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David Harris (American Jewish Congress) and Salah Udin Shoaib Choudhury, a Bangladeshi Muslim journalist who dared to defy the party line of hatred towards Israel
News and Opinion

A Moderate Muslim in Danger of Extinction

--- Lori Lowenthal Marcus

There lives in Dhaka one of the elusive souls for whom most of the world, or at least most Western politicians, have been searching: a true Islam-loving moderate Muslim who believes in brotherhood among all religions and respect for all nations by all nations. Unfortunately, it is possible that this priceless and endangered species may soon become extinct.

At least since September 11, 2001, world and communal leaders have been touting the virtues of the “moderate Muslims.” The express or implicit message is always that Islam has been hijacked by aberrant radicals but if we look to, nurture and promote the moderate Muslims, all will be well with the world.

I’ve found a moderate Muslim, one who loves his religion and sincerely believes and steadfastly writes about his dreams for respect and understanding amongst all the great religions of the world. His name is Salah Udin Shoaib Choudhury. He may well be executed for those beliefs soon.

This Bangladeshi Muslim journalist dares to defy the party line of hatred towards Israel and contempt for all religions other than Islam. Not only does he write about the need for communication and understanding among Muslims, Christians and Jews in his newspaper The Weekly Blitz, but he dared to accept an invitation to attend and speak at a writers’ conference in Israel. The topic of the conference was “Education Towards a Culture of Peace.” On November 29, 2003, as he was about to board the plane in Dhaka on his way to that conference, Shoaib was dragged from the tarmac and arrested. His crime? He violated Bangladesh’s Passport Act which forbids citizens from visiting countries such as Israel, with which it has no diplomatic relations. That law typically carries a fine of $8. What he found out the next day, however, when the magistrate announced it in court, was that he was accused of being a “spy for Israel.”

After his arrest Shoaib was taken to a Dhaka prison. While there, Shoaib had both of his legs broken with hockey sticks, he was interrogated incessantly and he was incarcerated in solitary confinement in a section of the prison otherwise populated with the criminally insane. He still vividly recalls hearing the screams of those prisoners which sometimes went on for hours. While Shoaib rotted in prison he was refused treatment for his glaucoma, as a result of which his vision remains impaired. His wardens even refused to allow him to go to his own mother’s funeral.

His captors wanted him to confess to being a Zionist spy. He refused. His body was broken but, in his own words, his “spirit was not.”

After seventeen months Shoaib was finally released on bail. A frontline warrior in this victory was Dr. Richard Benkin. Benkin met Shoaib on the internet through their shared dreams for interfaith understanding. From the moment they connected, Benkin has ceaselessly fought for justice for Shoaib – he has traveled to Bangladesh to be there during fruitless hearings, he has hounded the media and the US government to protect this righteous journalist from further imprisonment, torture, and perhaps death. A more loving brother could not be found. Benkin frequently says of his dear friend, “"If Shoaib Choudhury was in Europe during the Shoah, he would have refused to drive the trains!"

Benkin enlisted Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Il.) who has tirelessly and sincerely endeavored to bring Shoaib’s case to light, and to shelter him with everything in the US arsenal of diplomacy.

Despite those efforts, on September 18, 2006, the Bangladesh government ordered Shoaib to stand trial for sedition. The charges, as read to Shoaib by Judge Md. Momin Ullah on November 13, 2006, informed him that he ”made offensive comments on [the] Muslim world, Islam and Muslims in Bangladesh and commented about the existence of al Qaeda and other Islamist militant groups, by which you have tarnished the image of Bangladesh in the outside world.” Such sedition is punishable by death.

Finally, after years of delay coupled with repeated government-backed episodes of intimidation, brutal attacks and the repeated ransacking of his newspaper’s offices, the case against Shoaib Choudhury began on August 6, 2008.

Frankly, Shoaib’s story sounded to me like an apocryphal tale: one told to demonstrate a point, not one describing a real human being. Could there really be someone who matches the icon of “moderate Muslim” all politicians and most human beings have spoken about, yet had heretofore evaded discovery?

As I discovered over time, through correspondence and long personal conversations, Shoaib is the real thing. In a world encased in murderous rage generated in the name of Islam, his is a clear soul animated by the love that comes from his understanding of his religion. And that love pierces the wariness and even hatred against Islam that so many other practitioners of his religion have created.

I watched as this man, a bizarrely buoyant individual with short dark hair and large dark-tinted glasses, spoke to a living room full of Philadelphians, answering questions, even mean-spirited ones, with complete candor and equanimity. I sat at a table with him in my own backyard as he continued talking amiably about his life and dreams. And my eyes crinkled when he spontaneously burst into a syncopated song along with table-thumping and hand movements. My twelve year old daughter was enchanted and recorded the performance on her camera.

But for a glimpse into the rarified soul of Shoaib Choudhury, hear what I heard when he answered two very obvious questions he fields wherever he goes.

The first question is -- why he doesn’t seek political asylum and get out of Bangladesh as soon as possible? His answer – I heard it with my own ears – is that if he were to leave, what kind of message would that send to his many silent supporters who want him to succeed, who want greater freedom and broader understanding, but who fear speaking out themselves. He says he won’t abandon those people and leave them without any hope.

The second question I not only heard with my own ears, but felt right through my heart. When asked whether he was afraid that he was going to get killed, he said: “Look, everyone is going to die. The only issue is what you do while you are alive.” And what he is doing is trumpeting his message, educating toward a world culture of peace. Imagine a world in which people like this were lionized instead of victimized, if they became world-renowned and lauded instead of being threatened and hounded.

Whether Shoaib Choudhury will be given a forum in which to speak and educate all citizens of his sublime worldview remains a question. The Islamic fundamentalists who, in Shoaib’s conception of the universe pervert their religion and use it as a tool to oppress and even murder all those who disagree with their worldview, have imprisoned him, tortured him, threatened his children and threaten to kill him. If they remain steadfast in their position, Shoiab will be silenced forever.

So the next time you hear people use that catchy phrase, “moderate Muslim,” ask them what they have done to help Shoaib Choudhury. Tell his story if they don’t know it. Help us keep this world-class, extremely precious treasure as a living teacher, rather than a martyred memory. Do what you can to make sure the wrongly-punished are freed, and the wrongly-free are punished. Please pass on his story.

Lori Lowenthal Marcus is a writer and recovered lawyer living outside of Philadelphia, PA. This article originally ran at Aish.com

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