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Bangladesh, Muslim journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury

A courageous voice confronting Islamofascists

By Anita Mathur

Sunday, November 5, 2006

Let me begin with a recent article in Canadian newspaper The Georgia Straight by Terry Glavin, where while commenting on courageous Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury he wrote, "If Choudhury and O'Neill were ever to find themselves competing for a bravery-in-journalism prize, O'Neill would lose. Hands down." Prior to publication of this article, renowned Israeli politician turned columnist Michael Freund in Jerusalem Post wrote, "With the rise of Islamic extremism across the globe, speaking to Bangladeshi Muslim journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is like catching a breath of cool, fresh air on a hot and sweltering afternoon.

As editor of The Weekly Blitz, an English-language newspaper published in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, Choudhury has been an outspoken critic of radical Islamic fundamentalism, denouncing the hatred and violence it has spread in its wake.

A proponent of greater dialogue and understanding between Muslims and Jews, he has called on his fellow Bangladeshis to recognize the State of Israel and establish diplomatic relations with Jerusalem.

Though founded as a secular state in 1971, Bangladesh is currently ruled by a coalition government that includes two Islamist parties. Islamic extremism is reportedly on the rise.

Of the more than 140 million people who live in Bangladesh, an estimated 106 million are Muslim.

The country is due to hold elections in January, and by all indications, the radicals are set to increase their strength at the ballot box.

In this tense atmosphere, Choudhury has paid a very heavy price for his beliefs. In November 2003, he was arrested at Dhaka's international airport just prior to boarding a flight on his way to Israel, where he had been scheduled to deliver an address on promoting understanding between Muslims and Jews. His visit to Israel would have been the first by a Bangladeshi journalist.

The government accused Choudhury of treason, sedition and blasphemy, and tossed him into prison for 17 months, where he was tortured. He was released in April 2005, thanks in part to a campaign that was waged on his behalf by American human rights activist Dr. Richard Benkin.

But the Bangladeshi government decided to pursue the charges against him, and Choudhury was arraigned in a Dhaka court on October 12 on multiple counts of espionage and sedition.

Just days before the start of his trial, a mob of 40 people, including senior members of Bangladesh's ruling party, stormed the offices of his newspaper and assaulted Choudhury, leaving him with a fractured ankle. Local police failed to make any arrests, and refused to allow Choudhury to file charges against his attackers.

His trial resumes on November 13, and if convicted, he could face the death penalty. Both the US State Department, as well as international human rights groups, have denounced the legal proceedings against him.

Despite the dire circumstances in which he finds himself, Choudhury remains strong, upbeat and determined." But, the strongest of all was in Washington Times in their editorial on 20th October, where they wrote, "Bangladesh receives roughly $60 million in U.S. aid every year. One would think that the Bush administration should expect something in return, such as a commitment to hold off the forces of radical Islam which currently threaten Bangladesh's stability. But if the case of a moderate Muslim on trial for sedition is any evidence, Bangladesh is swiftly slipping into Islamists' hands.

In happier times, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury operated an independent, English-language newspaper out of Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka. Angered by the rise of Islamists, Mr. Choudhury took the bold step of using his publication to oppose his country's radicalization. That caught the attention of the Hebrew Writers' Association, who in 2003 invited Mr. Choudhury to Israel to speak at a conference on establishing peaceful Jewish-Muslim relations. Mr. Choudhury accepted the invitation, but was detained at the airport by Bangladeshi authorities.

That's where Mr. Choudhury's life took a tragic turn. After being blindfolded and beaten, he was held in solitary confinement for 17 months, as the government tried to build a case that Mr. Choudhury was an Israeli spy. The charge was preposterous, but in Islamists' eyes, anyone who advocates peaceful relations with the Zionist entity must be a traitor. With the help of U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk and human-rights activist Richard Benkin, Mr. Choudhury was eventually released from prison. The sedition charges, however, remained pending.

Mr. Choudhury's ordeal didn't end there. In July, his newspaper offices were bombed by Islamist radicals; in September, a judge with ties to Bangladesh's Radical Party ordered his sedition trial to resume; then, earlier this month, a mob of 40 militants beat Mr. Choudhury in his offices. It is believed that Bangladeshi officials were among the mob. No one expects Mr. Choudhury to get a fair trial.

Throughout all of this, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has been noticeably absent. Her effort to balance the growing radicalization of her government with the impression that Bangladesh is a moderate Muslim country is failing badly. Both Mr. Choudhury's supporters and enemies see this trial as a crucial moment in Bangladesh's history: Either Bangladesh will live up to its image as a moderate and tolerant country or the Islamists will gain even more control.

We also see it as a crucial moment for the war on terror. The United States must encourage people like Mr. Choudhury to speak out. But when they do, it must also do all it can to protect them. Freeing Mr. Choudhury will tell others like him that when you stand against Islamists, the United States will stand with you."

The US media became mysteriously silent on Shoaib's case since The New York Times published an editorial on him on 24th December 2003 titled ‘Risk of journalism in Bangladesh'. But, a very young journalist named Gabriel Oppenheim took up the task of breaking the silence by writing a number of articles on this issue in Daily Pennsylvainian. In his latest article titled ‘Without our help, a beacon of freedom faces death' wrote, "Our country's most important ally in the war on terror is about to be killed, and most Americans don't even know it.

His name is Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, and he's a Bangladeshi newspaper publisher, editor and writer. On Oct. 12, his government will try him for sedition, which carries a penalty of death. There will be no jury - only a judge, in a case that has been fixed from the very beginning.

You see, Bangladesh is currently a secular democracy of 147 million people (83 percent of whom practice Islam). But several fundamentalist groups within the country want to replace its secular system with sharia, or strict Islamic law.

In order to do so, these groups have turned to terrorism. On Aug. 17, 2005, 430 bombs exploded across the country, killing two and injuring dozens. Three months later, Bangladesh suffered its first suicide bombings when at least three people detonated themselves in front of and inside two court buildings. That caught Osama bin Laden's attention.

At least two arrested terrorists in Bangladesh have admitted to being sent by bin Laden. Saudi Arabia, too, has recognized Bangladesh as a potential tipping point, sending millions of dollars to the 64,000 Bangladeshi madrassas, or religious schools, that preach extremist Islam.

Against this backdrop, Choudhury has published his newspaper, Weekly Blitz. It features a mix of world and local news and strong editorials against violence in the name of religion.

The paper also calls for dialogue between Muslims and Jews as the first step on the road to peace - which upsets extremist clerics, of course.

So in November 2003, those clerics had the government arrest Choudhury as he tried to board a plane in Dhaka, the capital. Choudhury was on his way to Israel to attend a conference in Tel Aviv called "Bridges Through Culture," where he was to lecture on the media's role in promoting peace.

But before he could board the plane, the government charged Choudhury with passport violations. It was a bogus charge, brought by a government whose ruling coalition contains two parties that openly support al Qaeda.

The government then sent Choudhury to a maximum-security prison, where, as I wrote in a previous column, "he was tortured with electric shocks and beaten with field hockey sticks" until his legs broke.

The government also denied him care for his severe glaucoma and refused to let him attend his mother's funeral after she died of a heart attack. Eventually, the government dropped the passport charges in favor of the sedition charges leveled in February 2004.

That's where our University comes into the picture. For before Choudhury was imprisoned, he had sent e-mails to a few freelance journalists whose work he had read online, asking them to contribute to Weekly Blitz.

One of those journalists was Penn alumnus Richard Benkin, who agreed to write for Choudhury's newspaper. When Choudhury was arrested, Benkin took action, lobbying his local congressman for help.

Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) was able to secure Choudhury's release by essentially threatening to withhold $100 million in U.S. aid to Bangladesh.

But the charges were never dropped. And police continued to allow radical muftis to threaten and harass Choudhury, his wife and their two children. In July, two bombs exploded in Choudhury's office, and the police took no action, claiming to have "misplaced" the necessary report.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh repeatedly postponed Choudhury's trial, keeping him in a state of continuous fear. Then, last week, Oct. 12 was set as the trial's start date. Now Choudhury faces death - and we must act.

Americans often use the "war on terror" catchphrase for political gain. But any candidate who's really strong against terror, regardless of party, must help Choudhury.

Obviously, not all Muslims support extremism or violence. But few Muslim leaders have the will to speak out against violence. And it's not so easy to blame them. Choudhury, after all, is facing death, and his office has been bombed.

Now that we've found a man willing to advocate for peace and denounce extremism, we must seize the opportunity. No one else will speak out if we allow those who already have spoken to die.

So please write your representatives. It worked once to save Choudhury's life, and it can again. Because you are not helpless in, or removed from, some distant, guerilla war on terror.

This is the war on terror."

After the publication of a number of articles by Gabe Oppenheim, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Houston Herald Voice and Washington Times have published opinion editorials and editorial on Choudhury's case. Now, almost every week, from small to big newspapers in United States are covering this issue with due importance. Although Dr. Muhammed Yunus, after getting the Nobel Peace Prize was supposed to be very much in the international media, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is clearly now heading in media coverage, at least in USA. The State Department even spoke on this issue, and it is expected that the false case lodged against this Bangladeshi editor might ultimately put negative impact on the Washington's aid to Dhaka.

Despite publication of quite a number of articles in US, Italian and Israeli press, fate of Choudhury remains in danger. An Islamofascists judge named Mohammed Momin Ullah decided to continue the trial and it is anticipated that, the judge wants to award him highest punishment. Beside such legal complications, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury was recently attacked and physically assaulted by the members of a major political party named BNP. His office was looted and no action is yet taken by the law enforcing agencies against the attackers. Rather, the attackers are given shelter by influential politicians, including the former political secretary to the Prime Minister. Because of fear, business enterprises refrain from giving advertisements to Weekly Blitz, which has already turned into the largest tabloid newspaper in Bangladesh. Thousands of readers are hitting the internet edition of Blitz on www.weeklyblitz.net

There is no doubt that Shoaib is confronting Islamist radicals almost single handedly in Bangladesh just with the moral support of his friends and admirers in the world, especially of his ‘Jewish brother' Dr. Richard Benkin. A few Congressmen have by now extended supports. But the most active amongst all is Republican Congressman Mark Steven Kirk. Kirk not only supports Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury but cares of his safety and security. Shoaib's family believes, after the November 7th election in USA, after Mark Steven Kirk will be re-elected, he will take some more stronger steps in favor of this couragous journalist to make sure that the false sedition case is finally dropped by the Bangladesh government. This is indeed be a great achievemnt of peace-loving people in the world over the Islamist radicals in a country like Bangladesh. The other great soul, who has recently joined the campaign for Shoaib is his ‘esteemed sister' rabbi Sue Levy of Houston area.

American Jewish Committee and PEN have given Shoaib their prestigious awards in recognition to his courage and commitment. But many of his supporters, who know his conviction for global peace and interfaith understanding strongly believes that, this heroic figure deserves the Nobel or any other similar awards. Such awards will not only make him strong mentally, but will let the world know, there is nothing good in culture of hatred or bloodshed in the name of religion. There is no room for jihad in Islam as well to kill innocent children and people. The best way to attain global peace in interfaith understanding. This is exactly what Shoaib is advocating. Shouldn't we stand for him?

Anita Mathur is a freelance journalist from from India. She can be reached at [email protected].