By Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
People are punished for crime, for creating anarchy and for subjecting humanity to horrifying terror. But, could we ever believe that someone would be arrested, tortured and imprisoned for 17 long months just for being in favour of global peace, inter-faith dialogue and ending religious hatred? In my case it did happen and after being released on bail, the sedition charge is very much alive. According to the allegations, my crime is: I am a living contradiction to today’s Muslim world, a Zionist, a defender of Israel and a devout, practising Muslim living in the second largest Muslim country in the world.
Unfortunately, most of the Muslims in Bangladesh, as in many of the other Muslim countries, are under the impression that Jews are the ultimate enemies of Muslims and of Islam. My request to them is, please visit Israel at least once; meet the Jews or at least find one Jew anywhere in the world.
I once wrote that when I was in prison, and my family was in danger, and it seemed that my own people had abandoned me, it was my Jewish brothers and sisters who stood by us; who dedicated their time, their resources, their very soul to my freedom. And that is a very important point, because in today’s world it seems impossible to most that a Muslim and Jews could be friends, let alone brothers and sisters. But we can be, and in fact so can others.
Fundamentalists are men who emulate the looks and actions of the Prophet Muhammad. Yet, they give the Prophet and Islam a very bad name, as they perpetuate and even add to the Western perception that Islam was won by force or the sword. They try to squash any positive action of peace by not only squashing but trying to kill all those who oppose them. Their vision is of a totalitarian theocracy that will allow no free exchange of ideas, no development of thinking such as ijtihad (independent interpretation of religious sources in Islam). The golden age of Islam was built on this ebullition of ideas that made it prosper and which gave so much to the world, such as algebra, alchemy; they even kept and preserved philosophy.
Inter-faith dialogues and meetings based on a will to know the other will lead to understanding and respect of each others’ faith and beliefs and it is essential at this time, because, it prevents generalisations and statements such as “all Jews, Christians, Muslims are like this or that”.
There is a difference between faith and belief. I might believe that my religion is the only true path to G-d. I can believe that I am right and everyone else is wrong. I can believe the other is evil and bad. Fear is what prevents me from reaching out and challenging my beliefs. Fear is what makes me use force to impose my beliefs. Because I have never challenged my beliefs, I will remain ignorant to other possibilities. It is through dialogue, honest debate, that I can not only challenge my own beliefs but gain new insight into myself and the other.
My belief is transformed into faith in G-d and in His/Her diversity. After the internal journey, the challenge of my own core beliefs, what remains is faith that is based in G-d, the Creator of the universe.
But, while advocating peace and inter-faith dialogue, like most Muslims around the world, I have been a victim.
Like most Muslims, I’ve been victimised by a socially supported information flow – one that taught me to look the other way when facts seem to contradict the politically-mandated and politically-correct weltanschauung that we are supposed to adopt. I was taught that much of the world is in essence my enemy, and that Israel and the Jewish people are the embodiment of evil. And I was taught to distrust – even though we all admired – Americans.
And that is the case because the enemies of freedom have wormed their way into most social institutions in the Muslim world – the press, the media, governments, and schools. I have seen this in my own nation – a nation of good people, who seek nothing other than the things all of us want in life.
And so I am not misconstrued here, I must emphasise that such practices are neither Islamic nor culturally mandated. They are political. And, thankfully, politics change.
In my own case, I was fortunate. My parents raised me to be open and moral, and I had a journalist’s natural curiosity and access to information via the internet. I began to see that there was more information than we were being force-fed, information that quite often contradicted the political orthodoxy. And it opened my eyes. I saw that the United States is not the greatest threat to us; neither are the Jews, Zionism, Western culture, nor so-called “infidels”.
No, the greatest threat to us is the same thing that threatens non-Muslims, that threatens us all. It is a dedicated cadre of individuals who justify killing innocents by falsely – falsely – using our faith.
And so like any good journalist, I began writing about it, warning our people about the rise of terrorism, advocating inter-faith dialogue, and urging Muslim Bangladesh to recognise Jewish Israel. Colleagues outside of my country – both Muslim and non-Muslim – joined me in this effort. And as we wrote, people listened. Not all of them agreed with us; in fact, most did not. But our efforts sparked the beginning of public discussion and debate on these issues.
But all of that changed on November 29, 2003.
Our free exchange of ideas had angered some powerful people who were setting the stage for a “surprise” that would put free debate in Bangladesh on hold.
As I was about to board the aircraft to address a group of Israeli writers, police grabbed me. They ransacked my bags, took my passport and possessions.
At first, they did not charge me with anything but leaked that my alleged crime was espionage “in the interests of Israel against the interests of Bangladesh.” You see, anyone who even suggests that all faiths are equally legitimate must be demonised, and you can do that by preying on people’s vulnerability to wild and untrue conspiracy theories involving the Jews.
Conditions were terrible for me and my family while I was in prison. I was purposely kept in a wing for the mentally insane. The constant screaming, the terrible heat, the filth, and the accusations were intended to break me. My family was threatened and attacked. Police refused to act, blaming it all on my “alliance with the Jews”. They wouldn’t even let me attend my mother’s funeral.
But while my health deteriorated, my spirit did not.
For I had, first of all, faith: my Muslim faith; and a general faith in G-d and in the justice of our cause. And I had something else. Just before I was taken away, I saw my brother Sohail and asked him to contact my Jewish brother Dr. Richard Benkin, who fought for me without stopping – travelling here and there, writing articles, speaking publicly, and petitioning his government. He even went to the Bangladeshi Embassy in Washington, along with the honourable Congressman Mark Steven Kirk – who is neither Muslim nor Jewish, demanding my release, and to whom I am also so grateful. This inter-faith team eventually secured my freedom.
Today, our efforts to build a Coalition of Understanding continue. For were this persecution just about me, it would be unjust, but little more. However, there are many people of many faiths being persecuted for their stance on behalf of inter-faith understanding and for trying to warn their people about the terrorist threat; and many more who are afraid to speak that which is in their hearts.
Working together, Dr. Benkin and I seek to empower Muslims and others to embrace the religious diversity of our world, to accept that G-d has given us many paths by which we can come to Him.
I am a devout Muslim, and I know that my faith, my Koran, does not award 70 virgins to those who murder children and seek to destroy the faith of our mutual prophet Moses – our Jewish cousins who preceded us in our journey of faith.
We continue to write without ceasing – and now publish unmolested so we can counter the lies that pass as journalism in most of the Muslim world. We seek to provide my people with information – facts, as well as opinion – that most of the media is either too ignorant or too fearful to publish. Under extreme adversity, the Weekly Blitz and Weekly Jamjamat are continuing publication, vocal against Islamist fundamentalism and extremism. Each week, the number of readers is increasing; the Blitz now has become the leading tabloid weekly in Bangladesh.
Slowly, we are exchanging information and ideas with more and more people who seek the same peace that we do. Being inspired with our mission of peace, the Bangladesh Minority Lawyers Association (BMLA), under the courageous leadership of advocate Samarendra Nath Goswami, has expressed its solidarity with our cause.
I would salute those brave Muslim brothers and sisters who say: “NO!” to hate; “NO!” to Holocaust-denial; “NO!” to jihad; “NO!” to the demonisation of Israel, the United States, and the Jews.
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is Editor and Publisher of the Bangladesh tabloid the Weekly Blitz. He is currently facing capital charges of sedition, treason, blasphemy and espionage for having tried to attend a conference of the Hebrew Writers’ Association in Tel Aviv in 2003. Since being released from 17 months in solitary confinement in 2004, his office has been bombed and he was beaten by a mob. The American Jewish Committee awarded him its Moral Courage Award in May 2006 (in absentia).