Ordeal of a friend of Jews

Ordeal of a friend of Jews

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, the editor and publisher of The Weekly Blitz in Bangladesh, just returned there to face very serious charges. If convicted, he could be put to death. His real crime? Offering fairness to Jews.

This may sound bizarre to Westerners, but extreme hostility toward Jews is now widespread in many Muslim communities throughout the world. This is not only an impediment to Mideast peace. It’s a danger sign for fair-minded people who seek the truth, whatever their background.

Choudhury is an eminently reasonable man, a moderate Muslim who is deeply committed to getting along with people from all other religious backgrounds. And that’s precisely why he has been attacked, imprisoned, kidnapped, and tortured – all with the collusion of Bangladesh’s “democratic” government. Attacks may come at any time from any place; he says he moves around like a commando.

Choudhury had recently toured the United States, preaching peace and interfaith cooperation at Yale University, Rutgers, and elsewhere. In Bangladesh, he must stand trial on trumped-up charges of sedition, treason, blasphemy, and espionage. There is no evidence for any of this.

When Choudhury says that madrassa schools are a breeding ground for extremists – something most American journalists regard as a truism – Bangladeshi prosecutors accuse him of hurting the sentiments of Muslims and doing harm to the image of Islam, both serious crimes. They say he serves the purposes of foreign interests.

The government that first arrested and tortured him back in 2003 was supported by Islamic extremists, but the present government – the Bangladeshi Awami League – leans in a more secular direction. Some had hoped that his ordeal might end when the league won a landslide victory in December. But in February, a gang of thugs with close connections to that party broke into his newspaper’s offices, beat him, and tried to rape a female employee. The police refused to act, probably because his attackers had ties to the governing party.

Why does everyone hate this man so much? The answer is simple.

Choudhury is not only free of anti-Semitism, but he actually likes Jews and tries in his newspaper to treat Israel fairly. When first arrested, he was on his way to a conference in Tel Aviv. He even fights to have a synagogue returned to the small Bangladeshi Jewish community from which it was taken. He has many Jewish friends overseas. Like some other Muslim leaders who are reviled by large segments of their community – the American activist Nonie Darwish comes to mind – Choudhury has a crossed a critical line that exists in many Muslim-majority countries by extending true brotherhood to Jews and – worse -Israelis.

Yet Choudhury – who also likes the United States – is not a pessimist. Asked at Yale about how many in Bangladesh – a country with more people than Russia – hate Jews, he said that more than a few hungered for truth about Israel and Jews and that many supported him but were afraid to do so openly.

Readership of his newspaper is growing. He thinks most Bangladeshis, like most Muslims, are not driven by hostility. They’ve simply spent their lives consuming bad information.

When asked whether he had perhaps criticized the many thousands of madrassas unfairly, he was more adamant. If he were shown evidence of a madrassa that taught positive things about getting along with Jews, he might reconsider his judgment. He clearly did not expect to be shown such evidence.

He further objected to those in the Western media who failed to denounce extremists with sufficient clarity, saying that they sometimes lacked guts to call a criminal a criminal.

It has been said that anti-Semitism starts with the Jews but does not end with the Jews. Choudhury is a victim of Jew-hatred as much as any Jew ever was. And the biggest victims of the madrassas may be the many Muslims who lose so much opportunity by attending them.

For Choudhury, the answer is to think with one’s “human mind,” not with the “religious mind.”

At Yale, Choudhury couldn’t hear most questions. The February attacks damaged his hearing and an assistant had to repeat every question for this heroic man.

Nothing seems to stop him. He just published a new book on the madrassa system.

I, for one, am awed by his courage.

Publicity is his ally. Foreign expressions of concern can convince the Bangladeshi government that it is not prudent to harm him. He has been helped on numerous occasions by media coverage of his plight and especially by Rep. Mark Kirk (R–Ill.), who has intervened with the Bangladeshis and successfully spearheaded a resolution that called on the country to stop harassing Choudhury.

So write your members of Congress. Tell them not to let this brave man stand alone while he fights for the freedom of us all.