A 'warrior for peace' perseveres
Bangladeshi Muslim dissident Choudhury speaks at Rutgers on his struggle
THE JEWISH STATE
November 2, 2009
At a room filled to capacity with 100 attendees, Muslim Zionist and peace activist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury -- so often face-to-face with those who consider him an enemy of the state -- came face-to-face with his supporters 8,000 miles from his native Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Choudhury spoke Nov. 1 at an event at Rutgers University sponsored by The Jewish State, Rutgers Hillel, the Jewish Federation of Ocean County, Jewish Federation of Greater Monmouth County, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County.
As editor of The Weekly Blitz in Bangladesh, Choudhury is currently standing trial -- literally for his life -- for blasphemy, sedition, and treason for frequently writing pro-Israel articles and criticizing radical Islamists. He was introduced by human rights activist and close friend Dr. Richard Benkin on Sunday about his advocacy and his attitudes toward radical Islam that shape the charges against him.
"How often do you actually get to hear from someone who has been arrested, tortured, and still stands up for his principles?" Benkin said about Choudhury. "We make choices every day to stay or turn away. What would it take for each of us to leave our comfort zone? I'm very lucky in that I have a wonderful teacher who made me see that all we need to do is look around us and see that the major differences between us are basic."
In a country where traveling to Israel is a crime (Choudhury was originally arrested, beaten, starved, and tortured by Bangladeshi authorities in November 2003 for trying to attend a writer's conference in Tel-Aviv), where the government has banned businesses from placing ads in his newspaper in the hopes that Blitz would financially starve, and where radical Islamist support and education is the norm, it seems that the odds are against Choudhury. However, he still stands behind Blitz and his beliefs, telling the audience of students and members of the surrounding Jewish community that he serves as the voice for "tens of thousands" of other moderate Muslims who are too scared to speak out against radical Islam.
"[Radical Islam] will be defeated, and I can assure you that gradually, moderate Muslims everywhere in the world will raise voice against radical Islam, jihad, Holocaust denial, and I am looking forward to that day," Choudhury said. "If the Bangladeshi government convicts me, I have no problem."
Choudhury serves not only as a voice for moderate Muslims. He raises his voice for the 3,500 Jews in Bangladesh as well, who pretend to be Jehovah's Witnesses in the public eye for fear of persecution.
"The documents will tell you that there are no Jews in Bangladesh," Choudhury said. "Their synagogue was grabbed in 1948 and converted into a government office."
Choudhury has taken up the cause to return the synagogue to the Jewish population in Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital city, and has been fighting for other Jewish causes such as celebrating Rosh Hashanah and helping the Jewish community there obtain a Jewish cemetery for the past three years.
"We are fighting for the religious rights of Jews in Bangladesh," Choudhury said. "They have the right to keep their religious identity. They don't have a place even to bury a body when they die -- they have to go to a Christian cemetery. They cannot tell someone that they are good [people]. They do not have the courage to celebrate Rosh Hashanah."
Blitz even held a Rosh Hashanah celebration for Bangladeshi Jews last year, the first time the holiday had been celebrated in public for decades.
"My newspaper officially says that we are a pro-Jewish newspaper," Choudhury said. "We don't publish any article against Jews and Judaism, and we have no problem now. Yes, only six times our office was bombed! I was abducted at gunpoint. But it's no problem because we know how to survive... this abduction and bombing cannot stop us, because we know we will fight."
Choudhury and Blitz have also had a hand in dismantling anti-Semitic organizations in Bangladesh. Currently, Choudhury is trying to prohibit the distribution of a DVD that calls for the killing of Jews and Christians and has been distributed in other Muslim countries.
"Every moderate Muslim in the world must speak up and tell the truth!" Choudhury said.
Currently, Blitz has a print circulation of 37,000, an active Web site, and a 45-person staff. Choudhury and his brother Sohail, who is executive editor of the newspaper, remain financially independent and do not take donations.
"We are continuing [and] we will continue," Choudhury said. "It does not matter if we can or not because government is playing various games with us in [trying to stop] our newspapers, but... I'll never stop."
One of the most frequent questions Choudhury gets, by his own admission and which was evident during the question-and-answer session at the event, was why he chooses to remain a devout Muslim if many in his country insist on radical Islam as the appropriate channel.
"I remain important to the Muslims because I am a Muslim," Choudhury said. "The moment I become an ex-Muslim, it makes no difference. If you want to reform a class, you need to be a member of the club. I am a member of Islam and I demand a reform in Islam... preaching hate is not the Islam that I follow; the Islam I follow is where I can embrace a Jew as a brother."
In America, Benkin said that he has gained the support of about 15 percent of Congress and around a dozen senators from both sides of the aisle who actively support Choudhury's safety. House resolution HR-64 required the Bangladeshi police to provide police protection for Choudhury, which has since been removed. There were U.S. Embassy observers at Choudhury's trials, but that service was removed when President Barack Obama came into office.
"I'm not American, and I don't belong to any [political party] in the U.S.," Choudhury said. "The U.S. Embassy has been involved in my case since 2003. They sent observers to the trial on a regular basis, but since you have some new faces in your administration, the U.S. Embassy has stopped sending observers to my trial, stopped inviting me to events at U.S. embassies, and they don't even pick up my calls, frankly speaking."
Despite the hand Choudhury has been dealt, he remains positive and confident, and still plans to continue his work with his family's support.
"I am so happy that [my family] never ask me to stop what I'm doing," Choudhury said. "Rather, my son sent something to Dr. Benkin. He formed an organization called Religion Research Foundation for schoolchildren. He's 12 years old. I'm so proud that I have a family that gives me support in continuing my work instead of criticizing me."
Local artist Sharon Sayegh attended Sunday's speech. She first read about Choudhury in an article Benkin wrote about the cause, and she was inspired to create a "Brave Hearts: Warriors for Peace" series of artworks, one of which depicts Choudhury.
"His energy, optimism, passion, and this selflessness for fighting what he believes in, it's that courage that's rare," Sayegh told The Jewish State. "From an artistic point of view... that's what moves me, and I believe in what he's doing. He is fighting against the worldwide threat of terrorism, and he is fighting for the Jewish community of Bangladesh, as well as Americans, Christians, Jews, and Israel from within the Muslim faith, within his own country. I personally must support him."