orders from former Bangladeshi minister Luftfuzzamen Babar, who wanted the issue to just go away -- he couldn't support the veracity of the charges against Choudhury, but he didn't want to anger the Islamists by dismissing them.
Finally, the ambassador relented, and agreed to release Choudhury, and later drop the charges.
Three weeks later, on the seventh day of Passover and the anniversary of God's splitting of the sea for the Israelites, Benkin received a call.
"My brother, I am free," Choudhury told him.
"On that day, He split the sea again, if you will, and my brother walked to freedom," Benkin said. "I've never been able to put into words what it felt like to know that this man was free."
So much still to be done
However, more than two years have passed and the charges have not been dropped. Choudhury has been viciously attacked and his family harassed since his release.
His attorney abroad, Irwin Cotler, told Choudhury to stay in Canada. Choudhury has been offered political asylum there, and could seek the same in the U.S. if he wanted to. But that isn't where the battle is, Choudhury told the audience Aug. 2.
"We are fighting a war in Bangladesh," he said. "We have to continue the fight very much in Bangladesh. If I just run out from Bangladesh, then the radicals will be very happy -- 'Well, we got rid of the problem.' I will remain a problem for the radicals in Bangladesh."
But those outside Bangladesh can fight on other fronts, he said. Choudhury said the U.S. is buying textile products from Bangladesh, and giving the country $64 million in aid every year.
"Why? We are doing business with you," Choudhury said. "But we don't love you. We hate you."
And despite Americans being public enemy No. 1 in Bangladesh, we keep their economy afloat through trade and economic aid.
"How can we change this trend?" Choudhury asked. "If I know someone is my enemy, I will not enter his restaurant and I will not buy anything from his shop. The United States government should definitely fix up their strategy for developing nations. There will be no need for war, no need to send soldiers; you just set these terms and conditions: one, human rights; two, freedom of expression; three, commitment to the war on terror. If you comply, we will buy the goods from you, if you don't comply, sorry."
The Sept. 11 terror attacks were a unique event in American history, Choudhury said, but the Islamists don't want it to be, and our appeasement will only increase their attempts at recreating that murder and destruction on our soil.
"Please wake up; this is your last wake-up call," he concluded his speech. "May God save this world; may God save everyone; may God save the State of Israel; may God save my Jewish brothers and sisters."
During the question and answer session following his speech, Choudhury was asked about conditions in the Dhaka, Bangladesh prison.
He described his meals: tough bread for breakfast, bread and rice for lunch, more rice for dinner. There is no medical treatment for the prisoners. And while the Dhaka jail has a capacity of 5,400, it currently contains 37,000 prisoners.
He was asked about the madrassas -- could they produce educated professionals, like doctors, lawyers, and businessmen and women?
They can produce lots of educated terrorists, Choudhury responded, and then asked: can a winery produce iron?
He also told the audience that many of the Muslims in Bangladesh are moderate, but they are suppressed or brainwashed by the radical leadership.
"I am no different than anyone else," he said. "All are like me, but they are all afraid to say something. A little idiot like me -- I am not afraid."
One on one with The State
"I could not even sleep," was how Choudhury described his week in America to The Jewish State.
He had medical appointments, such as the one for his glaucoma, as well as a full schedule of meetings. This was not a vacation.
He spoke of his wife, Shahnaj Choudhury Happy; his 17-year-old daughter, Priyanka; and his 7-year-old son, Hanzalah.
"My wife, my daughter, my son -- they are more committed than I am," Choudhury said. "They don't want me to leave the country, they want me to be there, and fight the cause. My wife gives me the highest encouragement."
And that can't be easy; his kids were pulled out of school for their own safety, and the community, partly out of fear, avoids the Choudhurys like the plague.
"To be frank with you, people treat us like Zionist spies," he said. "They ignore us."
He said life in Bangladesh is currently "a mixture of normal and abnormal." But it must be difficult at time to tell the difference -- at what point do the break-ins become normal?
He does have other allies there, such as the Bangladesh Minority Lawyer's Association, which provide him with legal services, and even stay with his family when threats against the Choudhurys pile up.
Asked whether he thought he would survive the 10 days of torture, he responded that survival wasn't the first thing on his mind.
"When you are tortured, you only think about facing the pain," Choudhury said. "You really don't think whether you are surviving or dead."
Choudhury brushes off the suggestion from the non-Jewish world that Muslim extremism, especially in the Middle East, is Israel's problem. Israel, he said, is merely on the front lines.
"Today, Israel is suffering, tomorrow the world will suffer," he said, adding that people everywhere should be taking a stand against Hamas and Hezbollah, two terrorist organizations that have freedom and democracy in their crosshairs.
During Choudhury's imprisonment, a petition with more than 3,000 signatures circulated around the Internet, demanding his freedom. Choudhury smiled at the mention of this, clearly moved by the support.
"I was so happy, I was so touched," he said. "I have my people, they are with me, they are going to defend me. When you are in that kind of danger, you always try to find the last hope. That's what I do."
Choudhury's passport states that he was allowed to visit any country but Israel. He laughed at the suggestion that a Bangladeshi government passport stamp could prevent him from doing anything, let alone fulfill one of his life's missions.
"I will visit Israel," he said. "The passport is not the last word. I will visit. That is my dream; that has to be accomplished."
Choudhury said there is a 50-percent chance he will be executed if the trial proceeds. But if he is freed, he said, he will not stop, or even rest, in the pursuit of a peaceful world.
"I will dedicate my time for reaching the final justice of my mission, and that is peace in Israel, the recognition of Israel by all the Muslim countries, and a beautiful world where Muslims and Jews and Christians and live in love and harmony, not in hate," Choudhury said. "I believe it, and it will happen."
But Choudhury knows that man can only play his part; he doesn't seem at all frustrated by the ongoing "peace process" in Israel, or consumed by just how peace can be achieved.
"That is a land blessed by God," he said. "And God will protect his land."
Sending the right message
On July 4, 2006, Benkin was attending an Independence Day parade. Kirk, as his district's congressional representative, was marching in that parade, and when he saw Benkin on the sidelines he stopped in his tracks.
"Hey, Richard," the congressman yelled, waving. "We still have a lot of work to do."
"That's the way the guy is," Benkin said. "He said to them that he would not rest until these charges are dropped. Well, he's not resting."
And neither, of course, is Benkin. He and Kirk have worked together to make sure the Bangladeshi authorities understand how important this issue is to the U.S. In January, a semi-constitutional interim military government took power in Bangladesh just 11 days before elections were to be held. Those coming elections were widely considered to be a fraud, and, therefore, many around the world, including Benkin, hold out hope that under this government, sans any Islamist coalition partners, Choudhury's situation can improve.
Now everyone is watching closely, and Benkin stressed the importance of this ending justly.
"If we don't fight to make sure [Choudhury] not only survives, but thrives, that's going to be one message to the Muslim world," Benkin said. "If we let him go down, then [ordinary Muslims] know that if they stand up, they're at the mercy of the Islamists as well. But if, in fact, Shoaib can show the world that a Muslim inside the Muslim world can stand up against the Islamists and prevail, that will be a tremendous message to all Muslims who might be thinking of doing the same."
This is another full-time job for both Benkin and Choudhury, but it is a job that is financially and emotionally draining, and from which there are no vacations. Benkin said his wife and daughter have been supportive and understanding throughout, knowing he doesn't always have time to change light bulbs or mow the lawn, as much as ordinary home responsibilities may be a comforting timeout from his sometimes surreal life as an analyst/representative of Western democracy.
He knows the stakes, and, of course, so does Choudhury.
"We are brothers and we owe so much to each other," Benkin said. "If we do this, and we prevail, we change the world. What's more important than that?"