A man could be sentenced to death for trying to board a plane to Tel Aviv.
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is the 41-year-old editor and publisher of The Weekly Blitz, an English-language newspaper in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. In 2003, he was on his way to address the Hebrew Writers Union, after he had written articles that promoted peace with Israel, condemned Muslim extremism, and encouraged interfaith cooperation.
He never got a chance to deliver his speech advocating understanding between Muslims and Jews, because he was arrested at Zia International Airport in Dhaka. His passport was confiscated, his home and offices raided, his money and personal effects stolen, and his computers seized. He wound up jailed for 17 months, where his glaucoma went untreated, and where he was sometimes locked up with the insane, whose persistent screams made sleep and thought nearly impossible. He was tortured.
His crimes? Sedition, espionage, blasphemy.
Because this moderate Muslim journalist dared to stand up to the forces of Islamist Fascist fundamentalism that are close to taking over his country. Because he dared to correspond with the Jerusalem Post, and to befriend an American Jew, Dr. Richard Benkin, who earlier this month was in Bangladesh working tirelessly for an end to the persecution of the man he regards as a brother.
On Jan. 22, Shoaib Choudhury is scheduled to stand trial for his life. He had been released on bail in 2005, and senior Bangladeshi officials admitted they had no evidence against him. The public prosecutor even congratulated him.
In the last few months, his newspaper office has been bombed after he published articles supporting a Muslim minority group, and he has been attacked and beaten by a mob that included members of the ruling political party. The police have consistently refused to take action.
Late last year, a judge who is a member of a radical Islamist movement brought him up for sedition again. Bangladesh is in the midst of turmoil, with extremist factions pressuring the ruling party into giving them an increasing say in the government, and with local judges able to exert enormous personal sway. And Bangladesh watchers predict that if the country’s Jan. 25 elections proceed, they will bring the fundamentalists even more prominently into power, with a very real possibility that the Islamic religious code of sharia will become the law of the land.
Even if he is sentenced under existing Bangladeshi law, Choudhury can anticipate one of only two possible fates: 30 years in prison or execution.
He also knows that he cannot hope for a fair trial. His only hope is to see all charges against him dropped, and soon.
This is where you come in.
Rep. Mark Kirk of (R-Ill.) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) have introduced House Resolution 1080, calling on the Bangladeshi government to drop all charges against Choudhury, to cease harassing him, and to bring his attackers to justice.
Call or e-mail your representative in Congress and urge him or her to sign on to this document immediately. Contact both of your senators and plead with them to sponsor a complementary resolution in the Senate — now. Bangladesh depends upon some $60 million a year in U.S. aid while its rulers pose as our government’s enlightened partners in the “war on terror” — make them earn their money.
And, speaking of money, Bangladeshi factories continue to churn out endless dollars’ worth of clothing imported by popular U.S. stores: The Gap, Wal-Mart, Nike. Let these retailers know that you have urgent concerns about their trading partner. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association is one of the most powerful organizations in that country, and controls millions of its jobs.
“If we can’t count on people’s good intentions,” says Dr. Benkin, “we can count on their business sense.”
In the dark, conspiracy-laden view of Choudhury’s persecutors, friendly relationships with Jews are evidence of treason, of collusion with the fantasy Zionist cabal that they say rules the world.
In swatting at these imaginary monsters, they will never realize where the real Jewish power lies, because they could never understand it. It lies in the Jewish traditions of cherishing each individual, of taking collective action to heal the world of hatred and bigotry, of summoning justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. These are also American values, and they live in the hearts of all people around the world who believe in freedom of thought and speech. And for these people, for us, Dr. Benkin says that the only appropriate reaction to his friend’s case is “outrage.”
The Talmud says that to save one person is to save a whole world. Know this: For every Shoaib Choudhury willing to risk his life to save his people from tyranny and ignorance, there is a world of others who want to speak out but are afraid. Their future ability to add their voices to his depends on the Western world’s response to him, and they are eagerly watching.
The 21st-century versions of gulags and Lyubyankas and Birmingham Jails and SS torture rooms-and graves-are filled with men and women of heartrending conscience and courage. We’ve just never heard of them, because no one stood up and simply said, “‘Hineni’: I am here, to be a witness for you, to speak for you, to be outraged for you.”
You can relegate this sad story of one Muslim writer in a faraway land to the back of your mind where it won’t be so disturbing, or maybe bring it up around the water cooler as a reminder of the bleak state of the world today. After all, when was the last time any of us heard about Bangladesh? Not since George Harrison gave a concert to help its people in 1971.
But you know your history.
Richard Benkin says that if Choudhury had lived in Nazi Germany and been ordered to drive the trains that took Jews to their deaths, he would have said, “No.”
When Shoaib Choudhury was a child, his father taught him not to believe the vicious lies about Jews and Christians spewed out in the madrassas by radical haters. And now Choudhury’s wife Happy, his 16-year-old daughter, and his 7-year-old comics- and DVD-loving son remain brave every day for the sake of the husband and father of whom they are so steadfastly proud. This mild-mannered, middle class professional and family man is looking through his glasses straight into the eyes of the modern incarnation of fascism and quietly, but unwaveringly, saying, “No.”
Speak out for him, pray for him, fill every Congressional office and pulpit and talk show and editorial page with outrage on his behalf. He is our brother, and we cannot stand idly by while tyrants spill his blood upon the ground. Every one of us must step forward and say, “Hineni.” If not us, who? If not now, when? Jan. 23 may be too late.
More information, including how to contact U.S. retailers that sell Bangladesh-made clothing, can be found at www.freechoudhury.com. Go to www.house.gov and www.senate.gov for Congressional contact information. You can use the American Jewish Committee’s sample petition at www.ajc.org when writing to Congress on behalf of Shoaib Choudhury.