In an age when Muslims are often viewed as enemies of Jews and Christians, one Bangladeshi Muslim journalist is being prosecuted in his homeland for advocating for the rights of other religions and for his public support of Israel.
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, editor of the Weekly Blitz, came to Rutgers University Nov. 1 to speak to a largely Jewish crowd during a stop on a national tour to publicize his plight.
He is to return home to face charges of blasphemy, sedition, treason, and espionage, ongoing since 2004.
In a speech at the student center in New Brunswick, Choudhury spoke of his efforts to win back the rights of Bangladesh’s 3,500 Jews and have a synagogue in the capital of Dhaka returned to the community; appropriated in 1948 by what was then Pakistan, it now houses a government office.
Choudhury described himself as “a Zionist defender of Israel.”
“I am a devout practicing Muslim devoted to normalization of relations with the state of Israel,” said Choudhury.
He views himself as working from within to create change in both his homeland and religion. “We have to rise up with one voice against radical Islam,” said Choudhury, who emphasized the Islam he knew was not a violent one.
“I demand reform of an Islam that promotes hatred and of an Islam that promotes killing Jews and Christians,” he said.
But that hasn’t always been easy in a country where deviation from government policy is not viewed kindly. The office of his 37,000-circulation paper has been ransacked and attacked and he, his family, and his 45-member staff have been threatened.
The sedition charged was lodged against him for trying to attend a writers’ conference in Tel Aviv in late 2003. Choudhury was accused of being an Israeli spy, a charge carrying a maximum penalty of death or 30 years imprisonment.
Choudhury was imprisoned for 17 months and said he was blindfolded and tortured for 10 days. He was released on bail following appeals from the American branch of the international writers’ organization PEN — which bestowed its Freedom to Write Award upon him in 2005 — and the intervention of Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL). Choudhury has also received the Moral Courage Award from the American Jewish Committee. Almost two years ago, Congress passed a resolution, sponsored by Kirk and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), calling on Bangladesh to drop all charges.
Dr. Richard Benkin, a Jewish human rights activist from the Chicago area, accompanied Choudhury to Rutgers.
“As a Jew I watched him putting himself out there and realized he could be harmed with impunity,” said Benkin. “Sometimes you’re forced to take steps to help someone who is standing up for his principles…. If more people in the 1930s had done what Shoaib has done, history could have been rewritten.”
Choudhury said many of his enemies in Bangladesh would rather he seek political asylum in the United States rather than return for trial.
“The radicals would be very happy, but I will not be happy until they are defeated,” he explained. “I look forward to the day the jidhadists and radicals are defeated. “
Choudhury’s newspaper is available in English on-line at weeklyblitz.net.
The program was sponsored by Rutgers Hillel, the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, the Jewish Federation of Greater Monmouth County, the Jewish Federation of Ocean County, and the Jewish State newspaper.